Have you ever tried to recall the sound of another person’s voice? It’s difficult to do when you can’t hear it. My grandfather died at 98. I still remember his voice. It reminded me of a whippoorwill. His Southern accent sounded like wind in the woods before a summer rain.
He was born in Mississippi in 1908, and if I said he was raised on a farm, it wouldn’t be quite accurate. George B. Nutt helped raise a farm. He plowed behind a mule by 11 years old, tended animals, and grew crops. He and his dad cut shingles from bark when they rested on the front porch. Lacking indoor plumbing and rolls of paper, the family stacked dried corncobs near an outdoor commode. There was no waste. My granddad discussed his childhood on the farm with a dignity I can hardly reproduce. He was a gentleman.
Sometimes today, if a young person in the family is being lazy, it will be remarked, “His great-grandfather was plowing fields with animals younger than that!” Or, the classic, “Her grandfather had to walk miles to school in thin shoes, on dirt roads, over rocky streams.”
It’s a new generation now, as ever they are. We wear fancier sneakers with less polished manners. Far from corn cobs, we have grown so accustomed to cushy conveniences, it’s nearly a national crisis when toilet tissue runs low. We preach environmentalism like faith, but fill rooms with plastic purchases tossed away as they break. Today, we tend to take for granted what our grandfathers preserved and to criticize their faith and wisdom. We parse the imperfections of our predecessors from positions of comfort they labored to provide.
The images of our forefathers are under attack, literally and figuratively. Men like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are being torn down. Those influential men weren’t just our predecessors; they were farmers, writers, fathers, and grandfathers who strived to leave a strong inheritance.
“Reading Devotions to Grandfather” is an oil painting created by Albert (Albrecht) “Samuel” Anker in 1893. Anker was a 19th-century Swiss realist who focused on the simple scenes of everyday life. His painting speaks to viewers of service and respect between generations. The face of the grandfather in this work is wise and soulful. His long-trained vision is focused somewhere beyond, while his withered, workingman’s hands are settled in reverent repose. The fading strength of a mortal man is lovingly bolstered by the gentle determination of his pure-faced grandson. A quiet sense of peace emanates from the two figures. The grandfather, though frail, continues to lead and guide the youth in the example of prayer, as the boy humbly accepts a role of service.
Through art, Anker valued the wholesome lives and traditions of ordinary men and women. During his own lifetime, the artist enjoyed modest career success but often had to decorate dishes, rather than complete masterpieces, to support his large family. It was only after death that a solo show was first arranged for his work. Today, Albert Anker is well-celebrated in Switzerland, where his pastoral works are understood for the subtle but powerful statement they make about life. Anker’s art resonates with viewers because he understood something: A well-lived, simple life is beautiful and meaningful for all time.
The last time I saw my own grandfather was at his bedside. He didn’t recognize me but remained as mannerly as ever. My sister read aloud to him, like the boy in Anker’s painting. It was only when she grew quiet that he began to speak.
“Donna and the boys are at the beach. I don’t know why they have been gone so long, but I expect they’ll be back anytime now,” he said. Then, his resonant voice trailed off, his gaze lost someplace beyond our reach. Donna-Mae, my grandmother, had been the love of his life. She passed nearly a quarter-century earlier.
My grandparents raised four sons together. He became a professor at Clemson University, heading the Department of Agricultural Engineering. An American farm boy at the outset, he ended up working to improve agricultural infrastructure and food supplies in the United States, Syria, Iraq, Paraguay, and countries in Africa after the Great Depression and World War II. My grandparents lived in a hard century, and they worked hard. Granddad’s final memories were not of epic events nor worldly successes and failures, though. His reveries centered on the wife he loved and sunny days with their boys—being a father and a husband.
Simplicity and Service
I love the simple subjects and pastoral lives featured in Anker’s paintings. Anker shines light on the beauty of a loving family, children, and respect for our elders.
Celebrated or unknown, simple or great, our elders carved out the firm foundations we casually occupy. They were not perfect people, just humans trying. Kids today are not their grandparents. Their lives are their own, and imperfect, too. Yet the challenge is the same: to live them well. Long school hours, loads of homework, and demanding sports schedules fill a young person’s day now, and, while those tasks are important, more so are service, gratitude, and devotion.
Recently, Pope Francis declared July 25 a World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly. Many of us have been separated from the elderly by COVID-19 and busy lives. Whatever your nation or faith, it’s a good day to honor the lives, traditions, gifts, and grit of those who lived and loved before us.
The sage voice of my grandfather stays with me. He didn’t draft the Declaration of Independence, but he had a heck of an independent spirit. He tilled and planted and took fine care of the land. Many of our grandparents conditioned their backs to bear burdens, their hands to calluses, and their hearts to service. This land bore good fruit in their care. Older generations worked with a strong constitution. How’s yours?
Andrea Nutt Falce is a happy wife and mother of four. She is also a Florentine-trained classical realist artist and author of the children’s book, “It’s a Jungle Out There.” Her work can be found at AndreaNutt.com