When my sister, soon after her fiftieth birthday, lost a tooth to an abscess, she couldn’t understand why her sixteen year-old daughter didn’t share the grief and sense of loss. I think my sister suddenly realized she was no longer young. The possibility of losing all her teeth loomed in the future. Her young daughter knew her mom wasn’t young and who cares about losing one tooth when you have thirty-one more?
Now I’m a grandparent, I wonder sometimes how my grandchildren see me. When I was a small kid, I saw clearly all the signs of aging in relatives and neighbors and just accepted the physical changes without judgment. I don’t think I ever realized that older people might not be able to move fast. If they hesitated to stand or walk, I thought they were lazy.
My dad resisted all technical advances as encroachments on our basic humanity so my family was the last to acquire a television. Most of my childhood, I was intimately involved in the lives of the people who lived on my street.
The oldest people I knew lived on each side of my house. Mr. and Mrs. Geary were in their nineties and Mr. and Mrs. Neighbor (that was their real name) were in their eighties. Neither couple had kids. After living through WWII and the bombing, Mr. and Mrs. Geary took an interest in children and the future generation and asked my mom if I could visit them. My mom came with me because she was afraid I’d damage one of the knickknacks in their house.
They sat me on a foot stool and asked me a lot of questions. I didn’t want to be friends with them but I really wanted one of Mrs. Geary’s huge fans that she used when she had an asthma attack. Mom wouldn’t let them give me a fan.
One day, Mrs. Neighbor took care of me over lunch. I would have thought she was normal except she kept hovering over me while I was eating and she put cloves in the apple pie so the apples were pink instead of being the right color.
When, at the age of four, I met my great-grandmother for the first time (a family dispute kept us apart), she was so old that I thought she was already dead. By one of those miracles of childhood imagination, she could still speak. Maybe the death thing had something to do with the cold, dark basement apartment where she lived and her saying to me, “Go tell your mother that George is dead.” I can’t imagine ever asking a four year-old to do that.
I suspect my grandkids, more familiar with digital toys, are not so intimately involved in the lives of adults around them. The older adults that were part of my early years have remained with me always. Maybe I should be more careful about the impression I leave with my grandkids.
The ancients I remember belong in stories, Gothic or crime—they seemed so fragile and somehow innocent. I’m not sure my siblings saw older adults the way I did. One time, on the television, an announcer said, “In parts of southern England, signs of prehistoric life remain.
“Sure,” my brother said, “there’s Grandma.”
Do you have characters that have haunted your imagination since childhood?