A Conversation With My 80 Y.O. Grandparents About Their Generation
When I tell my friends about my 80-year-old grandparents, they are fascinated with how modern they are! They own an electric car, watch Netflix on their iPad and Zoom their grandchildren. To me, it’s no surprise! For as long as I can remember, Grand-Maman and Grand-Papa always embraced modern ways.
My grandfather and my grandmother were born in 1939 and 1941 respectively. They witnessed the advent of televisions, the moon landing, two referendums, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the birth of the internet! Their generation advocated and lived through a series of important social changes that shaped the world we live in today.
At 26, I am fortunate enough to sit down with my grandparents to talk about their lives. Recently, we spoke for 90 minutes over Zoom. Sitting together on their narrow 2-seater couch, they shared stories from their youth and discussed progress.
This is a recap.
I was amazed when Grand-Papa mentioned that he learned Morse code in school! Growing up in the post-war era, kids of their generation inevitably understood the world through the lens of war. The prospect of another war did not seem far-fetched after 2 World Wars in the first half of the 20th century. Morse code helped the allies win. Therefore, it was a useful skill to have. And just like that, at 12 years old, my grandfather became a member of the local Morse code club! In his teens, he even joined the Cadets — a branch within the Reserve Force of the Canadian Armed Forces.
At that point of the conversation, my Grand-Maman raised her index finger and said: “They did not teach us Morse code!”. Obviously, she meant “us girls”. In rural Québec of the 50s, girls did not wear pants, nor did they ride bikes. That would have been inappropriate, she says. Grand-Maman describes a number of inequalities between men and women. Opportunities for girls were limited. They could become nurses, secretaries or schoolteachers. But only if they were not married. Once the bells rang, it was time to head home and raise a family.
Grand-Maman blames clerics, whom she says interfered in almost every aspect of their daily lives. The Church was everywhere. Even in bedrooms. My grandparents recall how priests would visit parishioners on a yearly basis and urge women to have more children. And it worked. Grand-Maman knows women who gave birth to a dozen children to please clerical authorities.
On Sundays, my grandparents would go to Church. It was sacred. Back then, Mass was celebrated in Ecclesiastical Latin, although everyone spoke French. To bridge the gap, kids were taught Latin — a dead language. Eventually, Mass would be celebrated in French following the Second Vatican Council Reform of the mid 60s. Despite that reform, Québec schools continued to teach Latin well into the second half of the 20th century.
Sundays were busy days back then. On top of Mass, my grandparents would also attend a sunset evening prayer service called Vespers. I had never heard that word before! My Grand-Maman still remembers hymns by heart. She burst out laughing after singing a short passage in Latin. Although their faith is still alive, like many Quebecers of their generation, my grandparents stopped attending Church around 1980. This is not the only major change my grandparents went through in their lifetime!
As you can imagine, the advent of televisions was an important breakthrough. Grand-Maman and Grand-Papa remember attending gatherings of 30+ people to watch television. At times, the house was so crowded that sitting in the staircase was the only way to get a glimpse at the black and white television. Although they were not common utilities at first, televisions allowed people to witness world events like never before.
Grand-Maman says she will never forget the day Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the Moon. On the 21st of July 1969, she vividly remembers how a group of people gathered at my great-grandfather’s chalet to witness history. The moment Apollo 11 landed, cheers and screams erupted! She also mentioned the excitement surrounding the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. In an unprecedented move, the Royal Family decided to broadcast the ceremony for the first time in full. As for Grand-Papa, he mentioned the TV coverage of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. “Troubling” is the word he used to describe the event. Even in rural French Canada, the Kennedys were icons. At the time, Grand-Maman even owned a “Kennedy Pink” dress inspired by Jackie.
The Kennedys were not the only popular US export we covered in our conversation. When Elvis Presley first emerged, my grandparents and their teenage friends would organize house parties to dance the night away. Rock and Roll was in! Regardless, priests loathed Elvis and his “loose morals”. That didn’t matter to my great-grandmother who regularly hosted my Grand-Maman’s dance parties until they couldn’t dance anymore.
In their lifetime, means of communication evolved incredibly fast, my Grand-Papa recalls. In their youth, to communicate urgent matters with family living far away — to announce the passing of a family member for example — they would send a telegram. Telegrams were communicated from one train station to the next using Morse code until the message reached its final destination. A messenger would then deliver the telegram to the family member in question.
Decades later, my grandparents and I talked about telegrams over Zoom despite living 780 kilometres apart. How times change!
As the pandemic hit its 1-year milestone last month, I am blessed to have tech-savvy grandparents who reply to my texts and answer my Zoom calls. When I told them about my idea for this piece, they asked, “Are you sure this is interesting enough?”. Turns out they had so much to say that I had to leave some out!
Every time we speak about “their time”, Grand-Papa and Grand-Maman mention how much society has progressed. We should not be afraid to embrace change as we are always moving towards progress, they say. In the end, change is always for the better!
As we were getting ready to wrap up our call, Grand-Maman concluded:
“I support change. Long live change!”.