I have always had a huge soft spot in my heart for old people. I think that maybe it started when I was little and my mom's aunts were in a nursing home in Minneapolis. Grandpa John would visit his sisters every week and I often went with him or my mom to visit them. They always had candy for me. And I liked playing with the squishy veins on their hands. I called them 'blooders.' ("Emma, can I play with your blooders.")
Until I was five, Grandpa John lived two blocks away from us in South Minneapolis. I would often go over to his house and have lunch (grilled cheese with tomato soup) on TV trays in front of Hogan's Heroes. Often I'd say, "Grandpa, tell me about the olden days." And his blue eyes would sparkle. His eyes were the only thing that gave away his emotions. And his shoulders. When he laughed his eyes sparkled and his shoulders would go up and down, but no sound came out. He didn't even crack a smile. I liked trying to make his eyes sparkle.
He'd tell me about life on the farm when he was a boy and how they played baseball with sticks and balls made from rags wound around small stones. He loved baseball. I loved watching the Twins with him. I didn't really know the game, but I knew he loved it and that was all that mattered. When he was older and bed-ridden, I'd listen to the Twins on the radio with him. And we'd drink our coffee together. He called it 'Slunk' or 'Slunka.' "It's Slunka Time!" I would say as I bounded into his room with the coffee. It was probably equal portions coffee and sugar. I knew exactly how to fix it: three long pours of the sugar. He would stir the sugar into the coffee, then pour it into a bowl and slurp it. Maybe 'slunk' is Swedish for 'slurp.'
Old people were always a part of our lives. In Brookings there was a widow named Olga who we visited a lot. Her house had a particular smell. It smelled like old photographs, sweet treats, and old fashioned wisdom. In Albany is was the old retired couple across the street. When we were in Kansas City, we lived very close to a hospital with a nursing home ward. I called and asked if there were any residents who didn't get visitors that my kids and I could adopt. We visited Grandma Dortha (92) and Grandma Gray (102) for the next year.
Grandma Dortha was going blind. She really was distraught over this--as anyone would be. She loved art, and she couldn't see it. When we first started visiting her, I would have the girls draw pictures, but I soon learned instead to bring cookies or some other sensory delight. Grandma Dortha lit up when she heard that we were there. She loved our visits and I loved making her day. She loved to sing. Sometimes we would sing together. And always I would hold her hand.
Grandma Gray was a piece of work. She was a feisty old lady. A woman who grew up 102 years ago as a black. She told me about her growing up. Her poverty. The Negro Leagues and playing baseball with the boys. "But never let your son play football," she'd say. "And never let your husband treat you wrong." Often when we came to see her she'd be in her wheelchair with a hymnal in her lap, facing the window. And several blankets draped over her shoulders. "They tryin' to keel me!" she'd say, "They keep it so cold in he-ah." She'd often complain to me about the White People running the hospital. I wouldn't remind her I was white. I'd just listen. Every once in a while I'd say something, but I knew that her experience was far different from the experience of twenty year olds who might say the same thing. Afterwards, I'd have to answer the kids' questions about white and black. But, I didn't mind. That was all part of exposing them to life. Our history is not always pretty, but it is valuable.
They loved us. And the Old People lining the hallways in their wheelchairs loved seeing the kids as we walked to their rooms. We'd stop and greet all the old women who reached out to us and said, "Oh! What a precious child you have!" I loved making their days. And I loved introducing my kids to Old People.
The thing is, we're all going to be old. Unless God takes us sooner. And it really makes me sad to see how old people are treated in our society. And it scares me that someday I might be treated like that. I am trying to instill in my kids a respect for old people and a love for them. (Then maybe when I am old and dispensible, my kids won't dispense of me. So, actually, I'm pretty selfish in my motivation.)
Underlying it all is a huge respect for that Old People have been through and all that we can learn from them. I want my kids to have that.