I recently went down from my home here in the north woods to visit my mother in Minneapolis. She is well into her eighties, and a person of very powerful intellect. She was of what I call “the lost generation” for women — the “be a dutiful wife and good housekeeper” bunch who raised children in the 50’s. My mother would have been a wonderful radical had the circumstances been different. As it was, she was a courageous woman within the confines of her familial expectations. She went off on her own to Washington D.C. when she was in her twenties, she worked for Planned Parenthood for a while, and she loved watching the children of the sixties grow up. But my father, bless his soul, was a man who had lived a life of abandonment and wanted nothing more than home, family, and a yard to mow. He, too, did well by his lights — far better than I would have done had I been given his childhood. But the two of them never could see a common vision for their lives, save one of being good parents to their children. We children benefitted, but at their expense.
Now that my mother is elderly, we try to pay back in service what we cannot give her in terms of either wealth or a different past. She sacrificed herself for us, and we were the beneficiaries. Now we give back as best we can.
I mention this because it constantly hurts and frustrates me to see what we have done to the elders. And I am by no means above reproach. Unable or unwilling to keep them in our homes, we send them to white-haired ghettos and do the best we can to be good children. Yet it cannot easily be otherwise. Hillary Clinton wrote that book, “It Takes a Village,” and she applied the notion to the raising of children. But it takes a village to serve our elders, too. As individuals, we cannot easily give up our own lives to provide the service the elders need. Their bodies are frail, their needs both immediate and extensive. Their emotional realities require the same kind of commitment on the part of caregivers as the emotional realities of children.
My mother is lucky. Or, maybe I should say, we children are lucky. She lives in an assisted living complex where she has become good friends with one of the aides who is from Uganda. It is as unlikely a pair as a person can imagine. But I think it has to do with strong wills, my mother’s untapped radical curiosity, and the fact that the aide acted with courage to come to a new country, just as my mother might have done had the circumstances of her life been different. Even as it was, she was far more defiant of her parents’ wishes than any of us children were of hers. But much of that is because she was so tolerant of our personal explorations.
So now we come to the sunset of her life, able to be part of her aging only in fits and starts. Our visits are like the visits of all hurried children — with the awareness of time passing and obligations not being met. It is unfair to her and to our own hearts, because we love her and would be as present to her as she is to us, if only our lives allowed it. But we are slaves to time, while time to her is languid and almost shapeless. There is perhaps nothing so sad as hearing her say, “You have to go already?” after we have been at her apartment for four or five hours, knowing that no time for her is ever enough and that all time for us is taken at the expense of our own obligations.
All of us, as I’m sure is the case with all of you, give ourselves totally to the moment when we are there. But we hear the dogs of duty barking outside the door as we spend those precious moments with someone whose life is measured in years, if not months, and whose physical presence will soon be taken from us.
I do not see things changing in the next generation. Our children will have to carve time from their lives to give us the time that we will so desperately desire when we are old. The days of the village are gone — at least in America — and the world of generational balkanizing continues apace.
I think often on this quote from Ohiyesa, the Dakotah thinker and spiritual teacher who I count as one of my mentors. In the latter half of the 19th century and early part of the 20th he was involved in trying to bridge the Indian and non-Indian realities and to become the interpreter of one to the other. Writing about the elders, he said, “The distinctive work of the grandparents is that of acquainting the children with the traditions and beliefs of the nation. The grandparents are old and wise. They have lived and achieved. They are dedicated to the service of the young, as their teachers and advisers, and the young in turn regard them with love and reverence. In them the Indian recognizes the natural and truest teachers of the child.”
How beautiful, how visionary, and how distant from the world in which we live. Maybe with open hearts and a commitment to the whole of the human family and not only to our own personal advancement and betterment, we can begin to remember what we seem to have forgotten. It is a long road, but it will lead to a better world for us all.
(The quote from Ohiyesa can be found in The Wisdom of the Native Americans which I edited and published through New World Library. If you would like to read more of Ohiyesa, you might seek out this book. He is a man with deep wisdom and spiritual clarity.)