Just when I think there isn’t anything new going on, I get to awaken to a fresh perspective. I spent last weekend with a group of 80-somethings. Well, not the entire weekend, but a good portion of it. My mother-in-law, Sue, turned 80 and we surprised her Friday night with a party attended by a group of about 50 people. “Amazing an 80-year-old has so many friends!" I heard someone quip. Most of the attendees were indeed her friends, the others were family and her sons’ friends who she knew since they were in grade school.
I got to meet many of Sue’s friends, a couple of whom had difficulty navigating the few stairs leading up to the party venue, but all of whom were as mentally spry and fun-loving as teenagers. Dollie, one of Sue’s Stanford friends, lives in San Francisco and was hip, fashionable, and smart. “You know what I did last April when I turned 80 to avoid a surprise event like this?” she asked me. “I ran off to Egypt.” Egypt? At 80? Later, I told a friend, “I wasn’t aware of the prejudice I’ve had. I bought into the assumption that we all get decrepit and senile, presumably around age 75.”
But Sue, Dollie, and the others taught me otherwise. Wise and loving, sparkling eyes standing out in wrinkled, knowing skin, I learned some things from my elders this weekend. I learned that life can be fun and interesting and engaging well beyond middle age. Maybe more fun than it is right now. That friendships can last forever. I learned that it isn’t unusual for an 80-year-old woman to be beautiful, stylish, engaging, smart, interesting, funny, and in-the-know. And I had been concerned about entering my mid-40s.
On Saturday night we hosted a smaller dinner party at our house in Sue’s honor. Guests included her 84-year-old sister Claire, here from Geneva nimbly traveling the States visiting friends and family, and 80-year-old Trudy, another one of Sue’s best friends. Nothing about these women was any different than the rest of us except they are calm, patient, and wise. Nothing got past them, either. There is something reassuring about being with these capable, aged women. If they haven’t seen it all, they’ve at least heard about it. As the evening wound down, I was sad to see them go, Claire promising we’d meet again soon.
Many times I’ve considered writing about honoring our elders, because it is something our society doesn’t do. Instead, we ignore them, toss them aside; they are the invisible ones in our worship-the-youth culture. Is this practice we have of valuing youth over wisdom enlightened? We need our elders to teach us, to fill the great void of depth and meaning our culture faces, to be our stability just as they are in indigenous cultures. When will we let them?
I had the great good fortune this past weekend of spending time with folks who grew up during the Great Depression, lived through World War II, educated themselves, then experienced decades of interesting events and change while keeping hopeful and engaged in life. If only I could see them on a regular basis, perhaps I’d never think that there isn’t anything different going on in life. No, Dollie would have Egyptian adventures to tell while knowing the best plays and museum exhibits in the city, Sue would know why Stanford beat Cal and why Obama has to send a few more troops to Afghanistan, Claire would demonstrate how at 84 one can keep her mind as spry as a college student, and Trudy would exemplify how to remain calm through anything while preparing crab (“do you have a hammer?”) for a friend’s birthday dinner.