I’m reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success and it’s proving to be some food for thought. I’m about a third of the way through the book, and I began thinking about the opportunities and adversities that can turn into opportunities that happened in my own family history as an exercise. On opportunity that seems to not have been based upon adversity, for example, is my paternal grandfather who became an office boy and caught the attention of the company bookkeeper. My grandfather didn’t have much education, but was curious and good with numbers. The bookkeeper took him under his wing, and eventually my grandfather became the next bookkeeper for the company and an accountant. He had the benefit of the right natural gifts, but also took the opportunity to build upon those gifts.
My maternal grandmother was a different, if not a more inspiring, story. Her father died when she was six, and her mother died when she was about 16, by which time her older siblings had moved out and had families of their own. But there were younger siblings that needed to be taken care of. My grandmother had limited education, and watched as other kids with more money and means moved on, even as her fortunes waned. My great-grandmother was actually born into some relative wealth and grew up somewhat pampered, but none of that mattered in Hawaii. In fact, their situation was relatively unknown to the family for a long time. My great-grandmother was illiterate and unskilled. After all, growing up, she didn’t need to read and write nor cook and clean. In contrast, my grandmother was a woman with a sharp eye for deals, an excellent seamstress, and a fantastic cook. Everything her mother was not, and she told me this on my first trip to Japan when we visited the family home.
Then, as now, most of the household skills were learned from the generation before. Sometimes one generation has a better cook or someone who’s bad at sewing, but the skills move down from one generation to another. But in my grandmother’s case, this didn’t happen. Instead, the women in the homes around her each taught her something, a skill or a dish, something they were good at. My grandmother collected skills from a number of families, not all from her own. In the end, she built quite a powerful portfolio from which my family benefited.
Looking back, I wish I had spent more time with her learning some of these things. She taught me a few things before I left Hawaii. I know she showed my mother a great many of them before Grandma became too old and too sick to pass them on. I left Hawaii when she still had much of her strength, and in the decade of most of my travels, ending with me settling on the East Coast, she lost that. Each visit, I saw less and less of the powerhouse my grandmother was. Still, in many ways, she was and still remains an inspiration—not just for her person strength, but that she did make the most of our her opportunities, even the ones that began as adversities.