National Grandparents Day: Our elders are badasses who changed the world

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One of my very lovely and smart Facebook friends brought to my attention that today is National Grandparents Day. She asked everyone to share stories about their beloved grandparents. Folks quickly piped in with beautiful anecdotes primarily pertaining to memories of cooking, laughing or being reprimanded by elders.

I almost began to share how my grandmother taught me how to cook Caribbean cuisine, which has become an important tie to my culture and one of the important ways that I express love for my friends and extended community.

But then I thought -- wait a freakin' minute -- all of this sentimentality. Our elders were and are profoundly innovative, courageous and tenacious.

My grandmother, now institutionalized and living with dementia, was the first child of a mixed-raced mother who was born on a Caribbean plantation. She survived a childhood fraught with the vestiges of slavery, suffered horrific emotional abuse, slept beneath porches after leaving home, taught herself how to sew and became a revered seamstress, and travelled to Canada alone so that I could seize opportunities that would never be available to me in my country of birth. She was and is a profoundly imperfect woman who sometimes fought men (and won), raised her voice in public spaces to remind people that she was not invisible, watched televised church sermons and wrestling matches with great fervour, and had an impeccable sense of style.

Long before I came along, my grandmother, like so many other elders, was a straight up badass.

Sadly, the strength and spunk of our grandparents is often overlooked. This is due to a number of factors, not least being our preoccupation with young people and youth culture. A few things that have truly defined our time is the rate of change, migration to cities and our intrigue with all things new and shiny. We’ve developed a whole genre of entertainment geared specifically to youth, we spend billions of dollars on products and procedures designed to slow down the hands of time, and we actually use idioms like "sick" with a straight face. Sure, young people are an absolute delight. But by exclusively associating excitement, vitality, beauty and hope for the future with 'youthfulness' we've inadvertently diminished the incredible attributes of our elders.

Another reason the strength and spunk of our grandparents is overlooked is that most of us are way too busy to listen to their stories. Think about how annoyed we get by epic e-mails and tweets that are actually 150 characters. We've become impatient, and in fairness, increasingly busy. There are fewer and fewer moments for sitting at the feet of our elders to simply listen to their stories.

Many of us don't have the opportunity to learn about our grandparents (and ourselves) so it is no wonder that we don't fully realize how awesome they are. This situation is further agitated by the representation of elders in popular narratives. Far too often elders are shown shopping for adult diapers, struggling to activate special alert devices after falling down or searching for better ways of cleaning their dentures. These representations are not only disrespectful, they are a form of cultural erasure negating the significant contribution of an entire generation.

And if negating the contribution of elders isn't enough, people in our grandparents' age group are often perceived as a burden. According to the census, there are more Canadian grandparents than ever before and they are the fastest growing demographic segment. However, we haven't fully sorted out the required policies and social systems for supporting them. As a result there is a lot of pubic discourse about the negative financial impact they are having on the health care system, emotional stress they are placing on caregivers and challenges of finding new roles for an aging workforce. These are all legitimate concerns; however, the tone of these conversations is not always balanced. It's true that many of our elders require additional support today. But let's not forget that back in the mid-fifties and sixties our grandparents were leading important movements, which have created a more civil and connected society.

It is our grandparents who marched to overthrow unequal social systems. It is our grandparents who advocated for a voiceless environment that was being mercilessly ravished by new killer chemicals. It is our grandparents who had the courage to protest wars and question international policies. Without the benefit of a Facebook account, special funding programs, and/or a formal education, our grandparents did what needed to be done to create a better world.

Sure they weren't perfect. Many of our grandparents smoked too much, said 'I love you' too infrequently, never used the politically correct or polite terms for anything, refused to wear seat belts, and bored us with their long walk to school stories. But today, as we balance ourselves between the blades of their shoulders, let's remember that these bad asses deserve to be honoured in the world that they dared to change.

 

Jay Pitter is a senior marketing communications specialist and narratologist. With a Master’s Degree in Narrative Theory and Methodology, Jay investigates “story” as a communicative mode, data, art form, economy and social discourse. Her writing credits include CBC Radio, the Toronto Star, Walrus Magazine, Spacing Magazine, Fireweed, Sister Vision Press, TVO and the book Climate Change: Who's Carrying the Burden?

Photo: http://www.humboldtparkportal.org/

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