Speak to the elders in your life.
Last week I wrote about two conversations I had with each of my Granddads. Both men live vivid and classic lives exemplifying American/Minnesotan culture. It was awesome how telling their lives are for the “American” in all of us.
It revealed to me the importance of culture as I related to these two old guys and saw how a connection to the past—to those who came before us—can be a deep and meaningful insight. But it also reminded me of the importance with speaking to the elders among in general.
Whether they share your culture or not, I’ve found to be true what we’ve always been taught to be true: that the older folks in our societies can teach us much.
But first, I’ll give you examples. Then we’ll flesh it out.
I dated a girl in high school whose grandmother lived with her and 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 movements and in her speech.
I suppose it would have been difficult to live with her as a teenager. 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 announce six feet from their grandma’s face.
Yet she’d respond, “What?”
They’d shake their head and walk away, and she’d just kind of shrug her shoulders in a “what can I do?” defeated kind of way and turn around going back to what she was doing.
I know this was hard for her, and I remember this being one of the first examples of me empathizing with the elders among us.
She’d sit there on the couch and watch television. I’d sit in the living room with her while I waited for my girlfriend to get ready. It actually wasn’t too awkward. I liked Grandma, and she liked me. She would open up to me some, but her expression usually only ever amounted to a self-deprecating, though good-natured, “Oh, I’m just an old woman”.
I remember once looking at the six faces of my girlfriend’s siblings ascending along the stairwell. I wondered if it ever occurred to Grandma that all this life was possible because of her. I thought she should be proud of this, and always wanted to say that to her.
But I didn’t. Eventually I moved away for college, and she died some years later.
And now looking back, I wish I would have spoken to her more.
Thankfully, today, I have my grandmas. And the examples in my past of establishing an appreciation for the elders in our lives have helped open the door for me to see the benefits they offer.
My father’s mother lives alone and like most Grandmas is loved by her family, yet is also easily taken for granted. I grew up living just two miles from her, and as so often happens, we sometimes fail to adequately appreciate that which is so available. (Similarly, I spoke with my older brother more when I was in China than prior when I lived 45 minutes away!)
When I go up to Blackduck I stop by to see Grandma and have realized the power and meaning behind the walking history and wisdom of our elders. I began asking her questions about her past. As a result, I learned things about her and our family my Dad didn’t know!
She’d tell me about her siblings—some of which I know, most I don’t. She told me about her raising my father and his sisters; and those characters—Uncle Paul, Aunt Rhonda—that you grow up thinking are static, you find out aren’t static at all. When you realize this element of humanity from someone you grew up knowing, it adds a dimension to life I find helpful.
Because we go through life facing our problems, and many of us fly blind. But while it’s true we’ll never know the future, we can acknowledge the past of others we know and are related to. For me, hearing about how a relative dealt with something tragic helps me face my struggles. More ordinary, hearing how my grandma related to her many siblings helps me to see how I relate to mine.
These are the kinds of reasons why you speak with the elders in your life. It can be awkward and intimidating, but go into the conversation seeking something deeper. I’m not about to talk to Grandpa about the latest HTC handset coming out, or even about my friends and job. (That’s probably why we avoid talking with older folks—nothing to talk about, we think.)
Forget tech talk and gossip, and get down to what really sinks in: the elderly are dispensaries of the knowledge of the world, our culture, and each and every individual—particularly you.
Listen to the ways they used to live. America has changed ridiculously fast, and getting a taste for the nature of change and the fluidity of life is a conversation away.
My Grandma Ferdig still lives where she grew up. Thus, a living history of where I was raised, northern Minnesota, is right before my eyes. She told me of the days when they’d catch bullheads out of the Jetties on Blackduck Lake. She said her mother would make clothes out of the patterned fabric of flour sacks. She, herself, is an identical twin and can remember waking at 5:00am Easter morning so them two sisters could walk to church for the sunrise service.
On my mother’s side, I recently found out my grandmother’s grandmother came from Ukraine (who knew I had history in Eastern Europe?!). I also learned my great uncle, Wallace, died from alcoholism in the 70’s.
Most people are too focused on—dare I say distracted by—the issues in their lives. Glossing over the present with worry and daydream, we miss the depth of truth of who we are. Our elders hold the key to the doors of this depth. And the awesome part is that I’ve found them to love sharing about it.
Once I responded to an ad from someone who was giving away some filing cabinets. I drove out to an address in St. Paul to find an old man. Somehow we got to talking about his life—-pictures on the wall, perhaps. He was a vet from WWII. In fact, he worked on planes and knew one of the pilots who flew and dropped one of the two atomic bombs over Japan. I looked over at the mantle and saw pictures of his grandkids and wondered if they knew this about their granddad.
I certainly didn’t have to pry. On the contrary, my interest was at least matched by his willingness to share. And it makes sense: his inability to contribute labor and other services to humanity makes him want to feel valued as a dispenser of experience.
Another time, I worked catering at 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, “it’s a Chinese accent”. Haha. Then she got serious and said it was Austrian.
“When did you come to America?”, I asked.
She arrived in the late thirties. When she was but a young woman of 16. Her father and her came together to California, but parted ways upon their arrival.
All alone at 16 in a foreign country—-in the 30’s. Who knows if she knew English—probably not. What an early challenge to one’s life! And I didn’t read this in a book or other secondhand media. This was the flesh and blood—live, breathing proof of the life she lived.
But then came the bombshell. She fled Austria because she was Jewish, and as a young woman in Vienna can remember the Nazis coming into town and seeing Adolf Hitler himself from her window overlooking the street.
By telling us about their stories, we learn that heartache and challenges are something everyone has to face and that anyone can overcome.
By telling us their experiences, we learn how much humanity has changed over the years: technologically, economically, developmentally, socially. And my how we’ve changed over the years! That building across the street wasn’t always there and will one day be gone.
The elders among us can relate in the most powerful, direct way that change is imminent, that challenges are part of life.
With this wisdom we tread a lighter, more inspired path.
Here’s a good question to ask your grandparents this Thanksgiving to get the ball rolling: “Grandma? What was your grandma’s maiden name?”
Happy Thanksgiving, readers! Let me know if you hear any good nuggets of wisdom over the holiday.
To new plateaus,