“I believe the children are our future…” So begins one of Whitney Houston’s biggest hits of the 1980’s. It was a song my paternal grandmother liked to hear my younger sister and I belt at the top of our lungs on the car ride from our mother’s home to hers every other Friday afternoon. We weren’t especially good singers back then (still aren’t today) but we sang with enthusiasm and that was all Mamaw required.
As kids we’re fed a whole lot of ego inflating rabble about being “the future” of all humanity, the hope of tomorrow and such. It’s unfortunate that by the time we’re old enough to realize that the sun doesn’t shine from our every orifice, we’ve often let slip away our future’s true greatest asset: the stories, experiences and expertise of our elderly.
My grandmother, who loved to hear my sister and I lay waste to 80’s pop tunes with such gusto, died last week. What I’ve come to realize that I will miss most about her are her stories.
I found a video last night of an interview my oldest son did with Mamaw a few years ago about her experiences during WWII. He asked about 20 or so questions, each one answered in thoughtful detail by my grandmother, but not before she got sidetracked in the way she always did when inevitably one question reminded her of one thing and then another that she had a little something to say about as well.
It was a joy to watch that video, but it also made me a little sad. I’d always intended to video more of the talks I had with my grandmother, but I’ll never have that chance. I have over an hour of video featuring Mamaw talking about life in the U.S. during the 1940’s, but I’ll never again hear from her perspective about the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement, or less epic tales of American history such as life in Small Town, Ohio or rural Alabama.
I recently participated in an exercise for one of my college courses that centered around a mock apocalyptic event. My classmates and I were given a scenario that there had been a catastrophic event. Shelter space and supplies for survivors were limited and we had to decide with whom to share them. We were to choose from a group that included a doctor, lawyer, small child, drug addicted couple in their late 20’s and an 80 year-old woman. I was surprised when I was among the very few to choose the elderly woman.
My rationing was this: who are we without a sense of our past? I wanted someone with some real life experience in my camp of survivors. The little old lady hadn’t gotten to be a little old lady without seeing and experiencing quite a few things. She and the doctor were the most valuable survivors in my mind.
We undervalue the elderly in our society. We take them for granted in a variety of ways. I know that I certainly took for granted that there would always be another afternoon to talk to my grandmother about the many adventures she experienced during her lifetime. Every older person you know has a wealth of stories inside them. I encourage each of you to take the time to coax those stories out of them. Chances are, if they’re like Mamaw, they won’t need much in the way of persuasion. I also encourage you to record them telling their stories. The recordings could be of immeasurable comfort to you someday and valuable to the world as a whole when there are no more first-hand accounts of some of the greatest events in World History.
Thanks for the stories, Rosie. You certainly lived quite a life!