Getting to know my grandfathers

22-09-2020

In my very first column for Observant, I wrote about the end of history illusion (by psychologist Daniel Gilbert and others) showing that, no matter what age, we think that we have finally become the person we ‘truly’ are, and are no longer going to change. I’ve been thinking a lot about the end of history illusion these days, because I’ve realized that it not only relates to ourselves, but also to our understanding of our loved ones.

I left Canada when I was 18, the same age that my Grandpa Hugo (Belgium) and my Grandpa Alfredo (Italy) were when they left Europe. Reflecting on our similar journeys, I was struck by the strength that was unique to their stories. Nowadays, when we move to another country, we can find a house and job online, make friends, watch YouTube videos about our destination, and Google-Street-View our new neighborhood.

Things were very different for my grandfathers. They only heard vague stories of the other continent, knew no one, and didn’t have a home or job. What’s more, the costs of a boat journey made it impossible to return to Europe. And yet, they stepped on that boat, anyway, and left behind everything they knew. What must that have felt like? I don’t know why, but I hadn’t thought about their stories from this perspective, until now.

Both of my grandfathers have passed away, but this summer I was fortunate to spend three weeks with my dad. I got to ask him all kinds of new questions that I had about Grandpa Alfredo. Although I’d never met him (he died before I was born), I had heard plenty of stories, and so I thought that I ‘knew’ him. Yet, in asking new questions, I learned different sides of Grandpa Alfredo. For example, I learned that his small town in Italy was in very rough shape after the war, and his only future would lay in farming—an idea he despised.

He moved to Uruguay, and later Canada, where he built his own construction company. At first he hated Canada, and planned to move the family back to Uruguay as soon as he saved enough money. By the time he did, they had become accustomed to the Canadian winters, had made friends, and the construction company was doing well. He lived in Canada the rest of his life, but he always kept a giant wheel of Italian Parmesan cheese in the basement.

I find it fascinating that our understanding of someone we think we know can evolve over time, based on our own life experiences and the questions that we ask. This is true not only with respect to my grandfathers, of course, but also with respect to my other (living) loved ones. As my parents get older, they too are changing, and I am continuously getting to know them, and am asking new questions about their past and present.

I encourage you: Be open to viewing your loved ones from a different perspective, and to asking new questions. There is no ‘end of history’, after all.  

Jessica Alleva, Assistant Professor at fhe faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience

Getting to know my grandfathers
Jessica Alleva