I’ve always enjoyed the company of elderly folks. A lot of my acquaintances are nervous around the elderly for one reason or another. Maybe being around the aged reminds them of their own mortality - I’m not sure. Those acquaintances are much more relaxed in the company of children. For me, it’s just the opposite. Of course, I love my children and my children’s children, and my sister’s children. But on the whole, other people’s children, as cute as they are, quickly drain me, while old people infuse me with energy, affection, and - well - curiosity.
If you consider life a journey, the elderly represent for me the ones who have travelled the farthest. They’ve successfully navigated those areas that I have yet to cross. I love to hear their stories, embellished as they are sometimes. Old people have a lot to say.
My Uncle Tommy, at least, has a lot to say. As a McDonald, he will bend your ear for hours at a time as he talks about Scottish history (don’t get him started on the murderous Campbells!). He is also the keeper of family anecdotes. His sister (my mother) can be rather taciturn. She has a lot of memories, but doesn’t really think anyone else would be interested. I don’t think it ever occurs to Uncle Tommy that somebody wouldn’t be interested in his stories, as they excite him and he is certain they will excite his listeners. Once years ago we stayed overnight with Uncle Tommy and Aunt June. After others had gone to bed, Ed and I stayed up with Uncle Tommy, who was his usual garrulous self. He was full of family stories that night - some we had never heard before. I thought at the time that I should have been taking notes, but fortunately Ed has a wonderful memory and to this day, he can retell those fascinating tidbits of my heritage.
How did our mother get the first name of Arnetta, a name she never uses? Well, there was an uncle Arnett in the family back then, who was always in a cyclic financial status - he would get rich, lose it all, get rich, lose it all - and my grandparents named my mother Arnetta after Uncle Arnett, hoping to catch him in of the wealthy parts of his cycle when it came time to make his will. Alas, it was not to be. He was broke when he died. As they say, timing is everything.
Old people are fascinating, because in them I see my future, and in them as well I vicariously live a past that I have only read about in books. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong made his historic moon walk. Ed relates that as he and his family watched the fuzzy pictures on TV, Ed’s elderly grandmother shook her head in amazement. “When I was a young married woman,” she explained, “we and most of our friends still had outhouses. And now a man is walking on the moon.” It just seemed incredible to her, and if you think about it, that’s quite understandable.
I think some of my friends are uncomfortable around old people because it can be frustrating to deal with the mental lapses and slowing that comes with age. But think about it: People my mother’s age (almost 84) have seen countless changes and inventions in their lifetimes, a list of which, laid end to end, would stretch for miles. Just in the field of safety, they’ve seen the creation of smoke detectors, seat belts, car seats, air bags. They’ve seen the invention of TV, color TV, remote controls, VCRs, DVDs. When they were young parents, a walkie-talkie made a great kid’s gift - and now their kids and their kids’ kids are e-mailing friends instantly around the world. They used to depend on department stores; now they can buy anything over the Internet. They grew up with scratchy 78 rpm records, and they lived to see that media evolve into today’s digital music, where thousands of songs can be stored on a portable iPod. They grew up having to talk to an operator at a switchboard just to place a phone call, and now they see cordless phones and cell phones, some with built-in cameras. Speaking of cameras, they’ve lived to see cameras that don’t need film! The medical field advancements they have witnessed would have been unimaginable when they were young. Heart transplants? Total joint replacements? Amazing!
Not everything old people have lived through has been glorious, of course. When they were young adults, there were certain products that were not advertised...let’s say, personal hygiene products, for instance. There were certain things of which proper society did not speak. There were certain things a proper lady would not wear out in public. Heck, the media even agreed to keep Franklin D. Roosevelt’s paralysis a secret! Now the elderly are bombarded with details of celebrities’ sex lives. I can understand why old people these days are awkwardly trying to maneuver around a transformed world. Sometimes they must feel that the world as they knew it has turned upside down.
My sister recently accompanied our mom to a doctor’s visit. While they were in the doctor’s office, my mom mentioned an article in the Memphis paper that she wanted to cut out and send me. My sister, who had her laptop with her, immediately got online, accessed the newspaper’s web site, and e-mailed me the article, right from the room. My mother was astounded. She knows, of course, that things like that can be done now, but watching them unfold always takes her breath away.
We’ve gotten so nonchalant about all the changes in the world that we are sometimes advised to reenergize by stepping back and seeing the world through the eyes of children, with their sense of unending wonder. What we are apt to forget is the benefit of stepping back and seeing the world through the eyes of the elderly, as they have a sense of unending wonder, too. Next time you interact with an old person, and you feel impatient and frustrated and annoyed, calm down and try to imagine what it must be like to have lived through such a world, a world that is still changing even as I write this. The fact that they even survived, and in many cases, thrived, deserves respect and admiration. Old people have a lot to say. I, for one, am listening.