what the hell do we know about anyone

photo by Philip Bouchard via flickr

I’ve been wanting to write for the longest time about the dearth (note the “r”) of older people in my children’s (and my) life. My parents are deceased, and my husband’s mother and all of his family besides us is across the Atlantic. It’s just us. Our little pod against the world.

Most of the time we don’t give it much thought, busy with our lives which are fortunate and full of love and smiles and even when they are not we support one another. But sometimes I find myself feeling envious when I see our friends and neighbors gathering together on Sunday afternoons with their boisterous extended families, when the grandparents are the ones picking up the kids at the bus, or spending “special” times with their grandchildren for a weekend, or a night, or an afternoon.

My kids never had that, which in itself is so very sad, but besides the personal loss of not having elderly loved ones in their lives I am equally sad and even disturbed that they truly have no contact with anyone over the age of, say, 50 something.

Oh I know there are ways to link them up, through volunteering, with the elderly in area nursing homes, etc. and I’m working on that, but what I wanted to write about is what a child misses when raised without the daily or at least regular presence of older people. They miss out on their wisdom, their perspective, their uncompromising love. They miss seeing how they overcome adversity and physical limitations. They do not learn compassion, empathy and patience and how to treat someone whose gifts may be hidden within a body that may, upon first glance, betray the beauty within.

My children are not alone. Even those with family often find them miles away. It is quite common, actually, at least in my world and my part of it, to have children functioning within a very small circle of parents and a few friends. No wonder so many kids grow up self-absorbed. I try to mitigate that as often as I can, through travel, and in so many other ways…but it’s not the same.

While I did not have a large family, and had limited exposure to the elderly as a child I spent years living with other families, in countries where there are no nursing homes or assisted living facilities, where families stay together from birth to death, in sickness and in health. It’s quite beautiful, and all benefit from it. The elderly thrive and the child is enriched in so many ways. Life should be difficult and beautiful and complete.

Today I was reading “The Summer Without Men,” by Siri Husvedt, and came upon a whimsical and magical scene which brought to mind these thoughts and at the same time inspired me in my writing. It’s a wonderful book, and I’d like to share a bit of it here.

Abigail had arranged for me to see her handicrafts. […]

Abigail is one of the “swans,” the elderly women who live at Rolling Meadows, a place “exclusively for the old and the very old,” where the main character, Mia’s mother, lives. She describes how she came up with the name:

Privately, I called them the Five Swans, the elite of Rolling Meadows East, women who had earned their status, not through mere durability or a lack of physical problems (they all ailed in one way or the other), but because the Five shared a mental toughness and autonomy that gave them a veneer of enviable freedom.

Abigail is ninety-four, “hunched badly” due to osteoporosis, was “nearly deaf” yet, as the protagonist says, “…from my first glimpse of her, I had felt admiration.”

This admiration only increased when Mia discovers a magical secret. When paying Abigail a visit in her small apartment she is presented with a piece of her “handicrafts,” which at first appears to be a simple albeit charming image, but which she finds upon closer look to be so much more.

After taking out my reading glasses, I looked down at an elaborate scene of what appeared to be a cliché: In the foreground a cherubic blond boy made of felt cutouts danced with a bear against a background of riotous flower patterns. Over him was a yellow sun with a smiling face. Happy-wappy, I thought. The derisive expression was Bea’s. But then as I continued to look, I noticed that behind the dull boy, nearly hidden by leaf patterns, was a tiny girl embroidered into fabric, her form rendered in threads of muted colors. Wielding an oversized open pair of scissors as a weapon, she grinned malevolently at a sleeping cat. Then I noticed a set of pale pink winged dentures above her that, without scrutiny, could have been mistaken for petals, and a gray-green skeleton key. As I continued to investigate the shapes in the foliage, I saw what appeared to be a pair of naked breasts in a little window and soon after some words, the letters of which were so small I had to hold them away from me to read: “O remember that my life is wind.”


“They don’t see it, you know.” Abigail stroked a hearing-aid cord as she tilted her head. “Most of them. They see only what they expect to see, sugar, not spice, if you comprehend my meaning. Even your mother took her time noticing them. Of course, the eyesight around these parts isn’t too hot. I started doing it, oh, it was years ago, at my crafts club, made my own patterns, but it wouldn’t do to come right out with it—up front—you know, so I began what I came to call the “private amusements,” little scenes within scenes, secret undies, if you understand.

The next work she shows her is even more delightful and wicked, involving a man sucked up by an electrolux, along with a whole miniature town, cows, pigs, chickens and even a church uprooted by the “hungry hose.”

Abigail explains that when she did this last work, at age fifty-seven, she was “spitting mad” and it “made her feel better.”

Abigail did not elaborate, and I felt too much the outsider to press her. We sat together for a while without speaking. I watched the old Swan munch her cookie very neatly, gingerly wiping away a few crumbs that had settled at the corner of her mouth with an embroidered napkin. After some minutes, I said I had to go, and when she reached for her walker, I told her not to worry about showing me to the door. And then, in a fit of admiration, I leaned over, found her cheek, and kissed it warmly.

What do we know about people really? I thought. What the hell do we know about anyone?

I love this passage, and I love the last bit, which I’ve bolded because it’s something I always try to remember.


2 thoughts on “what the hell do we know about anyone

  1. Love this passage.

    Something else I’ve thought about: aren’t we unknowable, even to ourselves? I don’t even know what I’m capable of, or how I’ll react to a certain circumstance until it happens. If I don’t know me enough to predict what I’ll do, how can I truly know anyone else? And what does “knowing” even mean, truly?

    1. “…unknowable, even to ourselves,” you say and I so agree. We all change, constantly, and are complex little buggers. But that is precisely what makes life so wonderful, I think. Unpredictable. Unknowable. Otherwise we (and life) would be so dull! 🙂

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