When I was a toddler, I used to sit for hours on the floor under my maternal grandmother’s frame of stretched cloth and look up to watch her sew beads and spangles onto fabrics that became wedding gowns, banners, flags, altar cloths, and other decorative pieces.
This is how she worked: The top part of the material, which faced her as she sat at the frame, contained a drawn design, which she followed with her needle and thread. With her other hand, she applied the beads and spangles to the underside, which she couldn’t see but felt, and caught them with her needle. Her artistry, therefore, consisted of two skills: the knowledge of how to follow a pattern and the intuitive wisdom to know how to bring that pattern to life. For my part, it was like watching a sky full of constellations forming right above me. And I was mesmerized.
It’s been a while since I thought about this vivid memory, although my grandmother, long since gone, remains a real presence in my life as I continue to benefit from the many intangible gifts she shared with me, the most important one being her life’s example of aging as a rich and complex process. A widow who struggled to remain independent, she was my first role model of a person meeting the challenges of growing older with personal dignity and strength in a society that didn’t offer her much support.
As I matured, she continued to enrich my life. She empathized with my childhood frustrations and teenage emotional swings while reassuring me that they would soon pass. She knew the patterns of life and how to make those patterns her own. She, along with my parents, formed the constellation of love that gave me my bearings. She was a guiding star.
I’m reminded of all this because of a comment submitted by Nancy Sherman to my most recent ChangingAging blog post, What’s Your Relationship with Aging?
I never really did see anything “wrong” with aging until I started experiencing ageism –– I’m so surprised because I honestly don’t feel a day over 18. I am grateful to be fit. I work at it. I have my mind (some little memory slips here and there but mostly I have my mind). My grandson is obsessed with age. He is 4. Yesterday he asked me, “Granners, how did you get old?” So far aging only stings when I am looking for work or walking down the street head on into a group of youngsters –– they act like I am invisible… they totally don’t see me and don’t make room for me to pass by. My grandson’s comments do not sting –– I find them disarmingly honest and oh so direct. His comments do make me take pause and scratch my head…am I really old?
I revel in Nancy’s relationship with her grandson and congratulate her. Yet, sadly, I empathize with her experience of invisibility in the presence of young people because I’ve had similar experiences as an older adult. Those moments are jarring to me because they are foreign to the reality of my life. It was precisely because of my grandmother’s positive influence in my life that older adults were never invisible to me. Far from it, in fact. Through the years, my grandmother came to mind almost every time I met someone I considered to be old. I naturally accepted that person’s dignity and sometimes even wondered what challenges s/he faced and what valuable knowledge s/he might possess.
I’m sad, too, for any youngsters who are oblivious to the presence of older people. I may be wrong, but I can’t help assuming that they have no close, positive relationships with one or more older adults, that their sky is devoid of important markers by which to navigate their lives. As a result, they may think that the possibility of reaching a satisfying elderhood is more remote than visiting the stars.
Constellations are forming above the heads of young people (and middle-aged ones) all the time –– constellations of role models who can instruct them on how to chart their own course as they age, and inspire them along the way. The challenge for our society is to help younger generations become aware of what they think is invisible and therefore unimportant. By providing them with meaningful everyday opportunities to work, play, and otherwise mingle with older adults, we can help them focus past a flat horizon of youth-centric concerns and cast their gaze higher. Much higher.