I have been watching this with growing sadness at every social function we attend. As befitting their age and stage of life, they are always greeted by everyone in attendance. I have watched people ritualize them as if they are a King and Queen. They are treated warmly and enthusiastically, but also like figureheads who must be welcomed and respected but not lingered over. The respects are paid with very good intentions. But there is no “engagement”. They are no longer the people with whom you have an “interesting” conversation. So “hello” becomes enough. They aren’t up on pop culture references and what they have to say is outdated. So instead they are asked, “How are you doing?” in a loud voice. They are asked if they can be given more food or beverages. They are asked what they think about the weather and how they are enjoying the early spring. Of course there are those who go beyond this cursory greeting, but I would be lying if I said these were not the rarer breed.
I am not angry as I write this rather; I am heartbroken. I have noticed more and more how people just look right through Mom and Dad and other people of their age. I find it even more distressing given the contrast of my own experience.
When we were growing up, our grandparents were the centre of the visit, the reason you looked forward to going at all. I remember visiting my Granny, her Scottish tablecloth laden with sharp cheese, crackers, bread, canned corned beef, scones, jam, raisin bread, shortbread, and tea. Always tea, lots of tea. And that was just when I visited alone! Every visitor would have the same feast laid out before them. I can feel, smell, and taste those visits. I remember the light from the kitchen window and the sounds from the alley as we sat at that table, Granny and I. We would talk about life and her garden and the family gossip and when I left I felt that we had visited, really visited.
When I see any grandchildren of the invisible, it makes me so sad to think that they are not getting this visit of my past. And they are not learning about their past through these wonderful people who love them so much and just want to be loved in return. They might be surprised to learn for example that the things they think their grandparents are out of touch with are the very things their grandparents are fascinated and in awe of and would love to hear more about. And these grandchildren, without really truly knowing their grandparents, might never be able to say, “I do that, just like Papa” and be proud of their lineage, their connection.
I do know this. Paying respects to your elders at the beginning and ending of an event does little towards building a bond. The most painful thing to observe in these moments is the invisible noticing that they are invisible. And you can scramble and rush to their side and try to fill the void. But it’s too late. They have already noticed and the hurt of it makes them a little harder to see.
Easter weekend, Colin, the Boy and I hosted an 85th birthday for my parents. We had a casual afternoon gathering and it was lovely. The only gift asked for was one of conversation with each of them. Now this particular gathering is what I would call, preaching to the choir. These are people in my parents’ lives. But even so, they took the invite to heart and chatted ones and twos and threes with Mom and Dad. And as a result, each of them who engaged my parents came away with a new story about their lives or an experience that had previously been unknown to them.
My parents for their part, had the best night. I could tell. Because at that party, on that day, they were the first people you saw when you walked through the door.
**One of my favourite John Pryne songs ends with this lyric:
“So if you’re walkin’ down the street sometime
And you should spot some hallow ancient eyes
Don’t you pass them by and stare as if you didn’t care
Say Hello in there. Hello.”
Barbara: As my parents and their spouses aren’t yet of this age (and by that, I mean they are still mobile, which means they can control their engagement), and as my grandparents, who are older, live so far away, I’ve never consciously observed this heartbreaking trend from centre-of-attention to invisible. But I can feel the truth of it, especially if people are in the mindset of not knowing how to greet our older generation—or even that they should and MUST. Have I engaged Deb’s parents before this celebration and Deb’s gentle request? Of course. And I have loved speaking and laughing with them. But there was something sweet—and not the least bit forced—about doing it consciously at their 85th. In fact, this is an excerpt from the thank-you letter I sent Deb after the party:
Thank you so very much for the absolutely lovely celebration for your parents. It was a gorgeous and wonderful day. Your parents are such loving and amazing people and deserve every bit of revelry and honour they get! You are a doll and wonderful daughter to always make sure they get their due. I love that you asked us to chat with them and I love that they had so much fascinating stuff to share. I had no idea your dad was such a Western buff and how he only really has patience for non-fiction. He regaled me with some great facts and stories about the wild west! Your mom is just so lovely and honest, telling about her frustrations and concerns, but also her love of life and for her family.
All this to say that by consciously making an effort, by consciously being aware of engagement and taking interest, I got so much out of the experience, so much more than just a superficial exchange of greetings or observations. And I think it’s a worthwhile bug-in-our-ears to make sure people like Deb’s parents get more than just a courteous greeting, but get their real and deserved due. And I guess in order to do that, especially as we get older and older ourselves, we need to remind and teach each other and our children to be aware of it. Open ears, open hearts. It’s another one of those win-win situations we love to embrace here!