My mother was born in 1921. The Model T Ford was in its heyday, though her family on the Saskatchewan prairie wouldn’t have owned one at the time. Women were not long out of floor-length skirts and corsets, high necks and puffy sleeves. At 13, she already had the beat, so was recruited to her father’s band as a drummer. The family would pile into a wagon behind the horses and head off to play at one of a number of community dance halls within a 40 mile radius. She went to a one-room school. She fought with her seven brothers and sisters—it was a time when everybody had a houseful of siblings. She was part of the great social disturbance of swing and jazz. She milked cows, rode everywhere on horseback. She grew up through the Dirty Thirties and as a young woman saw people around her going off to war.
It’s hard for me to even imagine that world. There have always been motorised vehicles and trousers and canned music in my world. But I was shaped by other things. Like many people my age in that time I was raised on a farm. There were no telephones in rural areas until I was twelve (whereupon my friend Brenda and I monopolised the party line); the “power came through” when I was old enough to remember. I became a teenager when the concept was still shiny new. I was part of the great social disturbance of rock’n’roll.
It must be hard for my daughter to even imagine that world. She was a city girl from day one, surrounded by people and traffic and television and portable music devices. She was there when emails were invented, and Facebook, and notebook PCs. She’s never lived in a place of her own that had a landline.
And although I was part of my daughter’s world, there’s still a barely visible wall there somewhere. Maybe the barrier is an expression of that “Give me a child until he’s seven…” thing. Our youth has such a strong and long-lasting impact on us. Those early years are indelible.
On Canada Day, I took Mum and her good friend Vonnie to a barbecue and vintage car show at a stylish seniors’ residence that clearly has plenty of marketing budget for wooing potential customers. What a good time they had! They chatted endlessly with each other, and conversed easily with other seniors. And the things I learned while we toured the vintage cars: Vonnie and her new husband had borrowed a friend’s Studebaker when they travelled to the next town over for their honeymoon; Mum and Dad’s Ford had no brakes as they nursed it up the mountain to Miette Hotsprings on their wedding day. It was a different world, but, my goodness, what an interesting one!
And yet, you can hardly read a weekend paper without encountering an article somewhere referring to the battle of the generations. A young writer observes that baby boomers, exercising the entitlement that comes with their sizeable generation, are privileged, selfish and boring. A grey-head complains that Gen X (or Y, or whatever) are privileged and selfish with short attention spans. I intensely dislike this labelling process. We are shaped by our era, as is the rest of our generation, and to translate that into a judgement isn’t useful. Observation and distinction-making can be valuable, but labels like “privileged” and “self-centred” are absolutely not. They reinforce differences when we’d be better off finding common ground. We might never get real “skin in the game” of understanding another generation, but we can try. We can practice empathy.
—None of which refutes my observation about how Mum and her friend come alive in the company of other octo- and nonagenarians in a way that I don’t see with anyone else. There’s a relaxed quality about their conversations, even with strangers, that surely comes from that common ground of being. I feel the same way when I’m with any of my same-age friends. I felt it the other day when I met my daughter’s boyfriend’s parents. I know a lot about who you are, we’re all thinking. I know some of what you went through in life. “I grok you,” as the Stranger in a Strange Land would say.
I am present to how much we need that same-generation contact, and how important it is for Mum. If we are organising for her to be here in her beautiful and familiar home with her granddaughter to guard over her, she still needs the occasional company of her peers. Such times are a respite from the emotions that come with having to deal with other generations: bewilderment at least, bemusement at best, suspicion and mistrust at worst.
My daughter just saw her partner Colby out the door for his first day of training at his new job, making a little joke about not forgetting his Star Wars lunch box. It’s a universal principle, this proudly taking your new lunch box as you head off for your first day of school. I had to smile, thinking of my own beloved Mickey Mouse lunch box, and of Mum’s description of the lard pail she used to carry to school. Line them up on the windowsill, those three lunch pails. How alien they are to each other!
But how much more they have in common.