Show some respect for your elders

When I was a young child, an old man from our neighborhood used to go from house to house with a wheelbarrow, selling vegetables from his garden. I don’t remember his name or what he looked like.

But I remember my father asking him a question: “Who was the first president you ever voted for?” His answer: “Teddy Roosevelt, 1904.”

I bring this up because Monday 18 September is Respect for the Elderly Day. I didn’t know that? No shame there. I don’t know either, except that the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Chicago Public Media sent an email encouraging us to celebrate this day.

It started in Japan in 1966 – that word “aging” is a gift. It’s not a word many Americans would use to describe themselves or anyone else. Nor “old”.

I remember being at the birthday party of Harry Heftman, who owned the Chicago hot dog stand at Randolph and Franklin. He seemed a little grumpy about his eyes, and I thought I’d start a column, “Harry Heftman Looks Old…” and asked his daughter if she thought he minded. “Oh no, you I cannot,“Harry will do it,” she said, terrified. Dislikes “Which.” Heftman was 103 years old.

If you can’t be 103, when can you become old? The honest answer is: never. Not in our culture. Contempt for the elderly is the last acceptable prejudice. Our culture sticks the elderly into slums, so we automatically never stop to question the practice.

At 63 years old, I have one foot in the boat and one foot on the dock. Especially since my parents are alive, they are 91 and 87 years old. Having moved them from Boulder to Buffalo Grove last year, and been tending to their increasingly complex care ever since, I have a lot of respect, but I can’t write a tribute to aging without realizing that getting old is simply terrible—throwing away all hope and joy. She gets it at all, while undergoing expensive tortures straight out of Dante’s Inferno.

“The cold friction of the expiration of sensation,” T. S. Eliot wrote. “Without magic, you make no promise / But the bitter taste of shadow fruit / When body and soul begin to crumble.”

And after. The elderly have experiences that we can only read about in history books. They’ll tell you as much, if you ask. It can be a valuable connection. Years ago, I took Leon Despres, the former 5th Ward alderman, to lunch, because he was so articulate — “the conscience of the council.”

I wanted to know how he, a man alone, could stand up and fight for what he knew was right. People brag their whole lives about going to Selma to march. Despres chartered a plane to bring others with him.

Despres also went on a date with art icon Frida Kahlo. How many times can you have lunch with a guy who did that? Which?

I’m as biased as the next person. I remember a reader contacted me and asked if I would like to go with him to visit a 106-year-old woman. My initial reaction was a sympathetic: “Oh my God, no!”

But I had enough sense to turn away from that reaction, recognize its falsehood, and go meet Edith Renfro Smith, the first black graduate of Grinnell College who met Amelia Earhart and reminisced about her grandparents, who were born into slavery.

You don’t need to go out of your way. Don’t rush to honk the horn when the elderly person hesitates to get the green light. Look them in the eye. When I go to visit my family, I make sure to say hello to every person sitting in the hallway whose eyes meet mine, inspired more by John Prine than anyone else:

So if you’re walking down the street sometime

He discovered some ancient, hollow eyes

Please don’t pass by them and stare at them

As if you don’t care, say, hey, hey

If nothing else, make a deposit into a karma bank that you might be lucky enough to withdraw from one day. My turn is coming. I can feel the hoofbeats getting closer.

I hope one day someone will say to me: “Did you really meet Lillian Gish, the silent film icon, who danced with Sarah Bernhardt and starred in D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in 1915?” And I would say yes, I spoke to her. I have her signature to prove it.

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