Grandparent-Approved Pieces of Advice on Design, Cleaning, and Life at Home — from 7 Different Countries
Looking around my condo, I’m surrounded by pieces passed down by grandparents: My grandma’s 1950s windsor chairs, a 19th-century steamer trunk of unknown history, my husband’s grandparents’ 1970s mid-century chinoiserie treasures. So much history and so many memories of generations past and present.
Beyond the physical pieces, there are the words of advice for living well at home that I carry with me. I think about my vibrant 100-year-old great aunt showing off one of her works in her retirement home’s art gallery just last month, noting in her old Virginia accent that she first picked up a paintbrush in her 60s. With a makeshift closet studio, more paintings on the walls than I can count, and a permanent stack of books to read, her home speaks clearly to her curiosity.
I recall how my late grandfather, who grew up in a family of artists in his native Mexico, would tell me again and again, “Never forget you’re an artist.” He surrounded himself in his home, perhaps to a cluttered fault, with all of the beautiful art that inspired him: Mementos of his childhood home, postcards and photographs from his brother who traveled the world dancing, sketches from the live drawing classes he took, and his forays into mediums like stained glass and sculpture. I’ve taken a more restrained approach in my own home, but I learned early on that embracing eccentricity and beauty in all its forms is where the richness of life comes from.
Advice passed down through generations and across cultures makes it all the more meaningful. So, I searched for some of Apartment Therapy writers’ pieces of advice from grandparents across the country and around the world for how to live well. In each nugget, you can hear their unique voice and how their grandchildren listened, took it to heart, and are making these words of wisdom their own.
“As I’ve entered my thirties and begun hosting friends of my own, I have adopted my Sicilian grandmother’s cleaning method. I’ll never clean the night of the party or a gathering. I can’t. My childhood muscle memory won’t let me. My mind absolutely forbids it — only allowing a stack of dirty dishes next to the sink to form after I’ve hugged my guests goodbye and locked the gate. Then I crawl into bed with my partner and our cats, marinating in the night of good conversation, connection, and joy. I don’t choose to clean later out of laziness but as a way to absorb the memories of the night, without the dishwasher getting in the way. If you brush away the counters too quickly, the bruschetta crumbs can’t serve as a sweet reminder of the care it was prepared with the night before.” —Allyson
“Whether she’s patiently kneading masa (which, for the record, can take upwards of two hours, given how large our family is) or flipping poblano peppers over an open flame to char the skin, my Mexican grandmother’s hands are probably her most-used and most important kitchen tool. Many cooks rightfully stress the importance of tasting dishes as you go, but just as many believe knowing how things feel is integral to cooking as well. I have yet to work up the nerve to touch a roasting pepper on my stove — and prefer the safer method of roasting them in the oven — but my favorite part of watching my grandmother work in the kitchen has always been how sure and confident her hands are. I can only hope that, with practice, mine will pick up on that fearlessness, too.” —Ella
“Throughout the past year, work in all its forms has dominated my life — including the lack of it, as well as its fickle nature and overwhelming presence day in and day out … This exhausting reality weighed on me even after I secured a contract job — that is, until I had a conversation with my 73-year-old yiayia, in which I asked her about her dream job since she hadn’t been able to access many opportunities as a young immigrant from Greece. She laughed and said she didn’t have one. When I pressed for more information, she told me, ‘It’s important to work hard, but never let work be the center of your life.’ Then my yiayia followed up with an effective tip: ‘Never talk about work in your off-hours.’” —Andie
“During her 40s and 50s, my grandma visited the continent of Africa six separate times and never came home empty-handed. Now, at 73, she’s got a treasure trove of souvenirs that double as decor to commemorate her trips and our heritage. ‘Before these trips, I was an American of African descent who knew nothing about her native land,’ my grandma says. ‘I had many friends who were Italian and visited Italy, and Irish friends who had visited Ireland, but I had never visited Africa. So I needed to change that.’
As Black Americans, it can be hard to trace our roots back very far due to centuries of slavery and the dehumanization of Africans. Discovering our heritage was the impetus for each of my grandmother’s trips, where she worked her way around the continent visiting the Ivory Coast, Ghana (twice!), Senegal, South Africa, and even Egypt. ‘My goal was to understand my roots and where I came from,’ she says. ‘I learned so much about who I am through the art that I picked up.’” —Savannah
“I encountered this helpful tip when chatting with French-born food blogger Helene Skantzikas about cleaning tips she’d gleaned from French grandmas. ‘Cut the wine cork in half and put it in your fruit basket,’ Skantzikas told me, relaying the idea from her own mother (who happens to be a French grandma herself). So, how does it work? Easy! The natural cork absorbs humidity from the air around it. Lower humidity in the air means slower ripening, which means fruit stays fresher, longer!
This trick is especially handy during fruit season, when my kitchen is bursting with more tomatoes, peaches, and berries than I know what to do with. Unlike the fridge, which essentially halts the ripening process, a wine cork slows it down, making fruit less likely to spoil quickly.” —Rochelle
“According to my Polish grandmother, you don’t need a whole caddy of cleaning supplies to get your home into tip-top shape. In my experience, you can cut your cleaning time in half using dust-repellant spray rather than just ordinary surface cleaner. All you need is vinegar, olive oil, and a touch of soap to recreate my grandmother’s dust-repellant spray recipe. The coating the spray leaves helps more dust propel off surfaces and onto the floor, which means you’ll have to clean those hard to dust places a little less. My grandma would then pour this concoction into an old spray bottle and use it to wipe down everything from her credenzas to her coffee tables.” —Marlen
“When I was little, the faintest sniffle would sound the alarm. Pita would grab her off-limits-to-us cuchillo and vehemently chop carrots, cilantro, potatoes, fresh pureed tomatoes, garlic, green onions, spices, and herbs for a huge pot of caldo de pollo. Her swiftness at neatly dicing and slicing is an art she’s still nagging me to master.
Thankfully, I never had to assist her in the kitchen when I was sick. I was, however, required to finish every last drop of what she calls milagro en olla, or miracle in a pot. I would always feel revitalized after a day or two of eating the stuff. Abuelita attributes it to its nutritious content. Trust in her folk wisdom! It’s stocked with antioxidants and vitamin A from the carrots, and rich protein and zinc from the chicken. To this day, her caldo de pollo is what brings me out of every cold’s misery.” —Natalia
“My German grandma says when you’re looking for a house, don’t just think about your own wants and needs. You’ll also want to think about resale from a future buyer’s perspective. You may not mind only having a one-car garage, but if it’ll detract future owners from your home’s listing, think twice. For example, when my grandma bought her first house, she made sure it had a formal dining room and basement to attract future buyers. If you’re not sure, hire a Realtor you trust and ask their advice. You’ll be glad you did the extra work on the front end to ensure your financial security down the road — I know my grandparents were.” —Ashley
“If you find yourself dreading shower scrubbing day, I’m here to tell you there’s an easier way. Until she passed away at the ripe old age of 87, my meticulous grandmother, who immigrated from Greece as a young woman with just a few coins in her pocket, practiced the simplest but most profound clean-as-you-go tip: She wiped the shower down with her bath towel after every use. After each shower clean-up routine, she hung up the towel to be used the next time she showered, cutting down on both laundry and cleaning supplies. Naysayers may think it’s gross to clean your shower surfaces and body with the same towel, but with that small amount of upkeep, there was never any grime in the shower to begin with. Since she practiced this tip her whole life, my grandmother rarely had to do a full shower scrub with a cleaner.” —Alexandra