This past February, my grandmother died in her bed at a nursing home near Rochester, N.Y. As is the usual case in my globetrotting life, I was thousands of miles away, in California, when I learned she was gone. The news did not exactly come as a surprise — my grandmother was over 90 years old, and had been ill for a long time.
Still, though I might use this geographical distance and my grandmother’s fragile condition as extenuating circumstances, I was appalled at the shallowness of my emotional reaction. I wasn’t shocked, I wasn’t particularly upset, and try though I did, I couldn’t even muster up a single tear for this wonderful old woman without whom I would never have come to exist. I never wondered about her inner life. What was she thinking about in her last moments? What memories, what warm moments, what nuggets of wisdom would she have drawn on to ease her suffering?
The sad truth is that I had no idea. I didn’t really know my grandmother. Sure, I saw her several times a year, I sent her a postcard or two from my travels, I tried each year at Christmastime to give her something moderately original, instead of those crossword puzzle-books she claimed to crave but must have been getting awfully tired of. I hugged her and kissed her when I saw her, I saw her face light up with a kind of exhausted joy that seemed to grow more desperate in those last years when she could barely stand up to hug me back.
But I never really learned anything about who she was, what she really believed in, or what she had done in her life, aside from raising her children, cooking all sorts of rich, buttery, politically incorrect holiday soufflés and volunteering her time for the American Baptist Church. And this holiday season, my grandmother will no longer be there to laugh at my silly jokes or thank me for the cute little gift with which I had hoped to brighten her mood. If there was ever a chance to listen to her recollections of girlhood and motherhood, to make her come to life by asking her to recall golden moments from long ago, that time is now gone.
In my defense, my grandmother was a naturally shy person, a pious churchgoer who was always taught to listen to others rather than toot her own horn about her activities or ccomplishments. Whenever I saw her, she wanted to hear all about my adventures and goals and dreams, and had little to say about herself. Since her husband died over a decade ago, she had kind of been “marking time” anyway, just waiting to join him in heaven, without really aspiring to do or try much of anything new, besides a bit of travel when her health permitted. Whenever I would try to get her to meet new people or tease her about “dating” friendly male neighbors in her assisted living neighborhood (which preceded the full-service nursing home), she would just chuckle and quickly change the subject. Clearly, she was a devoted wife and mother to her last days, who saw her true work on earth as having been done long ago.
But still, but still. Couldn’t I have tried harder? I can only guess that my shy grandmother would have opened up more easily, would have spoken a bit more about herself and her memories and dreams, if I had seemed more genuinely interested. But unlike her, I was not raised in a Christian culture that emphasized modesty, restraint and reflexive respect for one’s elders. I was raised (and here I am speaking more about the general cultural ethos surrounding my generation, and not my parents, who did their best with me!) to “express myself,” to find my own way in the world, to esteem above all my own feelings, desires, and interests.
In this way, I think I am typical of my generation, and this saddens me. I know there are plenty of healthy exceptions out there, plenty of young people who go out of their way to spend quality time with their grandparents, but I don’t think this is the cultural norm in contemporary America. The explosive growth of the “managed living” industry in the 1990s is eloquent testimony to a great generational disconnect: we no longer take care of our own parents (or grandparents). Many of us are rich enough to pay others to do so.
I have been thinking a lot about this unflattering truth about prosperous Americans’ treatment of their elders, especially whenever I visit Russia, a country far too poor to be acquainted with the concept of nursing homes. I knew one girl in St. Petersburg whose entire family had to take turns bathing and feeding her invalid grandmother, who could no longer do literally anything herself. I know a Muscovite family that does similar individual shifts, for as long as a month at a time, to take care of a surly old granddad who lives in a ramshackle provincial town so poor it doesn’t even have private telephones.
Now, I’m sure both of these families would gladly take advantage of American-style nursing homes, if they could afford to. But still, the devotion of the grandchildren I know there makes a mockery of my own. To leave one’s friends and schoolwork for as long as four weeks, to cook for, bathe and generally entertain a crotchety old man with whom one has very little in common besides ancestry, in a town without phones or movie theaters or virtually anything fun for young people to do! And not for compensation either, but merely out of love and generational duty.
By contrast, I am made to feel virtuous if I visit my one remaining grandfather for as little as a day or two — and I don’t even have to take care of him. Honestly, the last time I did this, my mother actually congratulated me for my unselfishness — for driving so much as ten hours out of my way on a car trip from California to the East Coast. As if I deserved a medal or something.
It fills me with shame to think of how little I have really done for my elders, or even to get to know them. But this holiday season, I am thinking of making amends. It may be late in the game of life for my one remaining grandparent, my father’s father, but hopefully it’s not too late yet. I got him something special this Christmas.
I have this filmmaker friend in Los Angeles, Jay Gianukos, who finally realized his longtime dream this year of starting his own business, which produces “video portraits” of clients whose relatives wish their stories to be told. He believes strongly in the importance of keeping families intact across generational lines.
Jay’s idea is simple: get your parents (or grandparents) to talk about themselves, before it’s too late to hear their stories. Of course, you could do this yourself, but if you’re at all like me, you might not be the best person to do this. For one thing, your father or mother or great uncle may not tell you stories in the same way he or she would to an “impartial” listener, who comes to a conversation with no preconceptions or “baggage” of the kind you or I might. That is, your grandmother may think you’re bored by her stories, or that she’s told them all before, or worse (if you are a part of them!) she might not want to hurt your feelings or rekindle old arguments.
It’s really amazing how much even the shyest old folks have to say, when they have finally found someone interested and unprejudiced enough to listen. It’s like an old black and white family movie, only better, because it’s put together by a professional who knows how to hold a camera and, more importantly, to coax a story out of good material.
Anyway, I think Jay is on to something special here. If only there were more people in Hollywood who knew how to listen to real stories like he does, and fewer intoxicated by the thrill of exploring their own egos! And so I’m planning on giving Jay’s video service a go, while I still have a grandfather around to use it. I can’t wait to learn more about what the guy was really like.
Copyright 2002 Sean McMeekin. All rights reserved.