Tuesday, November 18, 2014
THE TRUE VALUE OF ELDERS
I spent a dozen years teaching and living in Native Alaskan villages; my wife is also Native American – she is a registered member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Massachusetts.
I admire the respect shown to Elders by all Native tribe members, both young and old. Elders are held in a special venerated position, and during Potlatch and special ceremonies Elders always feel free to stand up and lecture the tribe or gathering – and everyone listens respectfully to their every word.
During such time I have often found myself sitting through disjointed ramblings of circular and pointless stories expressing bias and even raciest views; and I admire the people who respect their elders enough to listen attentively.
As I have said before: age does not automatically confer wisdom; it often calcifies past prejudices and results in a rigid view of the world in past tense.
The aged, however, do have an untapped resource of untold value. As custodians of living history they have tales on a personal and local level of life and times past: perhaps this is the real history.
After retiring from the military my wife and I attended college. One of our class projects was the recording of living history of the western Maine area. We located subjects between the age of seventy (old to me at that time) and ninety, and recorded their vivid remembrances of youth and early life.
A ninety two year old wood cutter recounted his life during the depression. Wood cutting at that time was done with whip saws and axes. He hired six men to harvest the timber, paying them one dollar a day and room and board. The men lived in his barn. His wife would prepare rolled oats and maple syrup, harvested from their own trees, for the breakfast meal. The evening meal was always meat (deer bear or moose) and potatoes that he had grown during the summer. Oxen were used to drag the timbers to a loading area; and then he would transported the timber to the local mills on a sled pulled by eight oxen.
A seventy year old woman we recorded told of raising six children while her husband worked in a wood mill. Along with local history she gave us a number of recipes, including her recipe for biscuits – which we later tried.
I was raised by my grandmother who was born in 1892. I am sorry to say that I never questioned her about life in the Mississippi Delta at the turn of the century.
As a young boy in the 1950’s I would visit with an elderly neighbor in her late nineties. She would tell me stories about her life in the Delta during the Civil War. I was young so remember very little of her tales – it is a shame someone didn't record her knowledge for posterity.
Now, I am in my seventies. I was raised during a time before television. Our telephone number was 126 and my great uncle’s number was 6. If you didn't know a person’s number you could just tell the operator who you were calling and she would ring them.
Mail was the standard way of communicating over a distance. Stamps were three cents and postcards were a penny. It took a week for a letter from my grandmother to reach her daughter in Kentucky and another week for an answer.
My grandmother and I lived on one side of a shotgun house. They called them shotgun houses because a hallway ran down the center of the house, and you could shoot a shotgun through the front door and it would exit the back door. Across the hall was an older couple that owned the house. Most local houses, including ours, were built on brick pillars, because before the levees the Delta would flood every summer.
We had three rooms: two bedrooms and a kitchen and a small bath. There was flowered linoleum on all the floors. In each room a light was suspended from the ceiling on a cloth covered electrical cord. A screen porch stretched across the front of the house and at night in the summer my grandmother and the old couple would sit on the porch to escape the heat – I would often fall asleep in the swing.
After the rent, my grandmother and I lived on twenty-five dollars a month. A loaf of bread was fifteen cents and a quart of milk was a quarter. I usually had grits for breakfast, sometimes bacon and eggs – the eggs came from my great uncles coop across the street. I qualified for reduced lunches at school. During the summer my lunch was usually a mayonnaise sandwich – two pieces of Wonder bread with mayonnaise; sometimes a pineapple sandwich – two pieces of bread with mayonnaise and a ring of pineapple; or a tomato sandwich –two pieces of bread with mayonnaise and tomato; or a lettuce sandwich, you guessed it, two pieces of bread with mayonnaise and lettuce (I still love those sandwiches today.) Supper was usually something simple: sometimes a piece of meat with rice and gravy; greens, tomatoes, beans and okra if they were in season; but almost always rice and gravy, biscuits and gravy or bread and gravy.
One of my uncles owned an automobile dealership and sold Kaisers and Henry J’s; but he went broke and later moved to New Orleans. He is the uncle that gave me my first gun when I was twelve years old: a 22 cal. bolt action rifle that I still own.
My grandmother and I didn't have a car, but I had a J.C. Higgins, red and white, twenty-six inch bicycle that I road from second grade to ninth (until I was old enough that I was ashamed to be riding a bicycle to school.)
Before moving to Mississippi at age eight, we had lived in Kentucky. I remember the Second World War and star flags in peoples windows. I remember ration books and tokens used for money.
My memories of the history, politics or current events of my early years is crap – but I remember the things I experienced growing up in the forties and fifties; that is, of course, considered only nostalgia in the overview of history.
But, perhaps it is not the big things elders remember that is of consequence, but just the everyday life of a different time and place.
Sorry for such a long winded blog entry.