I’d been casually chatting with my father about my growing orchid obsession. He looked at me a little funny – nothing out of the ordinary there – when he dropped a bomb, “You know, your grandfather grew these orchids.”

No, no I didn’t know that. I’d remembered the greenhouses from my early childhood. Every other weekend, I recall, we’d go to a certain greenhouse or another, which is why the smell of that good green growing earth makes me nostalgic and warm inside. I remember being a toddler, spending hours at the rose garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden, listening to my family plan my future wedding there. I cannot tell you how sorry I am that I did not marry there.

My grandfather grew roses – beautiful roses – always puttering around with them, lovingly spraying them with this and that, warding off all potential pests and coaxing out the most beautiful, heavenly-scented blooms.

When I grew my own rose garden, lovingly spraying them with this and that, warding off potential pests, and coaxing out the most beautiful, heavenly-scented blooms, I’d think of him. Not at first. But eventually, I felt as though he was right there beside me, helping me identify pests and apply the proper fertilizers.

The orchids, though, they threw me through a loop. Until I found this:

That’s an orchid bloom in my curls.

My grandfather is with me always, it seems.

He is my hero.

And not just because he grew orchids and roses like I do, but because he lived the sort of live I hope to live. It was a life less ordinary.

He graduated from Johns Hopkins medical school at nineteen and became a doctor at the same age that my life hit a crossroads. I’d always planned to go to medical school myself, and life found a way. I became a mother.

He worked as the sort of family doctor that made housecalls, his forceps and stethoscope always in his medical bag, ready to deliver a baby, diagnose rubella, or treat a broken arm. It was during these housecalls that he was exposed to tuberculosis and spent many months at a TB sanatorium in the mountains, missing out on his first son’s – my father’s – early life.

Before that, though, he was a doctor in the United States Army. He was the first on the scene when the Allies liberated the concentration camps. He was the first medical personnel to treat the concentration camp victims. He never spoke of those days, what he saw, the atrocities of the Nazi’s, and what he had to do to help the survivors, although I know they weighed on him.

By the time I rolled around, he’d given up his medical practice and became the head of pathology at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

The apple of his eye, his granddaughter, he spent as much time with as he could. Weekends roaming the botanical gardens. Nights at Ravinia, on the lawn, under the stars, listening to the magical strains of Saint Matthew’s Passion and The 1812 Overture, eating fried chicken on a picnic blanket. Those were the best days of my young life.

An adult with children of my own, my grandfather long-passed, I have the vain hope that one day, my life will, too, be remembered as less ordinary, if only by myself. That because of the choices I’ve made, the people I carry in my heart, the people who now (however virtually) walk by my side, the experiences I’ve put behind me, that my own life can be as far from ordinary as his.

I’d say that I miss you, Grandpa, but I know you’re always with me.

Today, tomorrow, always.

32 thoughts on “A Life Less Ordinary

  1. Greetings from Orchid Land ~ Lovely post today, for Memorial Day. A tropical gal you are! Whether it be orchids or other fragrant blooming trees. So sorry to adjust your perception of that flower from childhood, yet that is a plumeria aka frangipangi bloom. Have three in my yard. All the best aloha from Maui ~

  2. Absolutely beautiful…and so very appropriate on Memorial Day. And, my dear, while you may be an irreverent smart ass, you are also one who has done an incredible amount of good. You started Band Back Together which has helped innumerable people. You have educated people about encephaloceles and helped a ton of people who needed support and hope when they got that devastating diagnosis. And, you’ve made a lot of us laugh on a regular basis. My dear, that IS a life less ordinary.

  3. Beautiful post. My grandfather was always growing things in his greenhouse, too. The smell that you mentioned gives me the same sort of feeling. 🙂

    I think you’ll get your wish. Your life is a lot less ordinary even now. xoxo

  4. My papau passed away last June, and with my first kiddo on the way, that’s been hitting me hard. I have to say that even though this made my lame, hormonal ass cry… it’s just beautiful. And I second Jenn’s thought that you should *totally* recreate the shot with Amelia.

  5. Beautiful story and very fitting for Memorial Day. You are lucky to have such lovely memories of a wonderful man. It’s amazing how so many things we do have their origins in our DNA. And yes, your were absolutely adorable, but it’s a plumeria flower behind your perky little ear. Which is actually good news, because they are easier to grow than orchids and produce a zillion fragrant blooms through the summer.

    Pick one up–I’d bet the scent will trigger some more sense memories–and if you get bored, you can make yourself a lei.


  6. My wife’s mother was an Army nurse during WWII. She was with the 116th Medical Evac group, and among the first to enter Dachau. I’m wondering now if she knew your grandfather.

  7. Wonderful post! My grand-daddy was my special person, I loved him so much and miss him still every single day.
    I’m so glad that young Aunt Becky had a special person.

  8. Just beautiful. I’ve been thinking about my grandpa today, too. I especially love the memory of him trying to lift me up above his head whenever I’d run in to see him as a little kid. He was weak from a stroke years earlier and it took him much longer than normal to pick me up, but he always insisted. I love and miss him so much.

  9. Aunt Becky! You made my day with this post. Also, you should read the book “Cold Sassy Tree”. I think it would be right up your alley. Also, the whole first couple of chapters have roses in them.

  10. He sounds like quite the character . . . I have tons of memories of my father’s father – he was my hero & friend & mentor. While I miss the fuck out of him, daily, I’m so thankful for the ability to draw back on those memories.

  11. Such a beautiful post. That was an amazing generation. My grandparents all had lives less ordinary. It was such a rare time in history that we will never be able to have again. I’m glad your grandfather is with now and always.

  12. Such a beautiful post. That was an amazing generation. My grandparents all had lives less ordinary. It was such a rare time in history that we will never be able to have again. I’m glad your grandfather is with now and always.

  13. I love moments like those, when you are suddenly, exceedingly aware that a person’s body may not be here, but their soul and their spirit–the true THEM–is right there next to you. It is, IMHO, one of the most beautiful aspects of life.

  14. I enjoy gardening and particularly growing tomatoes. It bowled me over when I found a picture of my mom’s dad standing proudly beside his own tomato crop. He died when my mom was young and had not realized we shared this bond without ever meeting.

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