Women growing older with grace and gusto

Goodnight Grandpa!

(Did you win an Earth Pathways 2014 diary? See the end of this post.)
Will Geer

I used to love the TV show The Waltons. Do you remember it? The large family growing up in Depression-era America, struggling through financial troubles and a changing world seen through the eyes of the eldest son, John-Boy? If you do, you’ll remember the nightly routine of all the family settling down to sleeping calling out goodnight to each other from their separate rooms at the end of each episode.

My favourite character was the proud, irascible, big-hearted, stubborn and wise Grandfather, played by Will Geer.

It wasn’t until a few months ago that I looked up Will Geer and found out what an amazing man he was: award-winning actor, botanist, activist, musician, some-time communist. He toured the Dust Bowl work camps with Burl Ives and Woody Guthrie in the 1930s. At that time he was also the lover of Harry Hay, who credits Geer with his own political awakening. In the 1950s, Geer had the honour of being blacklisted by the House Committee for Un-American Activities, and founded the Theatricum Botanicum in California with his then wife, the actress Herta Ware. (The theatre company is still going strong today.) On the land there, he grew every plant ever mentioned in Shakespeare’s writings. The patriarch Grandpa Zebulon Walton was his last and most famous role, from 1972 to his death in 1978.

He died with his family around him. They recited poetry and sang Guthrie’s anthem This Land is Your Land.

This is all by way of saying that I came across a quote by Geer that really hit me:

I’m a lifelong agitator, a radical. A rebel is just against things for rebellion’s sake. By radical, I mean someone who goes to the roots.

As we grow older, we can rebel against the process of aging, or we can go to the roots of our age and everything it means.

Whatever the activity or the attitude, if it’s rebellion, there’s probably a still small voice inside somewhere saying you’re just in it to rebel against. I know that’s been true of me.

But growing older in radical ways is being true to self.

What might it look like? Embracing age while mourning loss? Using humour not to deflect from uncomfortable truth but to put discomfort in its place? Acknowledging truth about ourselves and about others, good and bad? Speaking up when it’s most important? Wisdom to… well I find myself thinking of the Serenity prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Going to the very roots of things. What would that be like for you?


And the winners are:

And now… drumroll… the two readers whose names came out of the Earth Pathways diary draw are: Towanda and Joanna Paterson! I’ll email to get your snail mail addresses. I’m only sorry we couldn’t send a diary to every person who commented. The Earth Pathways team are delighted at the fantastic enthusiasm.


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13 Responses to Goodnight Grandpa!

  1. I love this post! A friend and I were just talking about the bizarreness of aging, and how to approach it gracefully, without panic or depression—what does that even look like?? I love your blog—you have such a thoughtful voice. And I have to admit to a little celebrity crush on Will Geer. 🙂

  2. It used to be OK to be old. It was the natural consequence of living. Live long enough and you will grow old. Old people were important to the community as repositories of knowledge and experience. They were respected for the fact that they had evaded all of life’s dangers and had managed to live so long, and had accumulated knowledge along the way. They were the teachers of the next generation. They were consulted in important decisions. Some scientists believe that it was menopause that made us human — the Grandmother Revolution, females whose value to the community shifted at menopause from child bearing to child rearing, who could mind the children while their parents were out hunting and gathering, who could teach them the basics of being members of the community, who could ensure that more, and wiser children survived infancy. Their long lives became an asset to the tribe, a repository of life knowledge, of history, of what worked and what didn’t. Age and wisdom remained closely associated, and humans lived in extended families. Then in the last couple of centuries things began to change. The rise of medical science, hospitals and treatments that actually worked meant that the sick and elderly were no longer tended in their homes by their family members, but were sent to hospitals. Families began to shed the outer cluster of elders and became nuclear, just parents and children. Grandparents were someplace else, to be visited on holidays. Somewhere we got the idea that old age, infirmity and death were things that children needed to be shielded from. Society became fixated on Youth And Beauty, and age became the enemy. Advertisers have spent a lot of time and money convincing us we don’t want to look our age, that age is not beautiful. People go to ridiculous lengths to “halt the aging process.” We have been taught to be ashamed of what is a natural, normal and inevitable process. We, and the society we are a part of, have forgotten how to age. Time was that old people were in the minority; Now, in America, more people were 65 years and over in 2010 than in any previous census, and we’re having to reinvent what it means to be old, redefine our role in society. Society thought they didn’t need us, but they do. We’re the ones who’ve been there and come back to tell about it. We’ve lived through all those teenaged “My Life Is Over!” moments, first crushes, first dates. We’ve been married, divorced, widowed, miscarried, had children who died, but we survived, learned to cope, learned to love again. We’ve dealt with illness, death and dying. We remember life before television, before computers, before cellphones. We know how to cook without a microwave. They’re going to miss us when we’re gone.

    • I absolutely love what you say here.
      Picking up what you say about cooking without a microwave, I was chatting with friends of a similar vintage to me (us) at the weekend remembering how normal it was when cooking to use every part of the animal, when butchers sold pigs heads for brawn, gave away bones for soup stock and cheap cuts of meat for stews were a normal part of life. We didn’t waste leftovers, they were made into the next meal. Now that expertise is mostly gone.
      But I think it’s being rediscovered, and will have to be as our society simply cannot consume in the way it is doing. We have such an important role to play in that.

  3. Memories of old TV shows (I didn’t get to follow the Waltons for some reason), but interesting post, thanks Tess, because I was thinking recently how profoundly those old TV memories we grew up with linger on (for me lots of Avengers and Startrek scenes). Are those experiences in anyway different really than memories of real life experience? It’s hard to say. I really feel like I explored the skies at one time on various starships, and teamed up with Stead, so debonaire and fun to sleuth with.

  4. I think there can be a real freedom in getting older. It seems to have gotten easier to just be myself, without worrying as much about whether I’m fitting in or keeping up. I’ve never been very good at doing either of those things, so maybe it’s just a growing self-acceptance. But I feel less pressure about it, too. That “invisibility cloak” of middle age means people aren’t paying much attention to me anymore, so I’m free to dance to my own drummer (in comfortable shoes!). And I’ve met enough kindred spirits to think I’m not alone in feeling this way.

    Of course, the physical aspects can be a different story. I’ve made peace with gray hair and wrinkles, but aches and pains and vision changes sometimes defeat me. (And I know those are pretty minor in the grand scheme of things.) I loved that the Waltons brought Grandma back after the actress who played her had a stroke. They wrote it (pretty realistically) into the script, instead of hiding it away or killing her off. And showed how important and valuable she still was to the family.

  5. Great post. Radicalism and roots. You have really got me thinking, Tess.

    On November 18, 1872, Susan B. Anthony was arrested by a U.S. deputy marshal. Her crime? She had voted. (Women could not legally vote in the U.S. until 1920, 48 years later.)

    Ms. Anthony had committed civil disobedience — broken the law, peacefully, for a higher purpose. She was a radical, going to the roots of injustice.

    Today, for me, radicalism and going to the roots is about addressing climate change. The entire educated world knows that it’s happening, is dire, and will create epic suffering. But few individuals or institutions address it, or even verbally acknowledge it on a typical day. That last is even true of me, many days.

    But not tonight. Tonight my husband and I are hosting a dinner party (it’s my 53rd birthday). We have a speaker: Bonnie McKinlay, a climate change activist here in Portland, Oregon. In the course of many demonstrations, she’s committed civil disobedience several times, i.e. peacefully and intentionally gotten arrested.

    Bonnie’s manner is cheerful, upbeat. She clearly feels good about her life and her choices. Maybe that centered, un-angry quality goes along with practicing radicalism, rather than rebellion.

    I’m thinking about eventually taking this path, myself. I don’t need my friends who are coming tonight to do it with me. I just need some moral support.

    Women only gained the right to vote after decades of radicalism. And civil rights only happened in the U.S. after people like Rosa Parks politely insisted on radical things like sitting in the same part of the bus as the white folks.

    Sometimes, yesterday’s radicalism becomes today’s common sense. Of course women can vote. Of course people of color sit in the same part of the bus as white people. Nobody needs to consider getting arrested to create this sanity. 2013 is nice that way.

    Maybe, 48 years down the road, when the earth’s temperature is several degrees warmer, many of the world’s coastal cities have been inundated, and Typhoon Haiyan’s ferocity has been surpassed by dozens of severe weather events, people will wonder why citizens in 2013 had so much trouble addressing the roots of climate change.
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  6. Ah, yes, I remember the Waltons very well as well as Earl Hamner who wrote about them reflecting his family life here in Virginia. I also enjoyed Will Geer and Ellen Corby who played Grandma Walton.

    AMIL and I have just returned from a 10 day visit with her family in Memphis and there was an undercurrent of soft good-byes when we left. Will they see each other again? AMIL’s older sister almost 85, she is 83, and their youngest sibling is 67. All 6 siblings are hale and hearty so far.

    Ta for your thoughtful post yet again, Tess, and congratulations to the winners of the give away.


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