My grandfather was a man of few words, but many smiles. Like a Norman Rockwell painting, he wore the title “grandfather” well. He would take me to the pool in the summer and was content to just sit in a rickety chair in the shade listening to the sounds of children laugh, an old jukebox that played Foreigner, and the smack of tennis balls hitting rackets. He would sit for hours simply watching. Sometimes, I would look up from my play and he would wave at me. He seemed content and so was I.
When I think back on my time with him as a child, my fondest memories are visiting his home in Lexington, Virginia. He would let me climb up to the old attic covered in dust and I would spend hours by myself looking at old family heirlooms and memories. Everything about that house, from its smell to the artifacts within in it, held great mystery for me. Nothing was off limits, including the basement, where the memories I have of him would form.
The stairs down were narrow, curved and dark. When I got to the bottom, his treasures stood like sentries at the palace gates. Everything was coated in a fine layer of dust and nothing ever moved. There was a broken radio in one corner, musty books in a case, and an old clock with a clear cloche cover that didn’t work. Tucked in the back of a vintage armoire was an 1898 version of Samuel Coleridge’s The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. The story and its illustrations kept me entertained when I got bored with the adults upstairs. It was his world and he held it open for me. I felt like Alice in his Wonderland, transported through time.
As I’ve grown up, I recall stories of he and my mother going to the creek to catch crawfish when she was little and how on their Sunday family drives he was always the first to spot a hawk. My grandfather was very observant, but I think he really learned to see the world on the one-hour walk he took every day in solitude.
Like clockwork, in rain, sleet, or snow my grandfather would just walk. I often wondered what he thought – was he anxious about money, the current president’s decision making, or the health of his oldest daughter? While those issues might have been on his mind, I also believe it was more profound and simple than that. You see, my grandfather learned to live in those moments. He took the time to observe, internalize and reflect on the world and his place in it. He found that it’s not how much time we have, but what we do in each hour that counts.
Although from my child’s perspective, my grandfather’s contentment in stillness seemed curious, I now recognize the value in his habit and have found ways to follow his example in my work as a designer. I start with observation as the profound opportunity to be still enough to notice the world for which I design. While I believe we cannot curate every reaction to the experiences we create, we must act as if we can. We must care enough about the world to imagine a better outcome than one not designed at all.
When my grandfather died, I volunteered to organize his belongings and help determine what the family wanted to keep or give away. I lived in Texas by then and flew back to his home in Virginia one last time. I walked in and smelled the same scent of my childhood memories. Now, it wasn’t just the attic and basement laid bare to me. It was every drawer and every closet, the garage and the cellar. It was an archeological dig, one more meaningful and personal than dinosaur bones could ever be.
As I started to work through the layers of clothing, old leather shoes and photographs, I found the world of my grandfather’s daily walks carefully preserved in dozens of paper balls, all dated by hand with rubber bands to hold them together. I discovered more than thirty paper balls covered in his handwriting with objects inside. Often, the “treasures” were nails, pennies, a hair clip, or a small plastic toy – the ephemera of everyday life. I unwrapped a few, but kept many in their original form as my memories of him.
The year my daughter turned eight, I told her the story and let her open the last one. As the universe sometimes aligns just right, I think he had a hand in that moment. She carefully unraveled the paper and the small treasure nestled in the musty folds was a dainty golden sand dollar on a thin chain. And then I wondered if he had planned it all along. If my discovery years before was actually by his design.
His lasting gift to me wasn’t just beautiful memories, but a profound reminder for my profession and my life’s work. Sometimes the greatest teachers aren’t other people, but the things they leave behind. It is our role as designers to do the same.
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