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Volume 41. No. 2.
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The God on My Grandfather's Table
Christine Henneberg '05 claimed second place in the competition for the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics in 2005 with this sensitive essay on the tenuous links between the old and the young ...

By Christine Henneberg '05

He wakes up to the light slipping between the cracks in the blinds. The room is cool; the air feels familiar and smells clean as it always does, especially on Sundays because the housecleaners come on Saturday afternoons. He lies on the right side of the bed, where the fitted sheet is worn and thin. Squinting as his eyes adjust to the light, he reaches for his cane next to the bedside table, swings his legs, slowly, one at a time, over the edge of the bed, and places his feet on the carpeted floor. His back aches mildly along his spine; the skin on his throat and the back of his neck itches again.

Pressing his hands gently into the firm mattress, he pushes himself up and walks a few slow steps to the bathroom, where the gray plastic box with the dual compartments for each day of the week sits on the counter. SUNDAY, A.M. A bar of white soap balances on the edge of the sink. The digital clock next to his shaving mirror says 7:30. It will take him all morning to shower, shave, dress himself, eat a bowl of bran flakes and a banana, and drag in the newspaper from outside the front door. Throughout the morning and all day long, he will wait for a phone call, a knock on the door, some voice to break the silence.


My grandfather, my mother’s father, lives alone in an assisted-living condominium complex for adults 70 years and up. It is a good place for him, just a few blocks from my parents’ house. When my grandmother died four years ago, my mom and I began visiting my grandfather often at his apartment. Sometimes we would help him around the house, doing simple chores that would have taken him hours to do on his own. In our first visits, I paid attention to how my mother and her father talked to each other. I had never tried to really talk with any of my grandparents, and I had a notion of old people as fragile or broken. To my amazement, my mother spoke to him like a regular adult. She handled him swiftly and gently, the way an expert mover might pack boxes of fine china. Sometimes I would even hear traces of my own adolescent voice in hers—an exasperated sigh or a patient explanation.
“Dad, can I heat up that soup for you?”

“You don’t have to do that,” he replied.
“It’s no problem, it’ll only take a few minutes.”
“Well okay, but I won’t eat it just yet.”
“I’ll at least pour it in a pot for whenever you’re hungry.”

From the corner of my eye, I could see my mother through the cutout in the kitchen wall as she bent over and peered into the wide white stomach of the refrigerator. I watched the way her shoulders and arms moved, putting things away and pulling things out of cupboards, quickly but carefully, motherly.

My grandfather leaned back in his armchair with his eyes closed.
I closed my eyes too. I could hear my mother’s footsteps on the linoleum, heavy and with a purposeful rhythm. The refrigerator door opened and closed, opened again. I heard water running over dishes, plates clicking into their slots in the plastic drying rack. I wondered how long he and I would sit like this, in the dark.

My mother’s voice came from the kitchen. “There’s so much Tupperware in here, Dad. … Do you use all this Tupperware?”

“Oh, well, I don’t know how often I use it. … I don’t think I have that much.”

I opened my eyes. My mother emerged from the kitchen, wiping her hands on the front of her jeans. “OK, I pulled out the pot, it’s on the stove. You should think about getting rid of some of that Tupperware.”

Things accumulate in my grandfather’s house, littering the counters like the pale brown spots scattered up and down his arms. Maybe he saves it all because he thinks it might be important someday, for some reason. Maybe he uses things to fill up all the empty space that used to be filled with people.

In another time in another city, my grandparents had a home full of children. My mother is the oldest of four: three daughters and a son. They grew up in the 1950s, in the kind of family that was at the center of American culture: young, steadily consuming, growing and thriving. Parents of young children have always had an important and recognized role in any society. They perform an important function and fulfill a noble purpose. But in some western cultures such as our own, the function and purpose of a parent is quite limited. As children grow up,
leave home, and have their own children, the values of mobility and individuality take hold, and the oldest generation is quickly forgotten and ignored. Houses that were once warm and busy feel empty and silent.

Now I have grown up and left my parents. The cycle is beginning to turn once again. When I return home to sleep in my old bedroom in my parents’ house, I also visit my grandfather. Sometimes I go with my mother, but more often I go alone. I have the impression that it is unusual to spend as much time as I do with him. When I mention to my friends that I am close to my grandfather, they sometimes say, “I didn’t know that about you!” As though it were a hidden talent or a deep secret.

Usually I find him in his brown armchair. That is where he rests, in between the daily tasks that have become the industrious agents of time. Today he is wearing his fleece pants and a well-worn green T-shirt that says, “I’m in Ship Shape—Royal Caribbean Cruise Line.” I sit down next to him and follow his gaze out the window to the front lawn. A strip of white-blue sky is visible above the curve of the sidewalk.

The silence in the house has grown louder since my grandmother died. As we sit in the living room her personality, her taste, and her artistic sensibility surround us. They join in our conversation the way she might have done. An oil painting of the Northern California coastline, which she painted long before I was born, lights up the wall above the couch with its whitecaps and yellow cliffs. On the opposite wall is a set of low cabinets with screened doors. Wooden cranes line up along the bookshelves like watchful children.

On the coffee table, a set of miniature figurines is arranged in a semi-circle. They are the seven Japanese gods of luck; each represents a different aspect of happiness and good fortune in Japanese mythology. Jurojin sits in the middle. He is the god of old age, wisdom, and longevity. He is accompanied by wild animals, and he carries with him a scroll on which the life story of all creation is written. With his flowing white beard and his laughing eyes, Jurojin embodies good nature, patience and strength.

“Your grandmother was just fascinated by Japanese art,” my grandfather has recalled to me more than once. “We took a trip to Japan one time, and it completely changed her taste and her style. It changed our home, the way she decorated. Now I still have these things, the furniture and the artwork; and they remind me of her. She changed my taste in art, too.”

Later I sit with him at the dining room table, picking through telephone bills and junk mail. He tells me about a magazine that keeps billing him even though he hasn’t renewed his subscription. I find a renewal notice from several weeks ago: “WE WILL NOT SEND YOU ANOTHER LETTER! THIS IS YOUR LAST CHANCE!” We talk about his back exercises, the dry skin on his neck, his doctor’s appointment tomorrow.

Finally he rests his spotted hands on a stack of mutual fund statements and gazes up at the glow of the hanging lamp above the table. He tells me that he is getting tired. It is almost nine o’clock—the end of his evening, the beginning of mine. I think about the many hours that I will still be awake after I get back home, reading and talking on the phone.

“It was sure nice of you to spend a few hours with me tonight, and help me with all this work,” he says.

I tell him no problem; I’m happy to help.

He unbends his knees and stands, balancing himself against the back of a chair, gripping his cane. I am still shuffling papers and reaching for my keys. He begins moving into the hallway; he will reach the door in time to give me a hug and a kiss goodbye.

“Thanks for hanging out,” I say as I kiss his cheek and hold onto his shoulders. Then I turn away, and the door swings open and shut too quickly.

Whenever I visit a museum with a collection of Japanese art, I am reminded of my grandmother. I can feel her artistic taste resonate within me, because she took her taste beyond Japan and beyond a museum; she brought it into her home and made it a part of her daily life. My grandfather still lives under the watchful eyes of her wooden cranes. Bamboo stalks on rice paper scrolls frame his doorway; the glint of green jade catches his eye in the afternoon sunlight. These things inform his memories of the past and his construction of the future.

Just as my grandmother’s appreciation for Japanese art changed her own taste, my grandfather’s, and mine, different cultures offer paradigms that we can use to change our moral values and behaviors. But we must first take these models out of anthropology and sociology textbooks and bring them into our homes, our families, and our own lives.
The Japanese, like so many Asian cultures, venerate their very old. The logical understanding is that the elderly have accumulated vast knowledge and wisdom that has infinite value, on an individual level as well as for the collective culture. This attitude is reflected in societal structures: intergenerational support within families; ritualized respect for elders in religious communities; and a paradigm of humanity that embraces the young and the old, joy and pain, life and death.

Such a paradigm seems immensely freeing compared to a model of strictly defined roles and narrow values of human worth. Instead of revering old people, American society rejects and isolates them. It is a rejection born of fear and confusion. We think we can smell death in nursing homes and geriatric wards; but what we smell in the sterilized, medicinal air is our own denial—denial of our own future, of our inevitable mental and physical deterioration, and of death. We do not think of old people as full of accumulated life; instead we think of them as dangerously close to death. We herd them out of sight to protect ourselves, leaving them to sit alone in their dark rooms.

The people in those dark rooms are our parents and grandparents. They have much that they could teach us, particularly about the scope and beauty of human life beyond what we see on television. By participating in the lives of older people, we could learn to view ourselves as valuable long after our 30th, 50th, and 70th birthdays. At the same time, the wonder and optimism of children could be a source of joy for older persons. People of different ages have so much to offer to each other, but in a paradigm that privileges the young and shuts out the old, everyone loses. Vast rivers of wisdom that could flow between generations have run dry.
The problem is that it is hard to imagine how to change this paradigm, because it is so deeply engrained in our culture. It seems almost impossible to conceptualize old age without the stigma that we have attached to it. But when we take examples from other cultures, it is possible. Culture is not like the air we breathe; it is not a given. We have created it and we continue to create it every day. Culture is like the air only in the way that it surrounds us. Our beliefs and values and behaviors are so pervasive that they become invisible, and sometimes they become suffocating. This is where ethics must enter the picture. If we define ethics as standards of behavior based on our most fundamental values, then we are caught in a narrow ethical paradigm, unless we can draw upon values and paradigms other than our own. We cannot simply transplant paradigms from Japanese culture into our culture; our lives may simply be too different. But we would be mistaken to think of these differences as essential—East versus West, “traditional” versus “modern,” them versus us. Despite significant differences, we can still think about other cultures, their paradigms, and the freedoms that they offer. This can help us to broaden our space of ethical thought and our capacity for a moral imagination. Then we can begin to see the culture that surrounds us and to visualize alternatives.

One alternative is the paradigm that we find in Japanese and other Asian cultures, in which systems of multigenerational, interdependent kinship are linked together by a sense of obligation to and respect for older relatives. In Japanese households children, parents, and grandparents may live under one roof, or in some cases one room. In India, a separate room for each person in the house is almost unheard of. The cultural value of privacy falls far behind the values of community, shared space, and shared knowledge. Instead of being silenced and isolated, the old are called upon to share their perspective and wisdom, while the young unwittingly share their own sense of wonder at seeing the world through fresh eyes.
The more time that I spend with my grandfather, the more I am able to understand what his life is like, and to imagine what it will be like for me to grow old in this country. And it frightens me. Unless something changes drastically in my generation, my peers and I will find ourselves at the ends of long, full lives, with so many collected experiences and so many thoughts in our heads, and no one to share them with. If we continue in the current paradigm, distanced from our own aging parents and grandparents, we are only becoming more vulnerable to the cruelty of a culture that idealizes the young and the beautiful, stigmatizes the old and the suffering, and leaves all of us alone in the end.

When I leave my grandfather’s house, when I shut the door behind me and imagine him on the other side—that is when I feel the most afraid.

Slowly, carefully, he walks back into the living room, steadying himself with his cane in his right hand, softly touching the fingertips of his left hand to the wall. In the kitchen, he wipes down the counter with a damp paper towel that he’s been using for a few days. It is beginning to smell a little, the way those paper towels sometimes do. He shakes the little crumbs out of it and drapes it over the faucet. He washes his hands with slippery green dish soap, then makes his way to the bathroom. His cotton nightgown is hanging on the inside of the door. He unhooks it and places it on the sink counter, making sure the counter is dry first. Then he eases himself down onto the little folding stool next to the sink and unties each shoe, pulls off each sock, folds them and places them on the floor next to the wastebasket. He will put them in the hamper tomorrow. He unbuttons his shirt, stands up and inches out of his trousers, places them on the floor with the socks, and raises his arms slowly to pull the nightgown over his head. After this, he brushes his teeth. Finally, he takes the pills from the SUNDAY P.M. compartment of the plastic gray box, popping them in his throat one at a time, swallowing each one with a sip of water.

He steadies himself with his cane again and, pushing the door open with one hand, turns off the bathroom light and steps out onto the carpeted bedroom floor. The deep carpet fibers feel soft on the bottoms of his feet. The cane goes in its usual place against the bedside table; he pulls back the blankets and eases the weight of his body onto the mattress, lifting one foot up at a time onto the bed. He can feel the movement in the joints at his hips, turning like the pedals of an old bicycle. Finally, with the blankets pulled back up to his chest, he props himself up on his right hand, reaches across with his left, and switches off the lamp on the table.

The air conditioner rattles and hums softly in the living room. Outside, a few early crickets buzz and the dim glow of a streetlamp stretches its familiar patch across the carpet and part of the dresser. The cool sheets are beginning to warm against his body. He bends his left arm at the elbow and lies his face down across it, so that the loose skin of his forearm with its fine white hair pushes up into the hollow spaces around his eyes.

In the dark, silent room, voices echo in his ears. Among them is my grandmother’s voice, the strokes of her paintbrush and her footsteps in the kitchen. There are the cries of newborn babies who have grown into adults, and the whispers of their watchful parents. There is the laughter of Jurojin, the smooth rustle of rice paper, and the beating of cranes’ wings as they circle above my grandfather’s sleeping head.


Reprinted with permission from The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.
 
©Copyright 2006
by Pomona College
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