Why old people sit.

November 18, 2011 § 10 Comments

My grandfather, Nonno

Memory, that’s why.

The old are heavy with it. Saturated like a sponge that can absorb no more.

“Remember hearing Pearl Harbor had been bombed? We’d just turned on the Philco…”

Those who nod are sitting too. Hands quiet in their laps, they add details to a story every one of them knows by heart, polishing it in the retelling, passing it from hand to hand.

“Remember the time we went on vacation and someone left a Hudson River Shad in our unplugged refrigerator?”

The fact this mystery was never solved only enhances it in memory. Who did leave that Shad, the stink of which persisted for a good month? No one ever confessed.

“Just after Mother died, I remember I was taking the wash off the line and the wind caught the sheet I was holding. I thought I would blow away. I took care of her so long…nothing anchored me anymore.”

They leave us untethered at first, but over time the dead provide ballast. As we talk about them and tell their stories we begin to carry them. Our steadfastness keeps them from vanishing.

Under the weight of memory our hearts, like windfall apples, develop soft spots, places where life has rested too long: a parent cared for through an extended illness, a stretch without any prospect of work, an unexpected loss.

“Remember the time we paraded on the patio, pushing Nonno around and around in his wheelchair?”

Those with a talent for being old demand the last drop of good, even if it is a wheelchair parade a week or two before death.

And they don’t step aside. Why should they? This day is as legitimately theirs, as it is the property of the young–and maybe more so because they watch it more closely. As the number of days ahead dwindles, each becomes the most beautiful ever created.

But the accumulated weight of memory does slow you down. A burden, a treasure. Both bitter and sweet, and heavy, heavy.

Makes you want to sit down and rest.

And the sitting can be mighty fine. Say it’s a summer evening and the adults are sipping iced tea with mint under the arbor. Kids are running in the yard collecting fireflies in a mayonnaise jar.

Those sitting in folding chairs are my grandmother Nana, my grandfather Nonno (long before his final wheelchair parade), Aunt Evelyn, my parents.

My sister and I--one summer day.

I stand barefoot in the damp grass staring at the firefly resting on my knuckle, wondering why it never blinks unless it is in flight–and then only as it rises.

I can still feel the cool wet grass, hear the peepers singing–and this young, wonder-struck self is just one of many I carry.

It is hard to believe that firefly evening is now 50 years old. The sand has slowly run through the hourglass from the chair-sitters to me, grain by grain its weight is becoming my possession.

The firefly on my knuckle has flown.

Soon someone will offer me a glass of iced tea.

And this is as it should be. I’ll sip that drink slowly and say to whoever might be listening, “Isn’t this the prettiest night, almost as pretty as that night we saw the Aurora…you remember.”

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§ 10 Responses to Why old people sit.

  • craig reeder says:

    I was just talking to laura’s elderly dad, listening to his stories, and taking notes. her sister was quite interested and it started up a real dialog…..a procession of memories,……they definitely do provide “ballast.”

    and although we all know that old peoples’ memories are notoriously inaccurate, and we can have a real laugh at that. …. still they do have such meaning to the family.

    a few years ago I wrote up a little “book” about my long-departed father’s war-time history, and now years later, i’m getting lots of thanks from the family for catching those stories before they evaporated….into thin air.


  • Lovely post Adrian! Especially at this time of year when stories will be told at Thanksgiving visits.
    To pick a favorite old person story is a challenge, when one of your parents, was born so close to the turn of the century. What I have done with one of my favorites, the time my father tricked his isolated father into seeing the great Atlantic Ocean for the first time, is to write it up. I wrote it up as an essay & later I turned it into a storybook tale about a boy a bear & a Tin Lizzie.
    From my mother’s side of the family the story that got everyone laughing has both a pet canary and the opera star, Caruso in it. But then there the story about her family’s pet rooster, the pet calf & also the wheelbarrow haircut and little aunt Rosie & then the silent screen actress Aunt Lily & ….

    Thanks for the memories.
    (I think the institute at FSU on World War II might want your wartime
    write up…)


    • I loved reading your story of your father and grandfather’s trip to see the ocean. It was just wonderful. You’ll have to share the one with Caruso in it. My mother and her mother heard him sing–Italians living in New York were bound to.


  • Richard Dempsey says:

    Absolutely wonderful, Adrian. I grew up listening to stories from the old guys and girls, usually prompted by coffee and a cigarette. I’d fall asleep with the sounds in my ears, the oil lamp flickering, and the frogs and crickets providing background music. It still warms me to think about it.


  • Your articles and writing seem deeply influenced by Harper Lee. So very sweet but not a bit sentimental.


  • Thank you for the kind words Adrian. And your mentoring with that piece!

    Maybe you have enough material to write about your mother’s & grandmother’s excitement (pleasure? satisfaction, surprise dissppointment?) in seeing the great Enrico Caruso. In person? Wow!
    When next we meet maybe we can grab time to swap Caruso stories.


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