And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attentions to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. – Rainer Maria Rilke
Throughout Pope Francis’ pontificate, he has been emphasizing the value of encounter between the young and the old. One of my favourite quotations ever of his is this: “We, the elderly, can remind young ambitious people that a life without love is arid. We can say to young people who are afraid that anxiety about the future can be beaten. We can teach young people too in love with themselves that there is more joy in giving than in receiving. The words of grandparents have something special for young people. And they know it.”
I think the reason I appreciate this quotation so much is because these are indeed the very things my grandfather taught me and, equally, the very things I most needed to learn from him.
My grandfather was deaf in his 80s and 90s, but his mind remained sharp until his death. I wrote to him A LOT and was the scribe at family dinners, usually transcribing the flow of the entire conversation for him.
One day, several years ago, I decided to ask my grandfather what he hoped I would do in my future, what he thought I would be.
The answer he gave me in this 1-minute clip is one of my most precious memories.
Indeed those words were special, and I knew so right away.
Here is a short piece I wrote a few ago on the value of and the possibility for intergenerational friendships.
During the Year of the Family, Pope Francis devoted one of his Wednesday addresses to the elderly and another one to grandparents. He thinks that part of the culture of death is a poverty of intergenerational friendships: “How I would like a Church that challenges the throw-away culture with the overflowing joy of a new embrace between young and old!” What are the obstacles to such an embrace? In his Ethics, Aristotle observed that young people tend to seek pleasure in friendships and that the old tend to seek friends for utility, but that good, enduring friendships involve being friends for the other’s own sake. Given the distinct tendencies to which the old and young are prone, can they actually be friends?
Aristotle observed “the old need friends to care for them and support the actions that fail because of weakness” and friendships aimed at useful results tend “to arise especially among older people, since at that age they pursue the advantageous.” Because of their frailty, older people may depend on others to ensure their physical wellbeing and because of their age, they may be especially concerned about conserving their acquisitions. He says, “Among sour people and older people, friendship is found less often, since they are worse-tempered and find less enjoyment in meeting people, so that they lack the features that seem most typical and most productive of friendship. That is why young people become friends quickly, but older people do not, since they do not become friends with people in whom they find no enjoyment—nor do sour people.”
This is coherent with 89-year-old Douglas Walker’s account of life at a retirement home: “Unlike soldiers, prisoners or students, we at the lodge are here voluntarily and with no objective other than to live. We don’t have a lot in common other than age (and means). However we are encrusted with 70 or 80 years of beliefs, traditions, habits, customs, opinions and prejudices. We are not about to shed any of them, so the concept of community is rather shadowy.”
My grandmother died on September 22, 2009 between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. A few days after her death, when I was 18, I wrote this poem in memory of her, which I just found again today:
A Tribute to My Grandmother
I first met my grandmother When I was very young She held me in her arms Before I had turned one
My family ventured to Toronto And she and grandpa came to Calgary Those times were special then Always remembered they will be
When I was only four My grandma called me near I didn’t like her nickname for me She used to call me ‘dear’
So we agreed upon ‘Mandy’ This name for only her to call me Her precocious little granddaughter And I would call her ‘Bubbie’
I remember the trips to Toys ‘R’ Us With my brother to choose toys We could pick almost anything As long as it would bring us joy
My grandma loved education And she always called me clever She knew my commitment to my education Would surely last forever
In her final years Bubbie grew old and frail But my grandpa visited her Every day without fail
I learned unconditional love Through the witness that they gave To a love that knows no bounds And to a love that is very brave
Sometimes it was hard to see my grandma Lost and confused in her mind Then I’d remember though How much her heart was refined
My grandma’s life was a gift From the God who I do praise The Lord is compassionate and loving In all His mighty ways
Ever since I was a child, writing has been my favourite creative outlet. Whenever someone would die or whenever I would grapple with the mystery of suffering and death, I would scribble words of poetry and reflection to contend and find meaning.
In addition to being a helpful outlet at the time, I find it interesting to look back on what I wrote in the past and to discover how sealing those memories through creative acts magnifies the memories I hold.
This evening a friend of mine shared with me about how she had led what she described as “a pretty death-free life” until the death of her grandmother.
Since my friend was a already adult when her grandmother passed away, this experience led her to make a few observations.
First, she noted that this grandmother, who had been a quiet, trusted presence in the family until the end of her life, was somewhat taken for granted by the other family members who presumed that this matriarch would somehow always be there.
Then, when she passed away, my friend said, “She became her whole life. Suddenly, everyone was pulling out family photos and trying to piece together the narrative of her early life. She became 5-year-old her, and 20-year-old her, and wedding day her, etc. seemingly all at once.”
The other realization my friend had was about all of the things that she didn’t know about her grandmother; her grandmother’s death became a reckoning for what my friend had and hadn’t taken the time to learn about her.
After losing a loved one, many people wish that they had taken the time to interview the person, to ask certain probing questions that never seemed urgent before, and to really capture a person’s story in their own words.
Accordingly, think of those you love the most and set out to encounter them in their depth and to record this encounter through writing, audio, or video. In the future, you may be very grateful for having done so, but the activity will also present the occasion for an encounter of depth during the relationship while you are both alive.
Photo: Screenshot from an hourlong video interview of my Zaida telling the story of how he came to Canada from Poland in 1937.
Some years ago, I dreamt that my mom began receiving emails from my grandfather. They arrived sporadically because they had been auto-scheduled by him to be delivered to us on different dates in the future after his death. For fun, he used a pseudonym formed from aspects of his early life. The electronic letters always included at least one of the humorously crass jokes he’d so delight in telling at the dinner table, especially when clergy were over for dinner. The letters mentioned each of us in turn; first, my mom, then me, then my brother, then my dad. Every time an email of this nature would arrive, my family would all gather around my mom’s computer to read it as if it were “news” for us. Even though the email letters always had the same style and structure – a few jokes, some affirmations of our respective courses in life, and a reminder of his love, receiving them as emails made them seem exciting; we had no idea how many epilogues there would be.