"Yep, I remember Mom coming in from the hills dragging her lariat with a big rattlesnake in tow. Dad cut it open and a nearly full- size cottontail rolled out. It wasn't long after that that I was allowed to make those rides into the hills to look after the horses. That was when, on hot summer afternoons, I would have to ride clear to the top of Red Butte to check them out. Mom had taken me on some checkout rides first, to show me where she usually found the small band of horses. Those were some of the most pleasant days of my boyhood. I know your Mom would have liked to have been able to do that. But she became a very good rider in her own right."
Expanding on a thread of recollection provided by my mom, my Uncle Tom recently e-mailed me this evocative little vignette about childhood high up in the aspen and sage-clothed mountains of Wyoming. I'm ever thankful that writing and talking are among my family's most cherished traditions, though I don't have anything approaching my uncle's relaxed grasp of language.
Tiny old photographs show my mom and uncle as they were when Grandma was still roping snakes - warmly wrapped ranch kids, Tom two years the elder wrapping a protective arm around his polio-stricken little sis Lois. Along with their youngest brother Bud, they eventually parented 10 boys in a row before adoptions finally brought two girls into the lineup, along with yet another boy. All 13 of us, along with dozens of grandchildren, great-grandchildren and I think even a great-great-grandchild or two, are joyful that Tom and Lois are still in our company after all their lively years, Tom recently turning 82 and my Mom 80 last Thursday.
The two of them used to ride miles to a one-room school, a white clapboard rectangular box fronted by a phalanx of wooden steps where photos show gatherings of generations of local families. Standing like a solitary outcropping of pale stone jutting up through a dusty prairie, the schoolhouse was a world of its own, a busy beehive of humming young minds harvesting Latin lessons and multiplication tables amid the wind-swept spring wildflowers and the swirling eddies of powdery winter snow. Mom still shivers thinking of the bitterly frozen morning when their horse spooked and dumped them into a drift, leaving them to shuffle a half mile to the woodstove-warmed classroom.
One honest memory from any family's past is infinitely more valuable than all the surrogates our culture creates for real experience, from television to computer games. To have my mother living nearby is an incredible privilege, a direct connection to the past for me, my wife and daughter. Listening to her stories of working as an X-ray technician serving the poor broken and burned boys of World War II at Portland Emanuel Hospital, or as a telephone operator dealing with awful old lady Schwinn of the bicycle empire, is worth more to us than any quantity of packaged corporate entertainment or diversion.
All of us so lucky as to have jobs in journalism, especially within a company as devoted to community service as this one, count it a key benefit that we have so much license to ask people about their lives. Taking time to listen, especially to the stories of older people, is one of life's most richly rewarding occupations. But you don't have to be a reporter or editor to enjoy the benefits of curiosity.
Spending time among older people, open to all they have to say, is an essential part of every childhood and mature life, one that is in sadly declining supply in today's fractured and distracted culture. In the past century we've lost a lot of what turns human animals into human beings. Severing our connections to older family members and our ancestors threatens to drain the blood from our society, turning us into mere consumers.
By 2050, an estimated 2 billion people will be age 60 and older, and yet America and most other advanced nations celebrate the supposed accomplishments and allegedly cutting-edge tastes of youth. Though they certainly are a powerful political force, the elderly ought to play a far more important role in society by becoming active in the lives of young people.
Talking, writing, listening - these are great treasures accumulated one Sunday dinner at a time. Turn off the TV and spend the time conversing with the flesh and blood people in your life.