It is said that children are our most valuable resource, and maybe in a country this young and energetic we do like to emphasize the future. But I say, let’s look to those with a past.
I recently met with my two granddads up in rural, northern Minnesota. These fellas exemplify the local culture which helps you see what makes this region special. Grandpa Ferdig was restoring an old 1950′s Chevy truck. Grandpa Freyholtz looked back on his life and recalled his “restless spirit” which always had him looking for more adventure. I could really relate to these two, and I realized the depth to one’s identity you can gain from grandparents. These interactions, in fact, got me thinking about the depth gained from any of the elders among us.
If we’d only stop and listen.
I dated a girl in high school whose grandmother lived with her and her older brother. Even for a grandma this woman was old. She must have been 80—colorless hair, loose skin, and a small, frail frame. She shook a bit—in her movement and speech.
I suppose it would have been difficult to live with her as a teenager. And I can remember my girlfriend and her older brother tiring of having to yell for their grandmother to hear.
“We’re going to the movies! We’ll be back at eleven!” they’d loudly announce just six feet away from her.
“What!?” she’d respond.
Brother and sis would just shake their head and walk away. Grandma would shrug in a defeated kind of way and turn back around to what she was doing.
Sometimes when I was over there she would open up to me, but her speech would often conclude with a self-deprecating, though good-natured, “Oh, what do I know? I’m just an old woman.” I’d notice the six faces of my girlfriend’s siblings ascending along the stairwell wall and wondered if it ever occurred to my girlfriend’s grandma that these lives—all this life—were possible because of her. I thought she should be proud of this, and I always wanted to tell her. But I didn’t. Eventually I moved away for college, and she died some years later.
Thankfully, today, I still have my grandmas.
My father’s mother lives alone. I grew up living just two miles down the road from her, but as so often happens, failed to adequately appreciate that which was so available. Today, I see her when I can and have realized the power and meaning behind the walking history and wisdom she embodies.
Grandma Ferdig’s past gives her—and those she speaks of—so much more character and depth. She tells me about raising my father and his three sisters. She tells me about her siblings, some of which I knew; most I didn’t. Plus, hearing how she’s related to her many siblings helps me consider how I currently relate to mine.
I hear about her past struggles and how she overcame them. This is important because most of us face our problems flying blind, all alone with no clue what to do. Grandma can’t predict the future for me, but hearing about how she and another relative dealt with their difficulties actually helps me deal with mine.
She’s also living history of where I was raised. She tells me when they’d catch bullheads out of the Jetties on Blackduck Lake. Her mother would make clothes for the kids out of the patterned fabric of flour sacks. Grandma is an identical twin and can remember waking at 5:00am Easter morning with her sister so they could walk to church for the sunrise service. Hearing how she used to live, one appreciates the nature of change here in America—the fluidity of life.
These are the kinds of reasons you speak with the elders in your life—not about movies or sports, or even jobs or friends. (This is why we avoid older folks—nothing to talk about, we think.) We occupy ourselves with getting the new toy, keeping up with latest gossip, and concern about work; we gloss over the present with worry and daydream, missing the depth and truth of who we are.
No, our elders won’t enable the shallow minds of this wading pool. Thus, they are often relegated to the status of boring, annoying, or even kooky. Nonsense. The reality is that to talk to our elders requires depth that we’re not used to. They are the dispensaries of the knowledge and wisdom of the world. And the kicker is that I’ve found that they love sharing it, whether relative or stranger. We just have to dive into the deep end.
A few years ago I responded to an online classified as for some cheap filing cabinets. I drove out to a house in St. Paul to find an old man. Somehow we got to talking about his life—pictures on his fireplace mantle, perhaps. He was a veteran from WWII. In fact, he worked on airplanes and knew one of the pilots who flew and dropped one of the two atomic bombs over Japan. It’s hard not to appreciate the history of our world when such an epic event is connected to the gentleman sitting before you. I looked over at the pictures of his grandkids and wondered if they knew this about their granddad. I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t. I’ve run into a lot of people who know very little about their own family.
Here’s a test for you: Do you know your grandmother’s maiden name?
Quite recently I catered a Bar Mitzvah celebration. I approached one table where an elderly lady caught my eye. I took orders from the guests, and she gave hers in an accent. I asked about it, and she responded jokingly, “It’s a Chinese accent”. She then got serious and admitted it was Austrian. This prompted our conversation.
She said she arrived to America in the late 30’s when she was but a young woman of 16. Her father and she came together to California, but parted ways upon their arrival. All alone at 16 in a foreign country. Who knows if she knew English? What an early challenge to one’s life!
Then came the bombshell.
She fled Austria because she was Jewish, and she can remember as a young woman in Vienna the Nazis coming into town and seeing Adolf Hitler himself from her window overlooking the street.
The elders among us relate, in the most powerful and direct way, that heartache and challenges are something everyone has to face and that anyone can overcome; they reveal how change—to people, places and situations—is imminent; that there’s so much more to each person than what we see in them today—including ourselves; and they reveal our lack of acknowledgement and reluctance to this depth—a consequence of both our pre-occupations and our under-appreciation for the elders among us.
Get to know the elders in your life, our most under-utilized resource.
Photo by dark_ghetto28/Flickr