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Friday, Feb. 23, 2024
The Observer

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They were nothing more than figures in the framed photo kept in my mother’s bedside drawer. She looked angelic in the delicate sari she had worn, her skin glowing from what I would later learn was the photography studio’s skin-lightening. His hair was luxuriously oiled and combed, with a brown jacket and skinny tie that made him look like a sportscaster from the 1960s. 

The author’s late grandparents, Nazir and Farida Patel.

My mother’s parents may have been captured in that picture in some form, but I could never know them: the sound of their laughter, the calluses on their hands or the love they might have had for their grandchildren. On the other side of my family, the grandparents were impossibly distant, and not just in the quantifiable 8,158 miles. 

I have mourned my grandparents my entire life, listening to stories of their grace and love, their mistakes and sacrifices. I stood on their shoulders, in the shining city on the hill simply because they gave up their home. But I did not know them.

And by extension, I didn’t spend a ton of time around old people. In my early childhood, I begrudged them. It’s not the hardest thing to do. Why were they so cranky? They were an assault on the senses, and always ready to scold or preach. They talked so much, seemingly unaware of how little their audience received their lessons.

As I rapidly acquired the wealth of age myself, I tried to actually listen. It didn’t take much work because once you see that we live in a self-imposed bubble of youth, one realizes that shockingly enough, the elderly walk among us.

“It’s like a maze getting here,” he said, then took off his coat in the seat next to me for “War and Peace in Modern Europe, 1900-Present.” I asked him where he was from after he discerned I was one of the invasive pests (Americans) on campus. “Dundee, Scotland,” he told me, confirming my suspicion about his accent, “which I like to call the arsehole of nowhere.” 

He was one of the many older classmates I’ve met in class at Trinity College, Dublin. Here, there are “mature students” in nearly every class, and for every horde of Gen-Z students in Doc Martens walking out of class buildings, there are a few older pupils with suit jackets or leggings lagging slightly behind them. 

There were still 10 minutes to the beginning of the lecture, and our professor was playing a song about World War I. After referencing the old line about how Americans during the war were “oversexed, overpaid and over here,” he told me that a relation of his had died in the Great War, and his father had died in WWII. He quipped that for a moment, “I thought Mr. Kennedy was going to get me killed in World War III.”

I nodded and laughed, as old people tend to appreciate. But then, I silenced my upbringing and manners — the American sensibility that one should never pry or ask private questions — to ask him if he remembered his father.

His father died when he was three-and-a-half. Still, he remembered one occasion where he joined his mother on a visit to his father’s base. It has been 80 some years since then, and though I’m sure such a past still brings some pain, he seemed more than happy to tell his stories. As lecture proceeded, he leaned over many times, offering me anecdotes about the Europe of his youth; wrapping rationed sugar in a piece of paper as a treat during the war, sounding the alarms during air bombings. 

The week before, I had walked another of my classmates from one class to another. Claire was a 60-something romantic who wrote love poetry and short stories, and had come back to university at this age because of her writing. She had grown up with a poster of Maud Gonne in her bedroom. She told me the story of how her grandmother, a Catholic, had an affair with a Protestant. The two were in love and got engaged, but her fiance’s family took issue and refused to let the wedding occur. In the midst of this engagement, however, the bride-to-be became pregnant. She took her lover to court, and won, though I’m not quite sure what.

I walked her to her class again today, as she gleefully recounted the racy content of a myth we read for class. “And then he jacked off!” she exclaimed, perhaps too loudly for the crowd of students we were entering. “I loved it though, it was the only part I feckin’ understood.”

“Things are a lot more difficult when you’re young, “ she said as we passed the library, seemingly unprompted. “When you’re older, your problems are less devastating.” Through anecdotes, we were sharing in friendship, but it was hard not to intercept her wisdom.

And that wisdom comes every day. The Turkish man by the River Liffey who sang me a Bollywood song when he realized I was Indian, the smile a woman gave me on the London bus when I asked what brought her to the city (and complimented her yellow end-of-summer ensemble) or baking cookies at my freshly septuagenarian friend Rick’s house

I feel bad about the usage of the word “old” in this piece, but euphemisms do not remove the fact that we, as a society, view aging as humiliating. When we speak to the old, we do not realize that they have lived life as we know it several times over. My friend in the war lecture has lived the 20 years I know more than four times over. 

We’re often taught to think of the elderly as needy, as people who are neglected and require our support. All of that might be well and true, but we tend to forget that we need them too, and desperately. Our living thread to the past gets shorter each day. It’s not hard to grab onto it. In every corner of the world, an old person is dying to tell their stories. It’s worth opening your ears.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.