When memories outweigh dreams: A reflection on aging

Claude learns how to take a smartphone picture. May 2012.

The grocer kept a store book -- a ledger with my family's running account. One day my mama sent me to the store to pick up a pound of hamburger meat. The grocer told me our account had hit $90: "Claude, I can't do anything more for you until your daddy pays the bill." I thought that was it. We were all going to starve.

If only I had a video camera rolling, I often thought this past weekend. There I was, riding shotgun to my 88- (soon 89-) year-old pen pal Claude, an old friend in the most literal sense. He had asked me to meet him in the state of his youth, Tennessee, so he could share the stories and places that hadn't dimmed in his mind even after so many years away.

I have visited with Claude several times since our correspondence began in 2005. This visit was especially poignant; I was heart-full with memories and emotions about my grandfather, and Claude for the first time ever was feeling his real age.

The past year has not been the kindest to my elderly friend. It's thrown viral infections, hospital stays, moves across state lines, an ailing spouse, and all the other usual trappings of age that Claude had somehow managed to avoid up until this point through luck, genes, outdoor work, mental vigor, and old-fashioned stubbornness.

You can't beat time, however, and unspoken acknowledgment of that fact became the bedrock of our visit. Ever vigorous, Claude got me up at 6 am on Saturday to show me all his old haunts -- the ramshackle house where he was born, the homestead where his parents lived, the winding creek that ran through every holler and every memory. His job was to drive and narrate; my job was to double-check his spots and listen. We each fulfilled our duties admirably.

Claude as amateur genealogist. May 2012.

My brother Pate was always bullheaded. When he was in high school, he was on the verge of flunking out. The school sent a letter to my parents telling them as much. Pate intercepted it at the post office, wrote 'Go to hell!' on it, and mailed it back. My parents were called in ...

As I sat there for mile after mile of Tennessee road, I couldn't help but ponder aging -- not mortality, but the actual process and state of getting old. There were so many things I wanted to ask him:

  • How does it feel not to hear everything happening in a conversation?
  • What do you think when your body betrays you in small ways every day?
  • How does it make you feel when others insist on driving?
  • What did you think when you left the home where you'd raised your children, served your congregation, and walked to the post office every day?
  • What are your new fears? What's the state of your old ones?
  • What do you wish for yourself now?
  • What has changed in and about you?
  • Are you lonely?
  • Are you satisfied?
  • What do you think is coming next?
  • Have your memories finally outweighed your dreams?

I'm not sure that younger generations listen closely enough to our elders to answer these questions. We either don't think to ask or don't want to know.

But our older folks are not a breed apart. They, god willing and that ubiquitous creek don't rise, are us in 60 years. They have lived and laughed and hugged and sobbed and made mistakes and kept going. They might have once again assumed children's needs, but their knowledge and experience are that of adults. What are we missing by not asking them more? What are we missing the chance to learn for our present lives?

Hot on the historical trail, Claude visits some old friends for inspiration. May 2012.

When my daddy and mama were courting, they lived on opposite sides of the creek and had to cross back and forth in a buggy to see each other. Daddy had asked Mama several times to marry him, but each time she just laughed him off. Finally, one day when they were crossing the river, he just stopped that old buggy right in the middle and said, "Now either you say yes to marrying me or I will stay in the middle of the creek." She must have said yes.

This weekend I heard Claude tell me how to grade and pave a road. He also pointed out which local families had Civil War veterans, shared aviation history, divulged Depression-era country customs, explained tie bricks to me, and complained about the lack of local preservation efforts.

Here's what I learned, though: Staying connected to your past deepens your present. Other people are lifeblood; do your best to maintain those connections. Whatever craft you choose, do it well. Do not be afraid to reinvent yourself. Be an active citizen; know your civics. Hold out for the right kind of love. If possible, be auto-didactic and keep your mind sharp. Yard work keeps you physically sound. Oral history is subtle, quiet, and largely untapped; always be listening, before it's gone.

I sat shotgun to my pen pal this weekend and listened as best I could, mindful of the sand slipping through the hourglass in my peripheral vision. I will happily listen to all his stories, even when I can't follow the details or he repeats himself or the dates seem off. I just hope that one day I'll have stories too, and that someone will sit shotgun and listen to them.

Claude. May 2012.

Prayer #208: Storylineage

God of the tallest tale --

First make me a story-keeper, as an act of respect and a show of devotion. Give me huge ears to capture details and vast stores of memory for filing them, and whenever I have a chance to participate in marking time and memories, let me recognize the moment and do so.

Then make me a story-teller, in that I live the kind of life that begets stories at all. And if my mind should falter, and my gaze grow clouded, surround me with story-keepers who will hold my hand and prompt me to remember, bringing clarity to a life so full and rich that it moved beyond focus.