Now that I number myself among the elderly, I’ve been thinking about the time in our life when we have our first really close experience with old people. I’m happy to say that in my case (and probably in many of yours), it was in very early childhood with my grandparents. As children, we consider our parents old, but grandparents seem somehow a different kind of old. Our parents love us, but our grandparents dote on us, are often besotted with us, and so, early on, if we are very lucky, we think of old people as perfect in the way that they adore us.
I began to understand old people in a more objective way in sixth grade when I was twelve. I had a wonderful teacher named Mr. Kuyoth (pronounced “KWEE-yacht”). Our first night’s homework assignment, in fact, was to learn how to spell and pronounce his name. It was in his class that we studied Chinese culture and learned of the reverence that the Chinese people had for their elders. This was the first time I started thinking beyond how my family’s oldest members revered me and instead thought about how we Americans in general regarded our elderly.
Also in my sixth-grade year, our first shopping mall — Glendale — opened, where my friends and I loved to hang out for hours. And it was in this newfangled shopping village that I observed scads of older people as they shopped, seeing them in far greater numbers than the elderly I saw regularly at my synagogue. To this preteen, all these old people seemed a bit like aliens — with their slow, unsteady gait, canes and walkers, often sour expressions, thick glasses, and cupped ears when trying to hear the sales clerks.
Mr. Kuyoth had taught us that the Chinese venerated all elders because of the deep wisdom they had accumulated by living such a long life. But I was being taught another lesson during the same time. Pepsi Cola, desperate to change the fact that Coke outsold it six to one, had begun a new ad campaign for “The Pepsi Generation!” Suddenly, teenagers and young Americans were the center of the advertising universe, making those elderly whom I’d see at the mall seem even older and, worse, utterly Pep-less.
And now I blush to think that from my teenage years all the way through a good chunk of my middle age, I continued to see myself as somehow “young,” separated from the physical and psychological challenges faced by the old. I think it was only when both of my parents had died that I realized that I was now of the generation that needed to face my own mortality without the buffer of my living, loving parents who had shielded me from thinking that I’d join this older rank any time remotely soon.
That was my somber lesson about aging. But I received a joyous lesson when LeRoy and I began to take groups of travelers on our international learning vacations. Most of our travelers had loved planning every aspect of their own trips when they were younger. But now that they were in their seventies and eighties, they were so grateful that we did all the flight arrangements and every hotel, tour guide, and restaurant booking. Their responsibility was only to savor everything.
And did they ever! I still remember the pure joy on their faces when a great guide, perfect landscape, exotic meal, or perfectly analyzed work of art absolutely intoxicated them. They were as eager to learn and as open to new experiences as children, but with a maturity and wisdom that comes with great age. This granted them the priceless gift of never taking any new wonder for granted, as the young too often do.
I was still in my forties when I began leading these trips, and I remember how our participants’ youthful glee made me almost eager to grow old and relish life as fully as they did. And I loved the delightful self-deprecating sense of humor that can come with old age. After one of my after-dinner lectures in Italy, a ninety-year-old raised her hand: “Elliot, I think you should find a new slogan for your travel business that advertises that you’re eagerly seeking really old travelers like us. What’s your catchy motto?”
I thought about it for just a few seconds before inspiration struck. I said “How about: ‘See This World — Before The Next’!”
It elicited the single biggest laugh I’ve ever received in my fifty years of lecturing. They all howled until I thought they’d die — oops!