Thursday, June 9, 2011

Oh, Old People

I have always had a sickeningly soft spot for a certain kind of old person.  I don't know if it's something about their money woes, their physical discomfort, their confusion at new situations, or what.  Then there's their love of being around young people, no matter who the young people are -- that gets me too.  I just think they can be so cute and endearing I just don't know what to do about it.  There almost always will be a miscommunication when a young person is speaking to a very old person, and this opens up a space of confusion and empathy for both of them.  All this probably sounds insensitive, like I'm not being politically correct about the elderly.  Well, the elderly is a big faceless saggy group of people hailing from all walker-assisted walks of old-person life.  Not all of them are loveable. Some are downright intolerable.  But I can't exactly explain what makes the ones who are loveable stick in my head the way they do.  Here are some of  my old people, or situations that make me think of them:

- An old man at a Pennsylvania gas station, full service.  He hobbles out to do his job, but we don't need gas. We need bathrooms and snacks. After the bathroom stop, we ask about the snacks.  He says "Head on over to the snack shop there!" It's a shelter next to the gas station with vending machines in it, and we don't have any change.  I will buy your gas next time old man! And I'll bring change! I'm so sorry!

- Aisles of toys at drug stores and grocery stores always make me think of old people.  They don't go to toy stores, but they certainly go to drug stores.  If they are visiting a grandchild, they might buy cheaply made, overpriced toys, bibs, teething rings because they're there.  This is no big deal to the mom who wants to shut up her whiny five-year-old with the plastic bow and arrow set.  Young people can always earn more money tomorrow.  But the old people!  Their fixed incomes! Noooo!

-Fake and knockoff toys and videos also make me think of old people.  Again, they are in the grocery store, or they used to be much more often when I was a kid.  I rememberbeing 8 or 9 years old, looking at faded VHS tapes of "The Very Little Mermaid" or some other Disney knockoff and wanting to cry, thinking of the old man who would buy that for his four-year-old grandaughter only to have her throw a temper tantrum when Ariel didn't show up on the screen in Disneycolor. Oh dear, dear.  Yes I have always thought about these things.  I wanted to bawl right there in the Martin's Foods checkout while my mom plopped packages of chicken thighs and boxes of potatoes on the sticky conveyor belt.  (And years before this, my mom would buy Golden Books at the supermarket.  That was in the early '80s, when markets were still places to "market" specifically to women, and the freezers had those plastic flappy things instead of doors.  I think we even got our encyclopedias at Martin's.  My Goldenbooks still have the discount price tags on them, 69 cents, 81 cents...)

-With an ex, visiting an old man who was once an influential cartoonist.  He was ailing, his wife gone for a couple of years, and he was living with his son in Northern California.  His son had his own family to deal with, so our visit was so welcomed.  We offered to get this old man some things at the store.  He asked for maybe two things.  We brought him back a big basket of all kinds of fruit.  I remembered he liked fruit.  He was so happy he wanted to give me a cute old man peck on the cheek.  But he had shrunken so much, as he leaned in I could tell he was going to miss. So he hugged me a little, and planted a kiss on the tip of my collar bone.

- My grandmother is a hoarder.  Not the kind whose house is filled with cats (she hates cats!), but whose kitchen is filled with foods of questionable freshness.  The refrigerator teems with half-drunk glasses of buttermilk (hers) and open soda bottles (no doubt some ungrateful granchild's).  The ancient Formica table, not '50s Formica but some '40s variety with a wooden drawer full of things that have been there since I was a kid, is spotted with the tiniest ceramic dishes, each with a little glass lid, holding leftover potatoes, banana pudding, biscuits, and anything else that can stand to "set out" until bedtime or longer, just in case someone would like to eat it.  Grandma Byrd's standards for what goes in the fridge are a holdover from the icebox days, when cold space was at a premium.  Now that she has this refrigerator, the former "larder" items still sit outside the fridge, growing tangy, while Grandma, overwhelmed by the cavernous space within that modern appliance, fills it up with cups of milk.

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I know this seems like a pretty random entry, but besides just wanting to share my old people pathos, I think this is a bit topical too.  Like I said in that politically incorrect sentence above, we don't really sympathize with "the elderly" as a group; at least not the same way we feel for "children in poverty" or "kids with cancer" or other groups that might need our care and help.  But many of us sympathize with elderly individuals quite deeply.  In light of recent threats to Medicare, I think we all need to remember the old people we know and love, remember the stories they tell, the funny little things they do, the crotchety hugs they give, and all the little details that make us love them and make us want them to stick around as long as they can.  Then we need to remember that many old people are someone else's Pop-pop, Meemaw, Grammy, or whatever, and that for all of them to stick around, they're going to need a little help from all of us strong, young folks who have time enough to make another dollar tomorrow.

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