Faded hair and wrinkled skin is a badge of honor for a life lived. These first sights often cause us to overlook the beauty, energy, knowledge, and strength within. It’s hard to imagine them having a sense of humor beneath that seemingly gruff exterior and the time deepened voices. Seeing the struggle to rise from a chair makes us disregard the tremendous energy they once spent actively living each day. Watching the slow shuffle across a room, there is a feeling of pity instead of pride for the miles those legs once walked. Trying to hopelessly explain technology, we forget that their generation of manual labor paved the way for our computers. Maybe they tell us the same story over and over again to drive their memories into our heads so we don’t forget. These elderly, idle, slow moving people once loved with passion, did back breaking labor, and fought for everything they had. Most are more than willing to share their stories in the hopes that we don’t make the same mistakes they did. To share with us the love, laughter, tears, and heartache that makes them who they are.
It’s easy to disregard someone as too old to know what’s going on. Easy to look at them and think that they don’t have a clue what we are going through in this day and age. Thinking that they don’t understand how our relationships work, how hard it is to raise children and put food on the table and keep up with a social life. We look at them and see someone who is idle, who was raised in a different time when things where simpler, forgetting that simple doesn’t always mean easy.
Talking to an elderly friend I quickly learned that what appeared to be an ideal relationship now was not so ideal at the start. Looking at the couple, sitting on their driveway in matching chairs, watching the people pass, I see two people in harmony with each other. Each dependent on the other for companionship, love, and support. They talked as if they were one, completing each others sentences. I’d often catch them doing something for the other before it was mentioned. I wanted that for myself. Later I learned that was not how things started out. The early years were rocky at best. He wanted her to quit her job and stay home to make a family. She wanted to work and keep her paycheck, something that was always turned over to her family growing up. It was hard for her to give up that freedom and it took her a long time to understand that he considered what he made “their money” not his. Her early life had convinced her that money was used for control, with him this was not the case. She confided in me that he’d make house calls to the same single woman’s house a lot on Saturdays. Hearing this I was shocked. My first thought was why didn’t she leave the scumbag. How dare he do that to this kind person. She wasn’t dumb, she had carefully weighed the pros and cons of leaving. Divorce would have been a scandal and put horrible strain on the kids. He was kind to her, a good provider, a good father, she really wasn’t interested in what he was getting at that other house at the time anyway. As we talked it became clear that by living through this and overcoming it their relationship was so much stronger. It’s hard to imagine the situation while picturing the white haired couple happily sitting together today. Leaving would have been an easy option throughout the years, but what would have been missed?
As parents these people had the same fears for their children as we do raising kids today. Drugs, alcohol, teenage pregnancy, accidents, bullying all seem to be something that each generation wants to claim as their own. These things have always been around and are fears that every parent from every generation goes through. The delivery of these threats may change with time but the base threat is still the same. One thing that I’ve learned from the older generation is that while they worried, they also trusted their children more. They believed that what their kids were taught at home, school, and church would guide them through these difficult situations and mold them into strong adults. They didn’t want their children to get seriously hurt, but they did want them to make mistakes and learn from them. Raising competent adults was the goal, not raising permanent children.
I’m still shocked whenever I hear a dirty joke or some sexual comment coming out of the mouths of someone older than me. It makes me blush, knowing that they know these things and also that they know I know. I suppose I want to believe that after awhile people become asexual. It’s this thought that keeps me from being able to totally take in their relationships. I’m only okay with seeing the love in their eyes but not much more. Not that I want details, mind you, but even the passion that is there is lost to me, because my brain doesn’t want to process anything deeper than that. Even with a collective 20 children between my grandparents, I can’t go there.
From helicopter rescue pilots in Vietnam to a young man being dropped off at a train station and being handed a few hard earned coins by his father. Brothers who returned home from war and those who didn’t. There are couples who live together their whole lives and pass away close together, and those who are left behind for years, and some who live their days without that close connection at all.
While sitting with an elderly neighbor one evening, she was complaining about how she was losing the strength in her hands. Just then the microwave beeped and she slowly shuffled over and brought out the large glass measuring cup of water that had been heating to make our instant coffee. With one hand she brought it to the table, all the while complaining about how weak she’d been feeling lately. We finished our coffee and I took the measuring cup back to the sink and had to use two hands to put the full cup back in the microwave to reheat. I was slightly embarrassed and finally told her “Oh, just shut up already! You obviously have more strength in your weakened pinky than I do in both hands. It sucks that you’re losing your strength but just think, I may never gain as much strength as you’ve already lost.” Her life of manual labor had made her into an amazing rock of a woman, both mentally and physically. Even when she started to forget things happening in the present, her memory retained an amazing wealth of information. As she declined physically she still did everything that she once did, it just took longer.
One day my grandfather was over at my parents house. We were all out in the garage and he went inside. After a while I wondered what was taking him so long. I went inside just as he was coming down the stairs to the main level. He looked at me as he slowly made his way down the stairs and asked, “Am I losing my mind? I’m losing my mind.” This was one of the hardest days for me but probably just as hard for him. I wasn’t sure how to respond and just went over and gave him a hug, trying hard to hide my tears. This was a man who had taught me so much and I couldn’t help him. His slow retreat into his mind was marked with some very vivid days when he used the knowledge of his memory loss to drive us all crazy. One day while playing cards, he was winning of course, he continually asked my grandma, “What day is it?” She would sigh and answer him over and over again. Finally I was starting to get annoyed by it and looked over just in time to see the twinkle in his eye as he winked.
I’m thankful for all the connections I’ve made so far. Grandparents, coworkers, customers, and neighbors all have given me much more than I could ever give back. There are so many questions that I want to ask. So many conversations that I wish were recorded. I want to soak in every word that is said until those words become a part of me. I want to turn back time and be able to ask some of those questions to people who are already gone. I want the courage to ask them to those who are still here.