frog's blog

Anuran, n. an amphibian of the order Salientia (formerly Anura or Batrachia), which includes the frogs and toads

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Respect Your Elders

How often have you heard it said of an older person that “his mind just isn’t what it used to be” or “her mind is going.” After visiting with my 91-year-old grandmother, I can confirm that “her mind is going” in the sense that most people use that phrase. But where is it going?

An old maxim suggests that to be like God is to be like a child, innocent and playful. At the twilight of life, our elders become like children. And despite all the worry, frailty, and in some cases, delusion that this might bring, late autumn on the wheel of life promises the possibility for inner peace and spiritual discovery.

When a conversation requires any factual accuracy, or the rapid recitation of the right names and numbers, Grandma gets the finer points jumbled and even can appear jarred by her own awareness of this fact. But when it comes time to wax philosophical, discuss politics or religion, she’s as on her game as any college professor with stage-presence and charisma.

Indeed, like my maternal grandfather who taught zoology and ecology, my paternal grandmother might have been my other familial mentor in academia. Beyond her obvious intelligence and background in science, loving to profess is an indelible quality for a professor—and does Grandma ever love to profess!

But she stayed home to raise my Dad, uncle, and two aunts. Had my Grandma gone to university after the second wave of feminism instead of at the end of the Great Depression or had my Grandpa not been so equipped as an excellent doctor to provide for all of them financially, things might’ve been different. I might have come from two Dr. Smiths.

Most of my visit was spent listening to Grandma talk. With each anecdote a stream-of-consciousness narrative with no clear beginning or end, she kept my attention and very rarely wandered into random babble. Her poetry of memory is infused with love and mystery, and her deep religious sensibility breathes the healthy skepticism of an intellectual. She’s quick to comment on the failures and fabrications of Bush and the theocratic conservatives (this from a well-off woman who was once a solid Republican).

When I shared stories of the debates some of my composition students love to engage in about whether the Bible should be interpreted literally or whether religion should overlap with public life, she was proud to offer that “we will never really know” about the origins of our most compelling stories, about the source of all life.

But perhaps the most delightful nugget Grandma gave me during our religious digressions concerned her doubts about immaculate conception. She confessed—with a rich laughter—that even as a very young person she loved to speculate about how it was Mary’s possible promiscuity or impropriety that required her to fabricate the story of the virgin birth.

Although it’s entirely consistent with my interpretation of sacred fictions, and I may be projecting or editorializing here, Grandma seemed clear that absolutism and literalism could drain much of the charming allure from religious mythology.

My grandmother is quite privileged. Her amazing retirement community strikes me as a cross between a small college and a large commune, and it is not cheap to live there. On this recent visit, I had the chance to read their campus newsletter, a lovely little photocopied ‘zine called The Villager. Based on all the discussion of politics, poetry, gardening, and literature contained there and from reading the schedules of the activities offered just this week, I’m pleasantly taken by the vibrant culture that exists in Grandma’s life. When I came to meet her, I found her room empty because she was out enjoying a piano program with her peers. The excellent music was a seamless—if at times silly—mix of jazz, classical, ragtime, and sing-along. Hearing the twenty or so folks occasionally break out into boisterous song was heartwarming to say the least.

Obviously, not all of our elders are as fortunate financially or as active socially as my Grandma, and my current take on this latter part of life is certainly biased by my experience of my beautiful, extremely generous, and still boldly opinionated Grandma, Berendina Smith.

When I was young, I heard about the horrors of the “old folks’ homes.” (I honestly cannot say where I heard of these horrors). Before I was an adult, I had developed an irrational fear about hanging out with older people. Thankfully, my feelings are quite different now. But even today, our youth-obsessed consumer culture treats old age almost exclusively as a dire sociological concern, medical challenge, and financial dilemma. For certain, I don’t want to make light of any life that ends in loneliness, pain, poverty, or dementia. But based on my blessed experience, knowing all my grandparents and even great-grandparents when I was younger, and still having my last Grandma kicking it so well into her early nineties, I must conclude that being old can be a truly amazing and mystical thing.

We can only hope that the later years in life will be as full and fulfilling for my own parents and your parents and all our parents. To have that daily minimum (or more) of food, care, and culture for our mentors, of course, means making this a society that truly respects its elders by providing fully for the poorest ones, putting their health and sense of peace before the preposterous priority of war that has so tainted our times.


At 8:03 AM, Blogger Grace said...

Your grandma sounds wonderful.

My grandfather is 105 years old. He is vibrant, fully aware and thriving. He walks 3 + miles per day delivering the abundance from his garden to his neighbors. He climbs his lemon trees to pick the ripest lemons for his dandelion greens (that he eats every day). He recites poetry, quotes his favorite Philosphers and writers to me over the phone as he did in person when we visited him in person. His daily activities often include dance, he plays a lil music, chess, a swim in the ocean here n there (he lives on an Island). He gave away most of his money as he went thru life. He has always been a generous soul with an upbeat, happy go lucky outlook and it shows on him today. He doesn't look a day over 70.


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