“You can only perceive real beauty in a person as they get older.”
The older lady behind the serving bar in the cafeteria of the university said that all of the student from Japan called her, “Grandmother.” She explained that it just made her day whenever these students referred to her as “Grandmother.” Looking at the lady she could have been anyone’s “grandmother” . . . she is a rolly-polly sort with her white hair up in a bun . . . a wonderful smile . . . twinkling eyes . . . an a great sense of humor she shared with a laugh . . . and, she is caring. She is always this way . . . and, not just to the foreign students who call her “Grandma.” It is always a pleasure whenever she graces my life when I am in the university’s cafeteria . . . she is a “Grandmother.” She has earned that respect.
In the book that I have been reading, The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo: A Child, and Elder and the Light From an Ancient Sky, by Kent Nerburn, he writes of the respect that the Native American culture has for its older members . . . the elders. In the book the characters refer to an elderly Lakota man and Ojibwe man as “Grandfather” . . . though none of the characters are related to the two men. It is a sign of affection and respect that this term is used. Several years ago I attend a Native American conference in which the registration form had several categories from which to choose . . . one of the categories was “elder”. An elder was anyone over the age of 55 years. At the time, I was not old enough to be an elder . . . close, but not close enough. I got to pay the full registration fee. But, these were the “Grandmothers” and “Grandfathers” . . . earned through time and experience.
I like this term of respect . . . this term of affection. Sadly, I do not think that we Americans live in such a culture that pays respect and affection to those who are older. Most of us only one or two sets of grandparents in our live . . . usually our parents’ parents. All the other people are just “old people” we know, and we do not give to them much time or energy. We do not see them with the same respect or affection that those Japanese students do . . . like the Native Americans do . . . like many of the other cultures of the world do. No, older Americans . . . the elderly . . . the “Grandmothers and Grandfathers” . . . are not as valued as they are in other cultures.
Now I am sure that there are those who disagree, but it does not take a whole bunch of effort to see how our society views and treats those who are getting up there in age. Society reflects the attitudes of what is valuable in the lives of the people who inhabit that niche. Not since the Waltons has there been elderly people given respect as the “wise ones” on television. Instead we see the elderly played up for laughs and jokes . . . they are often the butt of the rude humor that drives a lot of entertainment today. Being old is not valued in our society. Read the newspaper and magazine advertisements . . . when was the last time an old person graced the cover of a magazine that wasn’t associated with the AARP? Same goes for what we see in commercials . . . if you are over the age of fifty you get to be the star in constipation ads, “Help! I’ve fallen and can’t get up!” ads, Viagra ads (another form of “Help! I’ve fallen and can’t get up!” sort of ad) . . . medical ads . . . Depends ads. That is not quite the way to show respect to those who are getting old. This is not the way that we should treat the “Grandmothers and Grandfathers”.
Still don’t believe me . . . then, consider this: We have changed the way that we care for the elderly in our society. Study the history of nursing homes in the United States. We have moved from keeping our elderly relatives and parents living at home with us to moving them out and out of sight in care facilities. We don’t even call these care facilities “homes” anymore because these facilities have little in common with what many of us consider to be “home”. No, these facilities are nothing but warehouses to store people until they die. History shows this movement and we have done nothing to stop its movement of separation . . . separate and forget. This is not the way that we should treat the “Grandmothers and Grandfathers”.
A little less than two years ago I finally became a “Grandfather” for the first time as I was graced with a beautiful granddaughter by my daughter and son-in-law. A little less than a year ago, I finally became old enough to become an elder according to the Native American classification I read on the registration form . . . old enough to be considered a “Grandfather”. The granddaughter hasn’t called me “Grandfather” or even “Grandpa” yet, she is still too little . . . but, she squeals and giggles and gives me great big hugs whenever she sees me. She knows that I am her “Grandfather” . . . but, at the same time, I can’t wait until that day comes when she calls me that for the first time. I also cannot wait until the day comes when others . . . those who are younger . . . begin to show me the same love and respect that that cafeteria worker receives when she is acknowledged as “Grandmother” by the students she serves.
I thought about the words that this “Grandmother” shared about being acknowledged . . . respected . . . and, being loved. I thought about the words that the author share in his book about the way that the older people are called “Grandmother” or “Grandfather” . . . of being acknowledge . . . respected . . . and, being loved. And, why shouldn’t this older people receive acknowledgement, respect, and love? It is pretty amazing that any of us ever make it to old age the way that we barrel through life! We are the survivors and we have a few tales to tell . . . the young could learn something from those of us getting up there in age. Author Gary Snyder writes: “In Western Civilization, our elders are books.” Oh, the stories and wisdom we could share if only the young cared enough to care.
Unfortunately, in our society in the United States of America, it just does not yet exist . . . we do not yet see the power of a village raising a child . . . of the elders being treated as a treasured resource . . . of being one family under God. We have not opened our eyes to the “Grandmothers” and “Grandfathers” around us. We are losing them . . .
Singer/songwriter John Prine, in his song Hello in There, tells us not to let the opportunity pass us by. His lyrics are a warning to us all:
So if you're walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes,
Please don't just pass 'em by and stare
As if you didn't care, say, "Hello in there, hello."
Let us remember the “Grandmothers” and “grandfathers’ before they are gone . . . they have much to share.