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Remembering a sometimes harsh grandfather

Thanks and honor due on National Grandparents Day

The first Sunday after Labor Day is National Grandparents Day, which has its own official flower: the forget-me-not. If your grandparents are still alive, have you thanked them? If they’re deceased, do you honor them?

I haven’t honored my maternal grandfather, Robert Green. He sometimes treated his six children brutally, but he did go through great hardships in the Russian army in 1902: He deserted in 1903, evaded arrest, and somehow got across Europe and made it to Liverpool, England. There he bought the cheapest ticket on an ocean liner, one entitling him to floor space in the ship’s hold.

He slept alongside hundreds of others amid—according to a report of the U.S. Immigration Commission—“the unattended vomit of the seasick, the odors of not-too-clean bodies, the reek of food, and the awful stench of the nearby toilet rooms.” 

If your grandparents are still alive, have you thanked them?

After arriving in Boston on Dec. 3, 1903, Robert Green first lived in a North Boston three-story tenement. Almost all single men were boarders and lived in two-bedroom apartments. Typically, a husband, wife, and children slept in one room, with two boarders sharing a thin and dirty straw mattress—often loaded with lice, fleas, and bedbugs—on the floor of the second bedroom. 

The kitchen was the most-used room: It had the only sink, so everyone washed there. The landlady used it to wash her family’s and the boarders’ laundry. One toilet in the hall typically served the four families on one floor plus eight boarders who ate herring, pea or barley soup, and maybe a plum or pickle, chased down by a glass of beer. Breakfast was typically black bread and coffee, usually consumed while standing.

Thus fortified, Robert Green passed by shopkeepers in their doorways and Italian organ-grinders on the street, on the way to following a business plan he had probably developed while lying awake at night on that uncomfortable mattress: Wouldn’t families and boarders sleep better and be happier if he fumigated and restuffed old ones?

He went door-to-door, sometimes carrying four mattresses at a time on his strong back and—16-hour day by 16-hour day—receiving pay from satisfied customers when he returned them. He eventually moved up to a pushcart, then to a wagon drawn by a horse with three legs, and then to a four-legged one. 

Mattress by mattress, Robert Green went from peddling used ones, to making new ones, to starting his own company and opening up a furniture store in East Boston. He survived a fire in 1934 that almost killed him and a daughter. He employed his own children and African Americans as well. He never forgot his start: In 1956, after a half century of work, he still supervised the restuffing of mattresses at $8 each, the equivalent of $76 now.

Robert Green’s final material accomplishment in the 1960s was the purchase of a new lime-green Mercury. He never learned how to drive, and no one else drove it: The beautiful car sat in front of his house, showing all that he had arrived. But the real trophies were his grandchildren: dentist, psychologist, lawyer, computer programmer, editor, and more. 

IT LOOKS LIKE OUR COVID-19 NIGHTMARE won’t be over by Jan. 7, 2021, so Susan and I are planning to do our 12th annual World Journalism Institute mid-career course at a distance by Zoom or Google Groups, instead of in our living room. WJI is the on-ramp to write for WORLD: 56 of the editors and writers listed on page 4—all but an older few—have gone through WJI in some form. 

Our weeklong course will emphasize news reporting and feature writing for print and radio—not devotionals, exegetical essays, memoirs, fiction, or poetry. It is for those willing to learn about pavement-pounding, phone-calling, document-reading reporting and about writing with strong verbs and nouns in the active voice. 

I’m inviting freelance journalists, missionaries, professors, journalism teachers, and others to apply—but they need to be ready to work very hard for six days and absorb tough criticism. Tuition is free. For more information, go to


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  • Janet B
    Posted: Tue, 09/08/2020 10:31 am

    Thank you for your story on your grandfather.  It is good to be reminded that we are the present chapter in the story of God's redemption of man.  The chapters before us may not have been the loveliest or the kindest, but we would not have been written without them, so for them we can be grateful.