The most important lessons we learn often don’t become relevant, or at least we don’t recognize them as relevant, until those teachers have faded into memories and their voices dimmed by time.

It has been more than 25 years since my grandfather died, but 2020 has made me realize I carry his most important teaching with me every day. It wasn’t rote advice, or a long letter of guidance left behind.

No, my grandfather’s classroom was his smile. He never went anywhere without it. In fact, I can’t scrounge a memory when he wasn’t grinning. Not just his mouth, his eyes.

Those are the genuine smiles, the ones you don’t need lips and cheeks to see. They’re out there if you’re looking for them.

I didn’t know until much later, about a decade after he died, that my grandfather, Nicholas Rine, had plenty of excuses not to smile if he needed them. It’s the kind of context we all missed as children. From my perspective, the gentle giant I called grandpa had experienced no worries or struggle.

But his life, like many in his generation, was marked by a series of immeasurable trauma and difficulty. Yet, somehow as many in the Greatest Generation did, he found happiness even in the wake of profound trials.

He and his 11 siblings were the first generation of their family born on American soil, the first who would who would carry birthright citizenship in a country where their parents, despite naturalization, still were treated as outsiders.

They were building the American Dream.

My grandfather was 3 years old when the 1918 flu pandemic swept the U.S.

He watched as his six eldest siblings died from the disease as it churned through the small apartment building they shared with extended family in East Detroit. By age 15, he was forced to drop out of school to help keep his father’s small produce and meat market afloat during the Great Depression. The family lost the business anyway, and my grandfather never resumed his education.

Instead, like many unschooled young men with immigrant roots in Detroit, he began performing odd jobs that served the city’s gilded class. Mostly he hung drapes, tended bar and worked as a security guard at a Chrysler tank factory while my grandmother worked as a nurse. Together they kept their nine children fed and clothed, but not much more.

To them, the American Dream was watching their children succeed, so any money they managed to scrape together paid for college applications and, when possible, a few classes.

By the time he died, my grandfather left his wife with a small home on the outskirts of Detroit, the mortgage payments covered by their children. A cabinet in the basement kept a stash of government surplus food they had depended upon for years — powdered milk, canned beets, tins of beef.

Still, he always smiled. The kind of smiles that showed appreciation for the day. For his family. For a life that turned out OK despite plenty of setbacks.

As a kid, I often wondered how he smiled at everyone, and always had plenty of grins left over for his grandchildren. And this year, I realized those smiles were the expression of someone who was content. Someone who lived through tough times, and knew things always could be worse. Someone who had set his priorities, and they didn’t include money, and houses, and cars.

They were smiles of a person fulfilled.

Email Executive Editor Nate Payne at

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