There is a big divide between the young and the not so young. It’s a huge gulf. It’s not simply years. We disagree. We don’t approve. We just don’t understand. We live far away. This gap between the ages is tearing us apart. You can see it playing out in families, politics, and around the world.
There is so much lost between us.
I’m going to share a story here that some members of my family may not be comfortable with, but it is part of my truth and I think it is valuable enough to share with you.
For a long time when I thought of my grandma, unfortunately, I often thought, “She’s such a racist.” So many of my memories of her go something like this: “Did you hear about the three little girls they found dead in the river? They were killed by a black man of course.” She had a real enthusiasm for gory newspaper headlines, and seemed to find particular satisfaction in pointing out the race angle. I recall my discomfort, how I dreaded spending time with her or talking with her on the phone. These were the kind of memories that kept coming to the surface – and I didn’t like it.
I know there is more to her. I have good memories too. Grandma taught me to “bring the pot to the kettle, dear,” and to bury leftover fish bones and lobster shells under my tomato plants. I loved sitting on her long porch, which was just covered in pots of geraniums and tomatoes, at her high-rise apartment just outside Toronto. During my visits in the summer I was responsible for watering her porch plants. I remember one time she had given up on a particular sad and dead-looking plant; she told me not to bother. I watered it anyway. A week later, “Meghan! Look what you did to this plant!” I thought I was in trouble, but she was so impressed that I had revived the plant. She and that plant are pretty resilient. Even though I generally recoil at cigarette smoke, I think she must be dang hardy if she can outlive her husband and all three of her children and still smoke at 92 years old.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately that I wish I understood my grandma better. I decided to call her.
“Do you remember the Detroit race riots?” I asked. I knew she must have been there in 1969. I speculated that this major event could help explain her attitude.
Grandma said, “Yes. I do.”
“What do you remember about them?”
“Well, we were a mile outside the city so we we’re affected by them that much.”
“How did you feel at the time?”
“I don’t know.”
“Were you ever afraid?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
I was looking for something specific – of course I didn’t find what I was looking for. Grandma’s attitude may stem from the culture she grew up in, the media, her parents, and the billions of moments in life that shape her worldview. People are complex and rarely does one single story ever explain us.
My cousin Ashley called me a few days after the call with Grandma. She probably knows grandma better than any living person. I decided to open the Pandora’s box.
I told my cousin, “I’ve been bothered by these memories I have of Grandma. She always used to say these racist things and I always felt so uncomfortable.”
“Like what kind of things?” Ashley asked.
“Oh, you know, like ‘There’s so many Arabs and Chinese around now that whites are a minority.’”
“Yeah, she probably did say that.” Then Ashley reminded me that Grandma’s parents were immigrants from Ireland. “You have to understand they had it really hard when they first got here.” (The family did nearly starve one winter on a farm in Alberta.) “Grandma sees so many new immigrants coming in and hears about how much help they’re getting from the government.” (This is the Canadian government, by the way.) “It’s hard for her to put aside those memories and not compare her experience with theirs. I’m not trying to excuse it, but try to see what she might have gone through.”
Back to that phone call with Grandma: we didn’t hang up after the race riots questions – I slowly kept digging. I asked her what she used to do for work back then. I learned she used to be a bookkeeper for the A&P grocery store. I didn’t know she’d been a bookkeeper. We talked about how she used to love math and how I always struggled in math. We talked about the day I was born: she had been traveling somewhere – neither of us could remember; perhaps it was Nova Scotia – and she bought my first toy: a big polar bear. My nieces still play with that bear even though it is missing an eyeball and its mouth is lopsided. She really liked that.
She told me how lonely she is at the nursing home. “You haven’t called me.”
“You’re right Grandma. I haven’t called you nearly enough. I’m really sorry about that. I do want to talk to you.” I made an internal promise to make that phone call more regularly.
I mentioned my recent birthday and joked about how I still don’t have any great-grandchildren for her. She told me not to worry about it. “You will someday if you want.”
There was something very loving about what she said. I felt really accepted. I felt really good about my talk with Grandma.
“I love you Grandma.”
“I love you too Meggie.”
Sometimes our stories don’t explain the truth. Sometimes we can’t find the answers we are looking for because the source has died or their memory is no longer intact. I didn’t unearth the full story of how or why she is the way she is. Yet something more important happened: I connected with her. I learned a little more about her life – both her past and her present.
We may never find the root of the story, but we can still plant a seed of love. We can do that by asking and listening, and by sharing our own stories. In this way, we can build the bridge of love and understanding.
I’ve been thinking about the generation gap a lot lately, and also how sharing our stories can help bridge that gap. I’m hoping to write more about this topic and talk to people about it. I’ve already started interviewing younger and older generations about their experiences. There may be a book in here; we shall see! There will, at the very least, be more posts about it. Stay tuned.
If you see the gap tearing up your family, please contact me. If you’ve found a great way to connect across your differences, I would love to hear about it. Fill in the form below or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s get this conversation going. Let’s tell our stories.