Learning to Appreciate Your Elders


There are some things that you take for granted to the point that they almost stop meaning something to you, until you suddenly realize that they are nearly gone.  And there are people we take for granted as well, constantly.  Usually these are the people who have a permanent place in our lives.  They won’t come and go like fair-weather friends.  They won’t stop caring about you because you ignore them one time too many, or don’t call them enough.  No, these are the people that WE ignore because they’ll always be there, so we think that the relationship does not require as much effort to cultivate or maintain.  But they continue to love us, because it’s impossible for them not to.  Sometimes they’re our brothers, sisters, parents, or grandparents.

Because I was brought up in an Air Force home which up-rooted and moved like clock-work every three years, I rarely lived near relatives.  I didn’t get together with them with any sort of regularity, so for me, the mood at family gatherings was polite but uncomfortable.  Before the days of FaceTime and Skype, my grandparents received updates on me and my siblings via VHS tapes that my parents recorded and mailed to them every once in a while, so by the time they watched one, we kids had likely moved onto some other activity, school event, or favorite toy or past time.  I grew up believing that it was normal to not live near any other family, to not have old traditions or a regular gathering place for Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve, and indeed, those things weren’t commonplace for me.  But I even scoffed at the idea that I was missing out on anything by not living near my relatives.  I rolled my eyes in annoyance when my grandparents would ask me too many questions about school, give me advice on friends and relentlessly push Heavenly Hash ice cream.  How dare they assume that they knew me when they hardly ever saw me?

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t that I didn’t love my grandparents or want to be around them.  I liked being in their house–the smell of it always resurrected scattered memories from years before.  I liked the sound of the train whistle as I fell asleep.  I always looked forward to my grandmother’s blueberry pie with whipped cream–she made it especially for me.  My grandfather filled Dixie cups with pennies, pinched the tops and passed them out to us and our cousins, and I always felt so rich prying the cup open and seeing those shiny copper coins.  He introduced me to my favorite cereal, Crunchy Corn Bran, and my not-so-favorite mint, Certs, which he passed down the aisle during church services on Sunday.  My Nana gave soft, squishy hugs that enveloped you completely.  Having them in my life provided a sense of security, a grounding, but I wasn’t comfortable with the assumptions they made about me, about what kind of person I was or wanted to be, and I certainly didn’t take a serious interest in their lives and what they enjoyed because it just didn’t seem important.  Since they weren’t a consistent part of my daily life, my adolescent bravado assumed that there was nothing I could learn from them and nothing personal about myself worth revealing to them.

It wasn’t until I started dating my husband that I began to see the value in spending time with my grandparents, that I could make an actual effort where they were concerned instead of only showing up at sanctioned family events and grudgingly answering the same questions.  And the change began over ice-cream of all things!  I remember complaining to Bryan once back then about how my Paw-Paw ALWAYS tried to get me to eat Heavenly Hash ice-cream and I ALWAYS told him no, but he just wouldn’t take the hint.  Bryan said something like, “It’s one bowl of ice-cream, Adrienne.  Just eat it!  He’s your grandpa and it would make him so happy if you ate ice-cream with him, and then he’d stop bothering you about it!”  It seemed obvious to him, but it was actually a ground-breaking moment for me.  I realized that all these years that I had been telling my Paw-Paw “no, No, NO!” about the ice-cream, I had been building up resentment toward him that carried over into other ways that I perceived him, other areas of our relationship, and the issue was no longer Heavenly Hash.  It was my pride getting bigger and bigger and blocking me from seeing that my Paw-Paw just wanted to share something that he enjoyed with a grand-daughter he didn’t know very well, and ice-cream was his simplest method of forging a bond with me.

After that I began looking at my grandparents, and my extended family in general, with fresh eyes.  I realized that the responsibility of forming a relationship didn’t rest squarely on their shoulders just because they were my grandparents; I had to care enough about them to get to know them too.  I had to open up to them, to share myself with them, to ask them questions and be willing to learn and listen.  I had to discard the snobbery of youth that says that elderly people are outdated and irrelevant, and instead choose to recognize the wisdom and stability they offer.

Almost six years ago I became a mommy, and in subsequent years I’ve had the great blessing of living near both my mother-in-law (before she died) and then my own parents.  I now know what a gift it is to live near your parents when you have your own family, to see your children laugh and discover and learn from their grandparents, and although I loved my military upbringing, I am aware of some things that I missed in not being near my Nana, and my Mamadene and Paw-Paw.  I look back and regret many of those spiteful childhood moments when I rolled my eyes at my grandparents and shrank away from their embraces.  I wish I had spent more time sitting at their kitchen tables talking with them, even if some of their ideas were a little antiquated.  I lost my Nana the year before my oldest daughter was born, and although I have still lived a transient lifestyle as an adult (to this point), I truly try to take advantage of the moments I have with my surviving grandparents.  No matter how many times the conversation laps itself in circles, I listen for the deeper messages that are pouring from their hearts.

My grandparents are very old.  My grandfather will celebrate his 90th birthday this weekend, and I am traveling to Alabama to celebrate his life.  I will walk into the home that he and my grandmother have kept for over 50 years–the only home that has remained a constant one throughout my entire life, and breathe in its scent for what could always be the last time.   So much has changed in that house and in my grandparents.  My grandmother’s proud posture is a little stooped.  My grandfather doesn’t remember my name most of the time, but when I look through photos of him over the years, I see the same smile that lights up his face every time he sees me.  And I thank God that they have always been there, even when I took them for granted. I thank Him that their love was impossibly strong for someone who was often impossible.

I love you Mamadene and Paw-Paw.  Thank you for your legacy, thank you for your generosity and love.