Some cultures revere the aged. In Hindu society, they touch the feet of the elder and say, “May you live one hundred years.” Taoists revere elders to the point that they worship those who have gone before them. When an elder dies, they make altars to their ancestors and place their deceased loved one’s favorite objects on the altar to remind them of who the elder was in life. This act is a continuation of the life of the elder in the hearts and minds of the living. These simple gestures in a culture help a family shape a history and profound legacy.
I recently watched a show documenting how they mummify certain elders in tribes in some aboriginal cultures. It was interesting watching the eldest member of the tribe visit the site of his father’s and ancestors’ graves. He marked his spot next to them. You could see the timeline of history being marked as he examined the space and took note of his place in history.
There are elders in our world that can bestow truth to us in powerful ways. We don’t always take the time to think about how we can benefit from them.
I just read a beautiful tribute from Jimmy Buffet to his friend the great writer Herman Wouk who died recently at the age of 103. Buffet called his friend when he turned 100 and told him he’d never spoken with a man who was 100 before. Buffet said, “As swift as a Mel Brooks comeback line he (Wouk) said, “How do I sound?” “Good,” replied, “Buffet.”
I was thinking about that in my own life. My grandpa was 96 when he died. I remember asking him questions about his life. He was born during Chester Arthur’s administration. It boggled my mind that he experienced so much history. He told me what it was like to hear about the assassination of President McKinley first hand. He lived right down the road from where the assassination took place in Buffalo and remarked that his father said, “It sounds like the president’s been shot.” 1901.
My grandfather shared with me stories that St. John Neumann, who later became Bishop of Philadelphia, would do Masses at our family homestead in Williamsville, New York. When I saw the body of Neumann encased under an altar of a church in Philadelphia, I felt a special connection to the past. I thought of how my great grandfather encountered this man. It made be feel a special kinship to the life of the saint and my relatives. My grandpa lived without radio and television early in his life. He worked through the Great Depression and two World Wars. Remarkable experience of history. I thought about what I would ask a person who is a centenarian.
I was a junior in high school when he passed away. I knew my time with him was fleeting, so I asked him as many questions as I could. Who his favorite presidents were? What does he remember the most about his life? What was his greatest challenge and how did he rise above it?
It was an easy answer for him, as he lost his wife and child on the same day. That’s why he liked Teddy Roosevelt so much. Roosevelt lost his wife, child and mother all on the same day.
If he were around today, I would still ask the most “greatest challenge” questions, but I would also ask him questions about life that could help me go deeper. What would I ask now?
Some of these questions dig down into the heart of one’s faith.
How did your faith inform you?
What were your greatest challenges and how did you rise above them?
What saying carried you through your most challenging times?
Do you have a prayer that served you well?
Who inspired you the most and why?
What time was the best time of your life? Do you have a moment you always go back to?
What piece of advice would you give to a young person about marriage?
Do you remember the first time you saw your spouse? Careful with this one.
Can you remember a time where you thought you just couldn’t make it? What pulled you through it?
Where did you live throughout your life? Favorite address?
Did you serve in the military? If so, where? outfit?
I think these questions get to the heart of who someone is.
I’d also ask a few simple questions:
Who was your best friend? What did you do with your best friend that was so special?
What’s your favorite ice cream?
What was the meal your Mom made that you most looked forward to eating?
What was an ideal evening for you?
Favorite book, play or movie?
Favorite band? Song?
What was your hobby? What inspired this?
What was your favorite sport? Was there an event that stood out for you?
Where were you when a famous historical event took place? What was the event and how did you respond?
If you could have dinner with one person from the past, who would it be?
Some of them may be too personal for some to answer.
Some people may have a hard time addressing some of these questions and that in and of itself can tell you a lot about their lives. Your willingness to get to know them is in and of itself a special expression of grace and honor. It helps them recognize that their legacy means something to you.
The above questions can help us in shaping a character in a story. My dad had Alzheimer’s Disease. I remember days sitting at the nursing home thinking of all the stories trapped in that mind. I was sad I didn’t unlock some of them. As I reflect on these questions, I can answer a few of them. For other answers, I can ask my siblings to help me recall them.
You don’t need to talk about regrets, but if they’re willing to share, something like that could be helpful. Keep it light. Make it fun.
It’s important that we mark history and remind each other we have survived. It’s important that we carry on a story – a family story. The all-important myths we share with others shape who we are and our culture. Myths shape our future. Our myths remind us that the simple gifts of life we share is the treasure chest of a life well lived.