My husband and I are in Florida visiting my ninety-eight year old aunt. She is in an assisted living facility. I try to get down here every other year. While I didn’t grow up around my aunt, my yearly excursions to Arkansas always included time spent with her if she were up from Florida. I was deeply attached to all my aunts. She is the only aunt still living.
She was born to itinerant farmers (my grandparents) in Arkansas. She never knew what it was to wear new shoes much less new clothes. She can remember the first time she had iced tea because ice was non-existent in her house. The Christmas stocking (if there even was one) contained one orange if she was lucky. Being the oldest of five siblings meant she was the caregiver for the younger ones while my grandparents worked their farm-never successfully I might add. My grandfather had the bright idea of leaving the sawmill where he had a good job and regular income to become a farmer. Something he knew nothing about and for which he was very ill-equipped. It was downhill after that. They went from poor to poorest with that one ill-timed and not well thought out decision.
My grandmother, her mother, was the most amazing gardener ever so even tho’ they were poorer than poor, my aunt and her siblings never knew what hunger was. In fact, they ate better than all the families around because my grandmother worked from dawn to dusk planting and harvesting, canning and preserving so they could get through the winter. She raised pigs and chicken (beef cows were too expensive). I loved my grandmother but I sure hated seeing her wring those chicken’s necks. As much as I hated it, I still watched in fascination as they flopped around the dirt yard before they finally realized they were actually dead and dropped to the ground! I’m surprised I could eat chicken after that. I think I was just too young to make the connection that the delicious deep fried chicken breast I was devouring had been alive and in torture only a few hours before.
My aunt married a military man fifteen years her senior. He proceeded up in rank until he retired as a colonel in the army. She came a long way from living in “falling down shacks” (her words). We play Scrabble with her and she often wins. Her mind is as sharp as a ninety-eight year old’s can be, albeit the occasional lapses in memory which I can’t tell are any more numerous than mine. By the way, I forgot to tell you. She has almost no facial wrinkles! She was beautiful and there are still glimpses of that pretty young face. (I sure hope I inherited her genes.)
I’m so glad we’re here to see her. Not for her sake as much as for mine. We do ourselves a favor when we take time to engage in conversation with those that are much older than us. It’s not that they’re any wiser just because they’ve lived so long. Age does not guarantee wisdom. Older people are just as unique as another groups of people. I’ve never been one to believe that people just automatically become nicer as they age. Some do but it has more to do with life experiences than it does the aging process. In fact, I’ve often been one to expound through the various roles I’ve played as retreat leader, hospital chaplain and other roles, that, “If you want to be a gracious ninety-year old, you’d better start by being a gracious thirty-year-old.” (or whatever age one is at the time.)
So if it isn’t that all old people are charming and likeable, why then is it good to be around them, you ask. It’s because of what I said earlier. It’s because they are interesting people. People we can learn from. We meet the “grotchity” ones and realize we need to change some of our own attitudes. We meet the gracious and pleasant ones, like my aunt, and see attitudes and behaviors we can imitate.
It’s way too easy to lump all very-senior-citizens and assign them all the same attributes as if somehow age has “homogenized” them all into Stepford people. We need to see our oldest citizens as uniquely individual as they really are. We don’t have to like all of them. We don’t have to think they’re great just because they’re old. (We need to show respect however. How a society treats their elders says a great deal about that society and frankly, most cultures seem to show more respect for their elders than America does.)
I interact with my aunt exactly as I would a friend my own age. I tease her. I don’t give her any leeway at Scrabble. I treat her as my equal. I try to do this with my mother. Respecting our elders means actually seeking their opinion and giving it serious consideration instead of dismissing it because they are “old”. It means showing them respect by disagreeing with them when our opinions differ from theirs. (I’m not talking about how we deal with their frailty. That is different altogether.)
So the next time you have an opportunity to engage in conversation with someone much older than you, take that opportunity. Listen to what they say and you’ll glean a wealth of knowledge about how to live or not live your life.
I will be saying good-bye to my aunt tomorrow. Who knows if I will ever see her again? She’s already beat the odds living to ninety-eight. She’s my last living aunt and I will grieve her passing greatly.
Scrabble will never be the same.
- family stories (alexandrajump.me)