I was lucky to spend the better part of my summers and holidays surrounded by the most knowledgeable and experienced people living on our earth; my grandparents, my elders, my knowledge keepers. I remember being fascinated by the stories of my grandparents’ lives and experiences. Whether it was surviving amongst 8 children around a table without enough food to go around, or waiting for years to marry amidst a world war that tore lovers apart; my grandparents had stories and lessons to share. And share they did, their stories shaped me and my sense of my place in the world and in my family.
“Grandpa, what was it like during the war?”
“Well Cynthia, butter was a luxury. When we could get it, we would slice a whole loaf of bread in half, stick in a pound of butter and bite in, enjoying the sweet luxurious taste.”
“Grandma, what was it like when you married? ”
“I shared a one-storey home with my husband and his family and 7 siblings. We only had a curtain for privacy. We had no refrigerator. It was such a joy was to move in with my parents and have a whole 3 rooms for myself and my new husband and best of all one of the first refrigerators on our street.”
What can I learn from this during COVID-19? Well, enjoying life’s small moments is essential. I have never spent so much time enjoying the little things; birds, clouds, sunshine. They are all so special. How is it that I have never noticed all these beautiful yellow-winged birds that pass by my window? As we are forced to self-isolate, we are also forced to focus inward on our immediate families and the people in them.
As I sit and watch COVID-19 tear through our old age homes and take our elders from us across Quebec, I can’t help but wonder what stories are kept in the hearts and minds of those living in these care homes or even those living in our families?
I encourage all of you to spend time with an elder. Capture their stories in your hearts and in your memories forever. We have lessons to learn from them and the hardships they have lived through. We have wisdom and strength to draw from their stories. Elders across Quebec and all over the world have watched their families torn apart by war, residential schools, recessions, tragedy, and death. They have had to learn to move on, to build their lives, and to find joy in spite of their experiences.
It has never been easier to capture these stories. Take out your phone and record a voice memo. Ask them to record your next Zoom conversation or just imprint their stories in your memories. Sometimes we are afraid to ask questions or we think we should already know the answers. Some of the best stories have come out when we simply ask. My husband spent a Passover Seder asking a few questions to his great uncle about his experience in the war. This later turned into his uncle contacting a McGill historian and writing his own book about surviving World War II on the run.
As the next generation become adults, I hope they help teach all the rest of us, that discounting our elders is unacceptable. Just as the tacit homophobia and sexism that was pervasive twenty or thirty years ago (go watch a few episodes of “Full House”) or racism before that has become embarrassing, I hope that we learn that ageism slurs and jokes are not okay. Our elders are special. They have a lot to teach us, just ask questions and take the time to listen to the answers.