Lent Reflection 5: Our Older Friends
Amos Disasa and his father Jerman shared essays inspired by our Lent 2012 theme “Reintroducing You” during our mid-week lunch gatherings at The Spot on Blanding. Each week Amos and his father, inspired by a common theme and connected by one very long journey, read one essay. The genesis of the project can be explored here. The archive of essays is here.
Writing about your past is not easy. Five essays in five weeks totaling about 5,000 words is all I can take of myself. My father likely doubled that output as he ran past the 1,000 word limit we committed to at the start. But it wasn’t the work that wore me out. It was a surprise to uncover my story and discover that it wasn’t as sentimental or epic as I remembered. The writing forced me to slow down, find the right word, and be honest about things that likely were suppressed or ignored in previous attempts to find my “happily ever after”. The story my dad told about our travel here through three airports hasn’t stopped echoing in my spirit. I am afraid to touch it still. That story is like a new pair of shoes that I don’t want to get dirty with an absent minded step. So for now, I will hold it close but wait a bit before I take it out. For now, I will wait for the new things I know about my family and the God that never left us alone to be resurrected in the story I write with the rest of my life through each “ever after” that will come tomorrow.
Amos’ reflection on our older friends
I don't know their first names. In that way, my memory of them is incomplete. In place of first names, my mind associates objects with each of them. Mrs. Ross is known by a letter opener. Mrs. Dalby is depicted by a custom ashtray installed in my father's old yellow Subaru. Mrs. Franklin gets to be a rake. And Mrs. Owens retains the most formidable object, a refrigerator.
Besides the absence of a first name, two other features of their story hold these women to one another in the fabric of my conscience. First, they are all old. It isn't important to know their exact age. There is a number, relative to each of us, where we will cease being an adult and become elderly. At that point, already fixed by our DNA, our age, not our race, vocation, whether we use facebook or just have an account, our family, or tax bracket, becomes the single defining feature of our existence. Everything we do and say, including how we walk and where we go to church and our sleeping patterns will be understood as just one part of the larger narrative that we are old. Once we cross this invisible line, which is evidenced in an abundance of visible lines on our face that are too deep to bother extracting with surgery or magic creams, the finitude of death, raher than the possibility of life becomes the subject of our prayers. Mrs. Ross, Franklin, Dalby, and Owens lived on the other side of this line.
The other feature of their story that bonds them together is their friendship with my father. Indeed, it is bizarre that four old white women were the object of my father's affection. Even as a young boy, I understood that his constant doting and attention weren't ordinary. These relationships didn't offer any obvious material reward. There wasn't much prestige to be earned either. Each of them, in their own way, necessitated a sacrifice from him that couldn't be reclaimed in this world. His principle sacrifice was time and attention, two precious treasures that we often neglect. But the fascinating reality of these relationships is that they loved him back.
Mrs. Ross' letter opener sat near a stack of opened letters on her coffee table. We visited Mrs. Ross at her apartment in a tall building facing Maxy Gregg Park. I didn't know it at the time, but the apartment building was constructed specifically for old people. As a young boy somewhere between 4 and 10, visits to Mrs. Ross' apartment were memorable for the elevator ride to her small, cluttered apartment and the unobstucted view from her living room window. Nothin remarkable, besides the weird occasion of two people talking, happened on these visits. Yet, we stayed for what seemed like hours. The conversations were always filled with laughter and exhibited the kind of mutual respect that can't be faked. My young heart wondered why we bothered with these frequent visits, as laughter and conversation were available elsewhere. But now I know why he did it. He loved Mrs. Ross, just because. And she loved him because he didn't know that you were supposed to treat old people like they were about to die.
Mrs. Dalby's custom ashtray was installed to make her trips in the old subaru to get medicine or visit the doctor more comfortable. She lived on Rosewood and was another object of Ababa's affection. Mrs. Franklins' rake was his preferred tool on Saturdays when we raked her yard just because. I remember her being particular about her yard, in the way only old people can be. Mrs. Owens' fridge was moved by me and a friend when we travelled through Kansas on a cross country trip after college. My father told me that I had to swing through Kansas on my way from Denver to Knoxville and visit her. When I asked why, he said, just because.
I'm not certain, but I think Ababa held these women in his heart as if they were his mother. For a father, an immigrant fighting for survival, the love of a mother isnt optional, it's necessary. Also, immigrants and old people are drawn together by the unique experience of being present but not noticed. They are both strangers.
Jerman’s reflection on our older friends
Let me share with you a few examples of my encounters with elderly citizens, one from Ethiopia, three from South Carolina, and one from Kansas.
When I was growing up in rural Ethiopia, finding someone old enough to be a grandparent in my village was a rare occurrence. Life expectancy was estimated at 42. There were not kids who could claim to have a grandparent. When we find one, that grandma would be adored, listened to, and revered. Also, a kid who happened to have a grandparent had a special respect from peers as he could make references to his living ancestral traits.
Blind, Akko (Grandma) Leemmu was the only elderly grandma I could remember living in my entire, Abote Chefe village in Ghidami, Wollega, Ethiopia. She and her orphaned grandson, Ayala, lived alone in a small hut on their inherited piece of land. Six-year-old Ayala was too young to provide support for this two-member family. The villagers, who loved and revered Akko Leemmu, provided staple food supplies for their daily needs. In return, Akko Leemmu visited nearby homes just to sit around with children and dispense wisdom, tell animal stories, lecture on local history, strengthen the sense of belonging to the village, and deliver other character-shaping instructions. Akko Leemmu became an indispensable baby sitter even as a visually impaired grandma.
The parents of the children were out on the field taking care of farm duties such as plowing, tilling, weeding, or harvesting, depending on the season we were in. Being of the same age, Ayala and I tended to the farm animals together as shepherd boys. We kept ourselves busy playing together all day principally to overcome the intensity of the hunger and the intense longing for the return home where, in the evening, we could find physical and emotional warmth. Yes, it was uncommon for children to have grandparents. Grandparents died before the children were old enough to get married around age 15 and have children. By age 15, therefore, the kids had experienced grief, loss, and the fear of death. They lost grandparents before the kids were old enough to collect enough memories of them. Children, therefore, learned to value grandparents dearly early, for they knew they would lose them before too long.
I never got the chance to know my grandparents. They all died long before I was two. And so did my father before I was two. For me, Ayala’s grandmother became my grandmother. I obeyed Akko Leemmu. I ate from her coarse hands, I watched and loved her beautiful, wrinkled face, I listened to her scary stories of bulgu (an animal that turned into a human, and also ate other animals and humans), and stories of bravery. She told me biographical stories of my forefathers. She knew my father very well more than anyone knew him. She taught me a love song that depicted the fine character of my father, which I still repeat to myself to remind me of the strength of my past. She helped me memorize the sequence of my patriarchal genealogy back to 11 generations ago: Jerman, Disasa, Tura, Boneya, Gopho, Wolde, Jato, Chefe, Wenaghe, Abilo, Billo… By the time my grandchildren Abraham and Shepherd learn to repeat from their memory, the line will have stretched to 13 generations.
Even though I grew up without grandparents (and biological father), all older persons in the village served me as my parents and grandparents. I had always had older relatives, family members (including half-brothers and sisters), neighbors and village-mates—all of whom served me as my parents and grandparents. Not having your own biological parents and grandparents would not serve you as an excuse for ill-behaved upbringing. It was with this nurturing, cultural fear of the authority of age seniority at our background that my wife Nigatwa, my son Amos, and I began life in the United States. We wanted to stay close to where we could have the touch of the elderly in our community. We deeply felt fortunate to have found many of them upon arrival. The first group that came to give us a start at life on the University of South Carolina campus included several elderly citizens. They met us with household supplies, food, toys, other needed materials, and genuine sense of love and friendship. Just as Akko Leemmu started me off on the right track in the village, these elderly Americans paddled my family and me on the path that would lead to responsible living and productive engagements in life. The errors we exhibit today are not what we inherited from those godly, elderly Christian friends in Columbia; they are our own errors.
It was also the love that these elderly citizens showed me that further stimulated my interest in seeking other elderly citizens in Columbia to begin a meaningful relationship outside the university campus. When I shared my interest in the elderly with my Eastminster Presbyterian pastor, Dr. Ernst Thompson, he immediately connected me with Mrs. Franklin, a homebound, elderly member of that church. He suggested she could possibly enjoy my company and use my help in the yard. She lived alone in a big house. She treated Amos and Raaji as her own grandchildren. Our volunteer help included mainly yard work: cutting the grass with push lawn mower, weeding flower beds and minor inside work.
Mrs. Franklin grew up in South Carolina in the 1930s. She gave me a first-hand education on life in America in the 1930s. Her basement was full of reminders from that decade. To make sure I got the history of the Depression years to the core of my marrow, she led me to the basement of the house, to a thick, heavy-looking refrigerator. She gave me a long lecture on it and on the Depression. Her first focus was on the durability of items made then. The refrigerator was a case in point. She said it was made in 1932 and it was still working in the 1980s (maybe it is still working today, long after Mrs. Franklin had passed away). She reminded me further, “These days, you guys buy an item and before too long, you are ready to throw it away; you do not have the habit of making things to last or the culture of keeping it long.” I knew she was referring to our fleeting values.
Secondly, using the opportunity, she wanted to instill in my children and in me family values and work ethic. She shared with me with a considerable seriousness on her face and through the deep tone of her words how she and her 9 siblings survived after her family lost everything to the Depression. She said, “We lost all that our family owned, but we knew how to scratch the earth and live on it.” She sounded to me she was from rural Ethiopia, where everyone is taught from birth the respect for the whole scope of labor-intensive farming in order to survive. We all knew how to clear the field, plow with oxen, cultivate the land appropriately for various crops, hoe your rows, pull out the weed, harvest, thresh, and store the grains. We followed the seasons and worked toward harmony with nature. Mrs. Franklin’s description of the survival techniques in the 1930s in South Carolina took me back to my years of growing up in my village in the 1950s .
After Mrs. Franklin passed away, my family and I concentrated on Mrs. Ross, who, unlike Mrs. Franklin, was a lover of books. She lived on the 12th floor of a retirement facility overlooking the Five Point area of Columbia. Her apartment was packed with all kinds of antic stuff but mostly with old and recent books and newspapers. There was no place to sit on her sofa or elsewhere in this one-bedroom apartment. And there was no place to put the books on the sofa unless you put them on your lap while you have a conversation with Mrs. Ross. There was no chance for boredom or complaint. The beauty of it was that she was not going to apologize for the apparent mess or for the lack of space to sit. She was very proud of her literary treasure. You are expected to make a room for yourself if you wanted to sit down.
Her house reminded me of my experience with tropical jungles, a place where all plant and animal species are intertwined and live happily together. To me, Mrs. Ross considered herself a happy resident who had learned how to enjoy all that she was surrounded by. Even her caged parrot displayed lonely contentment. All Mrs. Ross wanted from us and for us was to sit down together and listen to each other. She needed a human company. It was in Mrs. Ross’s apartment that I truly sensed the loneliness of the elderly. She also wanted to know about Africa and about my childhood years. We were sad when she moved to Augusta, GA, to be closer to her daughter. She did not have a relative close by in Columbia.
After Mrs. Ross had moved to Augusta, Mrs. Dalby became our family’s focus. Mrs. Dalby lived alone in her two-bed-room house in the Rosewood area of Columbia. Though her son and his family lived in another part of Columbia, Mrs. Dalby preferred to live alone in spite of the health problems she had to deal with. She had to live with an oxygen tank constantly. Our volunteer work included yard work, inside cleaning, transporting her, as well as sitting with her and listening to her childhood and adulthood stories that covered practically the South as a whole all the way to Shreveport, Louisiana. Because of her significant memory loss (especially for recent events in her life), she was frustrated but quite sharp on letting us know what she wanted and what she did not want. She was particularly adamant that I kept the toddler (Siega) away from touching her glass cabinet, a special lamp, and window blinds. We had to keep the boy away especially from her special stainless silverware set that only my wife was allowed to polish each time we stopped by. Mrs. Dalby was afraid the toddler would ruin the looks and quality of the set with which she had been intimately connected for years. Again, above all things, the greatest joy she had about our coming to her house was the opportunity for companionship. Knowing that once upon a time she was like us and sometime in the future we would be like her, I looked forward to being with her and increase my understanding of the minds and hearts of our the elderly citizens.
Four years ago, I had the courage to take a Greyhound Bus from Greenville, SC, to Salina, Kansas, from where I would get a ride to Ellinwood, Kansas, 60 miles away to visit my 92-year-old dear friend. I had been corresponding with Mrs. Pauline Owens since my college years at Sterling College in Sterling, Kansas. Mrs. Owens never failed to stay in touch with me even during the most difficult years of my life under Marxist Ethiopia. Somehow, she managed to get a letter to me when I needed it the most. My 27-hour bus ride to Salina once again reminded me of my first exposure to the U. S., a 33-hours bus ride from Pittsburgh, PA, to Wichita, Kansas. This recent trip to Kansas rekindled in me my admiration for this land. I am exceedingly happy to have gone to see Mrs. Owens because a year later she passed away. I am now in touch with her grandchildren. The love of Kansas endured in me because of Mrs. Owens.
Today, as I think of the elderly, I always conclude my reflection with a statement that comes from George Washington Culver, an American educator from the 1940s. His observation is just as critical and biblical today as it was in the 1940s: “How far you go in life will depend on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the week and strong. Because sometime in life, you will have been all of these.”