by Becky De Oliveira—
My grandmother came to pick me up for breakfast one morning when I was visiting Seattle from my home in England. I was at least 30 years old. It was a dreary day, overcast, maybe drizzling a bit. Not warm but not bitterly cold. I chose to leave the house in a long-sleeved t-shirt.
“Where’s your coat?” grandma asked.
“I don’t need it,” I said.
“I don’t feel all that cold.”
My grandmother rarely lost an argument. This was down to her unique set of dialectical skills. “Don’t be stupid,” she barked. “It’s snowing in New Jersey!”
Left speechless by her unassailable logic, I went inside and got my coat. Zipped it up to my chin. Would have donned a pair of mittens and perhaps a thick wool scarf if I’d been able to find any. Grumbled—half laughing at the absurdity of the whole situation—in my head, “Why does she treat me like such a child?” (She yelled at me in Hawaii for wearing the wrong shoes on the beach once too, when I was 20.)
How many times do these kinds of scenarios play out in interactions between the generations? Behind door number one, we have an older person with wisdom to dispense who gets angry or hurt when it is disregarded. What do you know about life? You’re only a kid. People die of pneumonia. Behind door number two, a younger person who kicks against the unmistakable feeling of bondage and disrespect. What do you know about life? Times have changed. Ever heard of a miraculous invention called penicillin? Nothing good comes of this. We talk across each other. Dig our heels in. Either someone gets bullied or someone else’s feelings get hurt.
I few years ago, I came across a simple printed sheet of paper with a row of tear-off contact details on a community bulletin board, wedged between flyers for eco-friendly house cleaning services and yoga classes. The advertiser, a 75-year-old man, offered to share the “wisdom collected over a lifetime” in about 15 different areas ranging from “staying married for 50 years” and being a “published author” to “gun control” and “auto mechanics.” The man promised that this service was entirely free, that he had no intention of selling anything, and that he guaranteed he had no “get-rich-quick schemes” to suggest. This last point, I must confess, I found enormously disappointing. Still, I gazed at this ad for a long time, feeling suddenly and desperately sad at the idea of an old man alone by the phone, hoping for a call from a stranger in need of advice. I felt so sad I actually contemplated ringing him up myself, but I couldn’t think of a good question to ask. It’s not that I feel I have all the answers, but few of my big questions concern gun control and even fewer relate in any way to auto mechanics. Anything else seemed too personal—and far too specific to my own circumstances. Knowledge is not always directly transferable; how one couple stayed married for 50 years might not work at all for another. Also, I was only passing through this town. No possibility for establishing a permanent relationship with this individual (probably not the smartest thing to do via an anonymous flyer anyway)—which I sensed was the thing he was really looking for.
Genuine relationships between the generations are, I think, extremely valuable—but not so much in terms of the giving and receiving of wisdom or advice. While this can sometimes work out rather well, more often it is the love, acceptance, and understanding between people that gives us strength, in spite of our different experiences and world views. It is about abiding together through whatever life throws in our way. What I learned most from my grandmother—what I’ll remember as I grow older myself—are all the things she never talked about at all but simply did. She denied herself treats so she could treat others. She made herself presentable and put on a cheerful face no matter what kind of day it was. She bragged—shamelessly—about the people she loved. She adopted people that no one else cared about and acted as though they mattered. I’m sometimes bad about remembering my coat—and utterly hopeless at selecting the right footwear for the beach in Hawaii—and I have probably failed to do most of the things my elders in general have ordered, but I’ve been watching and learning all the same. I still believe it’s within me to do them proud.
Becky De Oliveira is a doctoral student in research methods working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado.