wisdom: the ability or result of an ability to think and act utilizing knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense, and insight
In a little under three months I’ll be 56 and whilst not exactly hurtling towards 60, 50 is becoming a decidedly more distant spot in the rear vision mirror! Along with ‘laugh lines’ and greying hair, the most common cliché you hear about aging is that it brings wisdom. Just look at popular culture – Gandalf, Obi-Wan – and for those of a certain vintage, Mr Miyagi. (The fact they are all men is a little troubling and perhaps fodder for future discussion.) Wise women, in general, seem to always be portrayed as kindly grandmothers or old crones. (Also somewhat troubling!) Well my wisdom tells me there are probably a bazillion people out there who are just as clueless in their 60s or 70s as they were in their 20s! I think the assumption is that with age comes experience and that if you have any internal dialogue or self-awareness whatsoever, your past experience and experiences will have some kind of impact on your future actions. Experience, not time, is what changes you, informs your choices, feeds your fears, encourages you to take chances, isolates you, frees you, compels you to choose certain paths.
According to my mother, my grandmother was a very stern, non-demonstrative woman. She just got on with the business of farming and raising five children, one of whom had Down Syndrome. Of course it couldn’t have been easy but I wonder how much was character and how much could have been her experience with her own mother? My husband’s mother, likewise unaffectionate, lost her father at 11. Did that experience influence the way she interacted with her own children? In my mother’s case, she told me she made a conscious decision to become the opposite of her own mother and succeeded in spades, becoming the most loving, attentive parent a child could ever wish for. Hopefully, I am honouring her memory by raising my son the same way in the hope he will do the same when he becomes a dad….which, fingers crossed, will happen before they wheel me into Shady Pines!
Friends of mine recently had a baby. Beautiful, healthy baby girl. They chose a name for her that means “bright and shining”. They also happened to have bought my childhood home so she will begin her life in the same bedroom in which I began mine. I wonder what those walls would tell her if they could speak. What would they remember about the girl who came before? Would they even mention that, at 5, she should have been a big sister to a little boy named Robert? Probably not. I don’t even remember my mother being pregnant.
What I do remember is my father never wanting to talk about him. Never wanting me to even say his name. Mum was OK but I never really asked about it, initially because I was too young then, as a teenager, because your focus becomes so steadfastly on yourself, you know, no-one else matters, least of all your parents. Fast forward to working and living a life and the whole thing drops off your radar completely… until the universe says ‘not so fast’ and slaps you so hard your knees buckle. I must have been in my 20s when my mother, whose friend’s husband had recently died, asked me whether I wouldn’t mind driving them both to the cemetery for a quick visit. One thing I did know about Robert was that he was buried in the same cemetery. I had come across the site record in the drawer where my parents kept their passports, paid bills and other paperwork. They had never taken me to his grave and I don’t believe they had ever been back since the day he was buried – July 18, 1963 – at 6 weeks old, four days before my 5th birthday.
I rifled through the draw, found the card and took it with me, purely out of curiosity. In retrospect, it was quite ridiculous how blithe and blasé I was – how totally unprepared I was for any kind of emotional reaction….the possibility never even crossed my mind. Me, who even at that age, cried at commercials. I don’t know what I expected but what I found was an overgrown patch of ground, unidentifiable as a grave and a grief so profound I struggle to describe it. But I understand now why some cultures wail. Even after 30 years, I can still see myself, just standing there, trying to control great, heaving, choking sobs so my mother wouldn’t hear. Bereft. It’s not a word you hear very often but it’s how I felt. The irony is, that tiny strip of unkempt earth brought my brother back to life, finally made him real to me and every so often, something random happens and I think, “What would my life have looked like had he still been around?”.
Times and attitudes were different then and I’m sure no-one thought to take a picture of a little sick baby, so I have nothing of him but his name. Except that’s not really true. My father chose to remember my brother in silence. That day in the cemetery was the beginning of my realization that there is no “standard” for expressing happiness or sadness. There are only our expectations. One of the reasons Lindy Chamberlain was judged so harshly was her stoicism in the face of her daughter’s death and the television cameras. Why wasn’t she crying, breaking down, showing her grief in public? She must be guilty. That’s not how a mother behaves.
When it comes to life and how we deal with it, there is no “one size fits all” and recognising that seems the most basic wisdom of all.
“Wisdom is the daughter of experience.” ~ Leonardo da Vinci