I have one grandparent living; she’s 95, and this short, feisty woman helped shape who I am today. When I was young I spent a week or two with her every summer at her cottage in Kentucky on Lake Cumberland. Because of her I was able to see Europe and Alaska. More importantly, because of my time with her I learned independence, the importance of thank you cards, how to play Skip-Bo, how to waterski, and a very deep appreciation of the voices of my elders.
Last Sunday my husband and I had the rare type of visit with her that didn’t involve our wild children, so we were all able to just sit and enjoy each other’s company. Her memory isn’t as sharp as it once was, but she tells us what’s going on around her place and we fill each other in on all the goings-on of the cousins, aunts, and uncles. This visit we looked at photo albums and laughed about old times.
Every time we are there, however, I am forced to come face-to-face with some somewhat cliche realities. These stick with me, they follow me home, and linger in my thoughts as I lie in bad later that evening.
She lives in a very nice retirement community and other folks who live there include a man who was once the financial director at Ford. There is a woman who was good friends with President Gerald Ford and his wife, Betty. One woman purchased two apartments and knocked out walls to create one massive suite. There’s a woman who was the first female deacon of her church. My grandma plays bridge with retired surgeons, lawyers, and businessmen. And my grandma is no slouch herself. My grandpa served a career in the Air Force and, as a result, my grandparents traveled the world. Whether it was for my grandpa’s work or just for leisure they’ve been everywhere from the countries of Europe, to the Middle East, to every state in this union. They even once shared cocktails with the King of Jordan!
And yet one realization that approaches me every time I walk the halls of her apartment building is that, now, everyone is the same. Every person we pass in the hall, whether using a walker or cane, whether bearing age spots, glasses, or fatigue, was once youthful. These are husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers who were once like me: struggling to figure out who they were in this world and how to raise their children. My grandma’s generation struggled through the depression, toiled through and lost loved ones to many wars. They elected presidents, withstood scandals. These men and women also went to interviews, struggled to climb the social ladder, and to provide better lives for their families. They hosted Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas mornings, birthdays, and bbqs
And yet, now, everyone is the same.
I don’t intend this to be a “you can’t take it with you” kind of post. I don’t find this realization al that depressing, I just find it to be so true. When I feel old because college is over a decade behind me and my oldest child is entering second grade, I look at my grandma and think, I’ve only lived one-third of the time she’s been alive on this earth. I find it comforting that I may have so much time ahead of me.
When I attend ice creams socials or dinners with my grandma I get to chat with the other residents They tell stories of the great accomplishments of their youth, and they don’t tell them with sadness. They recount these stories with pride and laughter. It’s not that jobs, and kids, and money, and houses, and cars, and clothes don’t matter, it’s just that, in the end, we’re all the same.
In the end those things are just memories and they are the stories you will share with your children and grandchildren. The only thing I find depressing are those who have no one to share their stories with. Because, after all, you can’t take it with you, but you do hold on to those moments when life brought you to tears and to not be able to spend your golden years relishing in these times and remembering them with loved ones would be heartbreaking.
And so, yes, I feel I must offer you the over-used reminders here: life’s short and, say it with me, you can’t take it with you.
I’d also add that now is the time to make the absolute most of your life and to be involved in your world and aware of its ever-changing ways because someday, hopefully, your stories will be ones of both joy and sorrow, but mostly of importance.
So these visits do help me keep life in perspective. I listen to retired farmers tell me about the year that the drought was so bad they were sure they’d lose the farm, but they didn’t and they chuckle about it now. And I think about that issue in my life that feels, right now, like the absolute most important thing ever and I remind myself that, someday, this time in my life with just be a story I will tell. I’m reminded that bad times to do end and good times are always just on the horizon.
I think of the thin man with white hair, sitting across the table eating butter pecan ice cream and recounting his time at Ford. He’s talking about the cars he got to drive for free. He and another man are laughing about technology that was the “latest and greatest” at the time and how archaic it seems now. And while I’m sure he remembers the struggles, the late nights, the never-ending bills, he now laughs those things off because he’s survived them.
I go home after these visits feeling as if I’ve had a secret peak into the past. Listening to these voices is not just a history lesson, but a lesson of life. A lesson in the reality that we all struggle and, like it or not, we all age. Our children will grow up and, if we are lucky, we may get to enjoy grandchildren. These stories solidify in my mind the differences between my generation in the past and I take from each visit a tidbit of wisdom from a bygone era.
And so the onion farmer and the Ford executive sit at the table and eat butter pecan because no matter our pasts, we are all humans who love and laugh and hurt and cry, and we are all the same.