Remembering My Grandparents
When memory began for me, my grandfather was past
sixty-a great tall man with thick hair becoming gray. He had black eyes
and a straight nose which ended in a slightly flattened tip. Once he
explained seriously to me that he got that flattened tip as a small child
when he fell down and stepped on his nose.
The little marks of laughter at the corners of his eyes
were the prodnct of a kindly and humorous nature. The years of work which
had bent his shoulders had never dulled his humour nor his love of a joke.
Everywhere he went, "Gramp" made friends
easily. At the end of half an hour you felt you had known him all your
life. I soon learned that he hated to give orders , but that when he had
to, he tried to make his orders sound like suggestions.
One July morning, as he was leaving to go to the
cornfield, he said : "Edwin, you can pick up the potatoes in the
field today if you want to do that. " Then he drove away with his
The day passed, and I did not have any desire to pick
up potatoes. Evening came and the potatoes were still in the field. Gramp,
dusty and tired, led the horses to get their drink.
"How many bags of potatoes were there?" Gramp
inquired. "I don't know. "
"How many potatoes did you pick up?"
"I didn't pick any. " "Not any! Why
"You said I could pick, them up if I wanted to.
You didn't say I had to. "
In the next few minutes I learned a lesson I would not
forget: when Gramp said I could if I wanted to, he meant that I should
Gram hated cruelty and injustice. The injustices of
history, even those of a thousand years before, angered her as much as the
injustices of her own day.
She also had a deep love of beauty. When she was almost
seventy-five, and had gone to live with one of her daughters, she spent a
delightful morning washing dishes because, as she said, the beautiful
patterns on the dishes gave her pleasure. The bird, the flowers, the
clouds-all that was beautiful around her- pleased her. She was like the
father of the French painter, Millet, who used to gather grass and show it
to his son , saying , "See how beautif ul this is ! "
In a pioneer society it is the harder qualities of mind
and character that are of value. The softer virtues are considered
unnecessary. Men and women struggling daily to earn a living are unable,
even for a moment, to forget the business of preserving their lives. Only
unusual people, like my grandparents, manage to keep the softer qualities
in a world of daily struggle.
Such were the two people with whom I spent the months
from June to September in the wonderful days of summer and youth.
He always rose early to enjoy at least two hours of
solitude in the house and garden before the rest of the family came down
In winter he spent most of the time reading and writing. In sum mer he
liked to get out of doors to work in the kitchen garden or to take the dog
for a walk in the neighbouring woods and fields Whatever the weather,
there was plenty to occupy him.
was a creature of habit, there seemed to be an infinite variety in his
pursuits. He wrote book reviews regularly for two of the national
weeklies. He worked conscientiously his special subject, Indian History,
and was thus one of the world authorities on it;
collected modern abstract paintings and so had a circle of friends amongst
artists and sculptors; there was hardly anything he did not know about
traditional jazz and he often entertained both British and America n jazz
musicians He was a superb cook and knew a lot about French and German
adored him and in a sense he was spoiled by them. At first glance you
would have taken him for a retired army officer-his bearing was erect, his
hair was cut short, he was fussy about his clothes, which were always
neat, clean and conventional. He liked to keep fit, and this was reflected
in his clear, steady blue eyes and healthy suntanned complexion. He hardly
ever watched TV, but enjoyed a good film and an occasional evening at the
The elderly who find great rewards and satisfactions in
their later lives are a small minorit.y in this country. But they do
exist. They are the"aged elite".
What is most striking about these people is their
capacity for growth. When Arthur Rubinstein was eighty, someone told him
that he was playing the piano better than ever. "I think so," he
agreed. "Now I take chances I never took before. I used to be so much
more careful. No wrong notes. Not too bold ideas. Now I let go and enjoy
myself and to hell with everything except the music!'
Another reason for the success of the aged elite are
the traits they' have formed earlier in their lives. A
sixty-eight-year-old woman, three times married and widowed , says ,
"It's not just what you do when you're past sixty-five.
It's what you did all your life that matters. If you've lived a full life,
developed your mind, you'll be able to use it past sixty-five. Let the
young people put that in their soup and eat it. "
Along with frankness comes humor. A sense of humor, of
course, is not something that suddenly arrives at age sixty-five. It is an
aid people use all their lives to cope with tension. "Humor, "
says Dr James Birren, noted psychologist, also leads you to join with
other people. "
The ability to associate with others is another trait
of the aged elite. "There are two ways to deal with stress,"
says Birren. "You either reach out or withdraw. The reachers seek out
other people to share their problems instead of pulling away. "
Growing, active, humorous, sharing-these are all
qualities that describe the aged elite.