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Practicing Well: The secret to a long and happy life? Just follow Grandpa George’s simple advice


By Meri Althauser
It’s summer in Montana (I hope, by now) and following your winter ski story it is now tradition that you get the story of a legend lost and the lessons they bring. 
If you’re familiar with downtown Billings you might have visited the historic Moss Mansion. About two blocks away, at 105 Clark, there is a delightful historic pink grandma house belonging to the stuff of legends, my grandpa George Wallis and of course the lovliest Grandma Jean. I hope you’ll google Grandpa George’s name for the numerous stories the Billings Gazette loved to run about him, covering every topic from his prediction on the Griz-Cat game to the bomb runs he made over Germany as a fighter pilot in World War II. Just after Christmas, Grandpa George passed at the age of 102 years young. Grandpa taught me to ski at Big Sky on Mr. K. at the age of 5 and built a winter home for our family with his own two hands (well, that’s how I tell it anyways) on the first existing block of the Big Sky Meadow Village.  Up until his parting minus about one month Grandpa lived by himself, drove, prepared his own meals, had accurate football predictions, and endless political commentary for us all.
When he turned 95 years young our whole family turned out for his birthday party. Throughout the weekend he told us many stories of how he met Jean Wallis at a “beer picnic” at MSU, his college days, and his experience on the 1941 Bobcat football team.  (By the way, Jean Wallis is the stuff of legends herself.  She grew up in Whitefish and hiked Whitefish Mountain to ski down on wooden skis before a resort was even there — can you imagine!? It is surely she who wrote the genetic code for our family’s love of skiing.)  After several days’ worth of doting on Grandpa and a big dinner with presents we were winding down over cake and coffee. Grandpa slowly cut his cake and sipped his coffee. Just before leaving the table to head up for bed, he said calmly and quietly as if he had just realized it, “you know, of all the experiences I’ve had in my life, traveling the world and raising my kids and grandkids, the only thought that ever hits my mind as I hit the pillow are of those bombing runs over Germany, the flak exploding in my periphery.” … and off to bed while silence befell the room. How’s that for some gratitude-inducing perspective?
In one of my more recent visits with Grandpa George I asked him the secret to a long happy life.  He had mentioned having lots of friends and social activities in conversations passed, but I wondered if he’d have the same answer for me. He quickly had a new response, one that has gotten me through a million new sticky situations. I guess he had time to think about it in his time alone in that historic house at age 100! Grandpa’s advice, of course, started with a vivid retelling of his career after the war as an engineer and project manager with Exxon in Billings. He even reminded me, as if I had forgotten, of the formula for determining the volume of the liquid in the conical-shaped holding tanks at the refinery. He worked his way up to project manager in the Billings refinery after taking the lead with the cleanup after a large explosion there. He was asked to help start projects abroad including in Saudi Arabia and Holland, where Grandma Jean got to tag along and experience the world. Despite these achievements, Grandpa insisted he never had lofty career goals. It was never the goal to become the next executive, to take over a branch or to make X amount of money, to retire at 55, build a second home, or travel the world for fun. The only thing on his mind was doing the best he could in any given moment. 
That’s it. It’s the only goal you need, he said.
Grandpa’s concept of momentary goodness has brought me such relief in the face of overwhelm since we spoke. Do you need a 10-year plan? No, just do your best today. Will I be working this problem forever? Nope! Just do your best with it right now. How could I possibly make a difference in this insurmountable situation?? Do the best with what you have in this moment. I’m torn in a million different directions, how will I make this work? Just do one good thing now.
Some of you who are more versed in philosophy or psychology can probably tell me that this concept is tied to some particular pre-grandpa theory, but I will be pretty happy remembering it as the great Grandpa George Wallis’s key to a happy life. 
Oh, and the other piece of advice was to always wash the oatmeal bowl right away. Otherwise, it will stick.
Meri Althauser is an attorney of over 10 years practicing family law and mediation in Missoula. Her practice focuses on collaboration and solution-finding for her clients and their families. She also offers consulting services in workplace wellness, with a certification as a Workplace Wellness Specialist through the National Wellness Institute and as a Resilience and Thriving Facilitator through Organizational Wellness and Learning Systems.