Features | Seniors: We tell ourselves stories in order to age

When a high school invites the town’s grannies to speak, generational barriers are temporarily bridged

I disliked all high school events. I couldn’t stand all the gatherings when everyone’s parents except mine went to see their kids perform crappy dances or tasteless songs. Year after year and during the nine years I studied at that school, I saw countless nuclear families singing the same old dusty lines of holiday songs, until a poster with the headline “invite your grandparents” came out. One student thought that it would be a great idea to have a space where senior citizens – or grannies, as we called them in my hometown – could tell us anecdotes about their lives that could be useful for us in the future. The idea didn’t really appeal to the cool kids, but I thought it was a very clever event that would finally let us know what our ancestors thought and did when they were our age.

We were all encouraged to invite our grannies – my grandmother didn’t want to participate, but she agreed to come with me. It was a theatre with about 400 people, a stage, a chair, and a microphone – nothing else. The first woman who sat on stage told us a story of when her best friend was turning 15. In our culture, turning 15 is a great celebration for reasons that now are quite invalid, but the party remains. She said that she had saved money for a long time to buy a beautiful dress to honour her friend’s 15th. With sparkling eyes lost in the past, she described her outfit: a big, summery, lavender hat with a white feather, a perfect-fitting knee-long lavender skirt, and a perfect-fitting lavender jacket.

The day of the party, she had her hair done, put on nice make-up with beautiful purple eye shadow, and the first thing she saw when she walks into the party was her best friend, the birthday girl, with the exact same outfit. She ran away from the place fearing that other guests would see her, because she didn’t want to make her friend look bad. She went back home and put an old navy blue suit with old shoes, and came back to the party, defeated. Her friend, she said, looked disappointed, but she smiled naïvely and joined the celebration. Her friend still doesn’t know anything about the dress.

The second guest was also a woman, with long, silver-braided hair and a beautiful, sincere smile. Her story was this: when she was little, a school had just opened in her town. Even though her mother allowed her to go to school, she couldn’t afford a notebook, a pencil, or anything to write on or with. The day before school started, she grabbed a wooden box and filled it with sand from the beach. On her first day of classes they learned the alphabet, but she couldn’t fill in all the letters in her little sandboard.

After a couple classes, she realized trying to fit as many letters as possible and then erasing them all to put new ones in was pointless, so every day she would draw one and trace it over and over again on the little board until she memorized it. She said that her index finger was always very painful but she was so happy to go to school and to be able to learn, that she never really cared.

Most of us would consider this type of event a great opportunity for students to see how such simple things in life can bring great happiness. Instead, I thought what a great opportunity it was to make grannies feel like people enjoy listening to their life experiences.

I see my grandmother as a possessor of great knowledge – not as in cellular biology or political science, but as the storyteller that could understand many of my experiences. But there is a barrier that prevents us from speaking. I wish we had a small-scale everyday-event like this in our lives.