On my former morning walks with dog Baxter, my mind tended to wander, possibly a sign of old age, but more likely me just being me. One morning, I thought about numbers and how they relate to our lives, the meaning and implications we derive from them. Beyond basic math, I never did well and the fact I was thinking this deeply about numbers could be cause for alarm. However, I remembered being taught how numbers by themselves possess little or no meaning until they are assigned value or placed in context. If I simply said the number ‘thirty’ without a point of reference, my listener or reader would have no idea how to comprehend my short statement. Did I mean thirty feet, thirty years, thirty wives? Or thirty degrees? Thirty degrees Celsius or thirty degrees Fahrenheit?
This lead me to consider how numbers can represent our lives, often in ways we, or at least I, don’t always think about. For instance, look at how we use numbers to define dates or years. Those remaining from my parents’ generation remember 1929 to 1941 as The Great Depression and 12/07/1941 as the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Most baby boomers in my age range can recall exactly where they were on 11/22/1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and many remember 04/04/1968 when Martin Luther King, Junior was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee. Since 09/11/2001, we have all lived under the shadow of 9/11. What emotions, memories or stories do these numbers bring to your mind?
The numbers 01/10/1907 and 09/25/1998 may have little meaning to most people. But they have meaning to me with even more significance to my ninety-year old mother, and especially her mother, my late grandmother. Those were the dates of Grandma’s birth and last day on this earth. Though mere numbers on this page, think of them in terms of a life spanning the twentieth century!
Grandma was born four short years after the Wright brothers’ first flight and Henry Ford’s first Model A automobile. She would have known men who did or did not survive World War I. She farmed with horses long before owning a tractor, and as a teen she was entranced by the magic emanating from a radio (invented in 1920). Married a few years before the stock market crash of 1929, she and my grandfather bought and paid for a farm and raised their family during The Great Depression and World War II.
Grandma was there when electricity, the telephone, indoor plumbing and television came to their farm. I don’t know those dates or those numbers, nor do I recall the exact time they bought a summer home on a lake where their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren loved to visit them. Or when they sold the farm and moved to Florida to live year round. I know shortly after my grandfather’s death in 1991, Grandma returned to Michigan to be near her family. She remained a force of nature with her bright red lipstick and heavy foot on the gas pedal until she died at age ninety-one.
I remind myself that numbers by themselves do not signify or define our emotions. Numbers are markers; posts with numeric symbols on them. Yet reading a number can bring meaning to our lives.
Until her death, I’m sure that 04/18/1991, my grandfather’s death, triggered all sorts of emotions and memories in my grandmother. As did the date six months later of burying one of her sons. Likewise, on 11/12/1947, when she helped my nineteen and twenty-year-old parents bury their first child born six weeks premature. Also, consider the many years she sent two dollars in a birthday card to each grandchild and great-grandchild. Her joy was in the sending and ours in the receiving with the real value of the ‘two’ not in its purchasing power, but in our thoughts and memories of such a caring and vibrant grandmother.
No, numbers by themselves are not our actual emotions or memories, but they sure can trigger such. Each time I see a yardstick, I smile. Imprinted in my mind is the image from my childhood of Grandma trying to discipline her large and chunky, born-late-in-life-son, my nine-year-old uncle, with a wooden yardstick. She managed to get his pants down and hang on to him for dear life with her left hand as he, laughing uproariously, pranced about, his chubby butt shaking as he tried to avoid the licks she was intent on imparting. Her face was grim with a look of determination that signaled this child will learn his lesson once and for all. On about her third flail, the yardstick broke in half. Her resolve evaporated and the stern look dissolved into frustrated give-up-and-shake-your-head laughter. My eyes were wide with fear, I didn’t know my grandmother could get so angry, but I was also entranced with the humor of the situation. Sixty-plus years later, a thin wooden stick with thirty-six numbers still brings back those memories and feelings.
My grandmother lived a full, active life. Our family still exemplifies her values of hard work, honesty, sacrifice, gratitude, laughter, generosity and God’s love. Her energy and standards still inspire us. Such values are hard to measure concretely. Yet when put into context with the numbers which ascribe events and years to them, their true meanings become apparent and more appreciated, their impact deeper and long lasting.
Like mile markers reminding us how far we have come, numbers also provide a hook to hang our memories, emotions, and maybe even our dreams upon. A hook in our very own closet that we can go back to and look at the pieces hanging on it, savoring or grimacing as we discover other items layered underneath.
I think about when I die and wonder what numbers my children and grandchildren will remember about me. I already know about some of the mile markers in my own life. Although some of the layers hanging on the hooks of my closet may not bring pleasant memories, I hope those aren’t the only ones recalled to define my life. I trust that, like Grandma, positive meaning and values will be attributed to the entirety of my own life’s numbers.
Numbers that start with 09/16/1948 and will end with _ _/ _ _/ _ _ _ _.