The Wisest Person In This Car
Wisdom from the driver's seat
Guest Post by: Paula Halpin
I am driving to a local restaurant with my two youngest grandchildren. I am treating them to French fries, which their parents strictly forbid. By flouting this rule, I am trying to impress them with how cool I am. Although I suspect it’s no longer cool to say cool. I believe it has been replaced with something like “dope.”
In the back seat, 10-year-old Olivia is once again reminding her cousin Jack that she is exactly one year and one month older. She has been lording this biological fact over him ever since she could talk. Searching for a scathing response, Jack says, “But you’re not the oldest person in this car. What age is Gran?
“I don’t know her exact age, but I know she’s an elder,” says Olivia, with an air of someone who has an insider scoop. For a moment, there is silence. Both kids fear a line has been crossed.
Contrite, Olivia says, “I didn’t mean to call you an elder, Gran.”
I smile in the driver’s seat. In truth, I am pleased that she didn’t say old or, worse, elderly. I recognize this as one of those teachable moments that parents and grandparents are encouraged to pounce on. I’ve read about this in How to Be a Good Grandparent, the book that sits on the shelf next to the as-yet-unopened Art of Dying Well.
So, in my best “purveyor of wisdom” voice, I tell the kids that the term elder is not in any way an insult. I can sense them shifting in their seats, bracing for a lecture. I go easy on them. I explain that elders contribute a great deal to society during their long lives and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect in their golden years. For good measure, I point out to the cousins that they would not be here had I not been born way back in the last century. They take a second to process all this before going back to their sibling-like rivalry. “I’m taller than you,” she boasts. “But I can run faster,” he fires back.
As I drive on, I think about what it means to be a person of a certain age. I am 74. With no evidence to prove it, I like to believe this is the new 64. I smile at the image of myself that very morning wearing one pink slipper as I plug in the kettle for my tea. Then, across the kitchen floor, I spot the second forlorn-looking slipper waiting patiently to be put on my other foot. Here it comes, I think. The inevitable cognitive decline.
An image of my own maternal grandmother comes to mind. Maisie Ryan was barely fifty when I turned ten. She was plump-cheeked, pleasantly round, and smelled of rose-scented talcum powder. In spring, she would sometimes take me with her to her dressmaker, where she would select fabric for what she called her Easter costume—a made-to-measure jacket and matching skirt. I thought she looked like Princess Margaret when she wore the latest costume to Mass one Easter Sunday.
Like most women of her time, my grandmother never learned to drive. French fries in her day were called chips and fast-food chains were decades off. She may have sampled fries once or twice in her life, likely in one of those country hotels that catered to American tourists.
I remember being amused by Grannie’s old-fashioned expressions, like “heavens to Betsy,” or the inexplicable “handsome is as handsome does.” She could be relied upon to come up with a pithy aphorism for any occasion. “Marry in haste, repent at leisure,” I once heard her whisper at a wedding that had been pulled together at the last minute.
On another occasion, I witnessed her fear of losing her memory. She was not more than fifty-five the day this happened. We were in her kitchen when she suddenly pulled some bits of paper from her apron pocket and chucked them into the open range. Pocket dumping was a ritual of her endless cleaning. Suddenly, she shrieked in alarm. She had thrown a ten-pound note into the fire.
“I forgot the tenner was in there,” she said. “My poor brain is slowing down.”
She’s old, I remember thinking. In the end, she lived to be seventy with what I believe was undiagnosed dementia.
The sound of Olivia and Jack arguing about who is better at the video game Minecraft brings me back to the present. When we reach the restaurant, the kids dash from the car. I follow more slowly. Inside, we tuck into a shared large fries, which I eat with salt, and they drown in ketchup. Not for the first time today, I marvel at their impossibly fresh complexions and big, bright eyes.
Satisfied by the starch and the fat, we head for home. Olivia and Jack know the drill. Best not to mention the fries—unless, of course, the parents ask. It would be wrong to suggest they lie, right?
When I was their age, Grannie would have surreptitiously slipped me a handful of gobstoppers, which were outlawed because they could break your teeth. Grandparents are still inclined to occasionally ditch the wisdom and bend the rules. Being an elder comes with benefits.
Paula Halpin: Retired magazine editor living in the beautiful Gatineau Hills of western Quebec. Grateful for finally having the time, perspective and opportunity to write stories.