Posted by: Kerry Gans | June 30, 2011

The Gift of Our Elders

Americans live in a society that does not value its elderly. This is a fact, and a sad one. I am heavily interested in genealogy, and even though my parents taught me early on to respect the older members of our family (and society), it was not until I got older that I began to appreciate them as real people. People with amazing stories to tell and wisdom to share. And at just about the time I began to realize what a treasure they were, they began to die.

On June 11, my family lost two gems on the same night—my great-aunt Clare (aged 93) and my great-uncle Ed (aged 90). Ed was married to Clare’s sister. Clare and her sister were my grandmother’s sisters—the last three people to carry the Warren surname in my line. Now only the youngest sister remains.

I didn’t get to know my Aunt Clare nearly as well as I would have liked. She lived on the opposite coast, in Washington, so I saw her rarely. As the eldest of the Warren sisters, we called her the Matriarch of the family. Aunt Clare lived up to that title—she took great pride in the Warren clan and all of our accomplishments. She found great joy in joining us all for rare sprawling family reunions, and loved getting cards from us even as her health declined.

The few times I met her in person, I remember her quick laugh and sparkling eyes, and the genuine interest she showed in every member of the family, no matter how young. And I remember her telling us that she always disliked her formal name of Clara, and therefore always used Clare—so much so that her younger sister had never even known that Clara was her real name! We will all miss her warm heart and bright smile.

I knew Uncle Ed slightly better. I had visited him and my great-aunt several times at their retirement community. He was a fantastic woodworker, carving birds and ducks so good they should be in a museum. He enjoyed trains, too, and cars—for years Uncle Ed had met my father, brother, nephew, and uncle for the annual Philadelphia Car Show. Uncle Ed was also a compulsive photographer. While I can’t honestly ever remember him with a camera in his hand, he had carousels of slides from when his children (and my father) were young, and he loved to show them when given the opportunity.

Uncle Ed embodied kindness—a soft voice, a welcoming smile, and gentle eyes. His love for all his family was always obvious, as was his love for his wife. Once, when my husband and I were visiting them, Uncle Ed told us that his courtship with my great-aunt had several parallels to ours. Among them was that he had lived in New Jersey, my aunt in Pennsylvania. He had to cross the river every time he wanted to see her and pay the hefty 25-cent toll. He decided he had better marry my aunt quickly, before he went broke!

The year my husband and I married was Uncle Ed and my aunt’s 60th wedding anniversary. We made sure to take a picture with them at our reception, to commemorate their achievement and in hopes that we can do as well in our marriage. Uncle Ed and his wife faced all of their lives—the good and the bad—with love, laughter, and faith, and we hope we can do the same.

Unlike Aunt Clare, Uncle Ed did get to meet my daughter at one of the monthly family get-togethers at a diner near their house. I am grateful for that, although my daughter will not remember. But I will remember.

I will remember these two warm, kind, gentle people who lived their lives with discipline, fortitude, and respect for their fellow human beings. I will remember that while the world they grew up in has vanished, their values and principles should not. I will remember how they lived and how they loved, and be forever grateful for this gift from my elders.

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Responses

  1. What a great post, Kerry. You’re opening brought to mind how the American Indian culture values its elderly in ways we would do well to mimic. For instance, you mention Aunt Clare missing the chance to meet your daughter. Living grandmothers, in most tribes, are the ones who first touch a child at birth before handing the child to its mother. As we know from the story of the duckling who thought the first animal it saw was its mother, that first connection is eternally important.

    Sure we can live happy, fulfilled lives after the doctor passed us off to the nurse who laid us on our mommy’s tummy, but it just isn’t the same … for all the reasons you so eloquently describe above.

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  2. THANK you, Kerry, for this wonderful memoir. You captured them both so well.

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  3. Thank you for this sweet verbal snapshot of my mother and Uncle Ed. Our big extended family was very dear to them.

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  4. Kerry, I was so touched by your lovely description of two people exceedingly dear to my heart. You captured their wonderful spirits very well. It is comforting and gratifying to me that our special ancestors continue to be remembered and honored by later generations. Thank you for this gift to our family.

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  5. I’m glad to remind people of the treasures we have in our midst. They will be missed.

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  6. Kerry, What a great tribute to your great aunt and uncle. My grandparents passed away before I had the chance to really appreciate what they had to offer. But learned early to appreciate and acrue as much family history etc from my parents before they passed away. They too were great people who left us too soon but know they are and always will be watching over me and my family.
    Debbie

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  7. […] know if it was a grace that came with age, or if it was a hallmark of her generation, but I said similar things about her husband and sister, who left us on the same day last year. Aunt Marge was the last of her generation in my family. She […]

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