*Note, this is not a photo of my "people" it is from everystock. I am just too lazy to scan..... but it makes my point nicely!
The way we treat one another in society is determined by two factors: Our Culture, and the way we learn our culture. Socialization is the term used that defines the idea of learning culture. In our society culture is well defined. We can't always see it because it is so ingrained into our lives. It is"right before our very eyes," which is the most difficult kind of thing to see.
Americans value productivity, honesty, hard work, bravery and strength. We have very little use for the quiet, philosophical, unproductive wisdom that our old people have to share. So we put them away. Physically and emotionally, we shut them out of everyday society and our everyday lives.
It isn't like this everywhere. Most Asian cultures, for example, have an enormous respect for their elderly. Often deferring the decision making to the oldest in the family. We Americans would find this almost comical, brushing it off and crying "FOUL!" I mean really, how could you defer an important decision such as marriage or finance onto someone obviously suffering from dementia? Don't we all get dementia as soon as we retire? Shut UP, right?
My grandmother was quite a gal. Married and then divorced way before that was acceptable. She worked on the floor at a department store as a salesgirl and then was promoted to manager. She was a teller at a bank and then became part of the mortgage team. She was scrappy, beautiful, Pius, and driven. She wasn't nice. She still isn't. But she is who she is.
Her second marriage was one of mutual convenience. She married a Doctor and moved to the suburbs. They traveled all over the world. Think of that, a first generation immigrant with an eighth grade education ends up in a fancy neighborhood, driving fancy cars and traveling around the world. Not bad! And then... he died. And instead of making her the executor of his estate, he gave that honor to his sisters, who didn't much like my gram, and that was the end of that. Sad, right? Not really. Like I said, she was scrappy. She moved into the downstairs apartment of my mom's house and took over. Literally. It only took a few months for us to have an empty refrigerator and an unused kitchen. It was like we were renting rooms above her. She even stole my dog, the witch.
As I grew older so did she. That is the way it works. But for the longest time being old didn't stop her. She was always so useful, and that helped our relationship enormously. I could always trust that she would be able to do something, anything, to make my life easier.
About ten years ago that started to change. The food she cooked didn't taste so good, and when she came to my house she almost set it on fire more than once. And as she got less and less useful, I (like my society in general) found less and less use for her.
Now, she is a chore. Seeing her, loving her, missing her even though she is still alive, is exhausting. I don't do it enough. I don't call enough. I don't go to see her enough. I am one rotten grandchild. And as the fates would have it, I am the only one she has. Yuck.
Yesterday the guilt got to me and I called the old woman and told her I was coming for dinner with my brood. I was aggravated about the whole thing. Walking from the parking lot to her depressing, ghettoesque, senior housing palace, my seven year old gave me a mirror image of myself. She was huffing and puffing and saying things like "We have to walk?" "Why can't we park in front?" "Mom it's RAINING!" and my personal favorite, because we weren't even in the building yet, let alone the apartment, "When can we go home?"
I stopped and leaned down to face her. And this is what I told myself...ummmmm.. I mean, this is what I told her. "I am not good at this. I have no patience for my past or this woman. But she loves you and wants you, and was very good to me. Please try to be better at this than I am."
Did she understand me? Yes. She was lovely to my grandmother last night. My girls gave her a good dose of attention and admiration. I walked around the apartment huffing and puffing, being short with her and never once letting my guard down. I didn't relax into the couch. I didn't look around at all the remnants of my past, all squished now into a tiny two room apartment. I avoided looking at anything. And then it occurred to me that perhaps I was cold and mean because it hurts my heart to watch her fade away. And then it occurred to me that perhaps she is cold and mean (and has been for as long as I can remember) because it hurt her heart to watch her own life fade away.
None of these epiphanal thoughts made the evening easier, or softened my heart to her, but hey... everything new takes getting used to. I did, however, toy with the idea of making a return visit next week. And maybe next week I will look forward to it, instead of clenching against it. Maybe. The jury is still out.