I hope there is no adult in this space who underestimates the importance of gifts of time to children. Even the seeming smallest can become a formative memory forever.
Several summers in a row, I spent time living with my father’s parents. Baba and Dido I called them, since we’re Ukrainian. One lazy Saturday, I came into the kitchen where I found Baba playing Solitaire. Seven piles laid out, stock pile in her hand, waste pile to the side. Cards coming and going, coming and going.
I sat there mesmerized.
She was probably in her early 60s at the time. I was maybe 10. Eventually the Solitaire game ended, and then she turned to me and said, “Want me to show you something?” She reached for my hand and placed it palm down on the table. She put hers beside mine. My skin was clear. Hers had a few liver spots blooming upon it.
Then she lightly pinched a bit of my skin, on the top of my hand. She made a tiny skin mountain. She held it, and then let it go. Instantly, the skin retracted and the top of my hand became perfectly flat again. Then she made a skin mountain on her hand. She let go, and it was a totally different story. The peak didn’t go away instantly. It slowly slowly descended back to flatness. It was mountain mountain mountain getting smaller and smaller and smaller and then (almost with a sigh) the skin collapsing back to normal.
I looked at her suddenly, and she smiled and said, “I’m old.” And I knew I was not old but one day would be; my skin would become just like that.
Then she got up from the table, made some instant coffee, and then asked if I wanted to play a game. Of course I did. She was one of the rare adults who ever actually played games with me. Other adults always seemed busy, or tired. But Baba made time for me. There were epic games of Scrabble. Epic games of Trouble.
So much laughter. So much fun.
I’m thinking about Baba Makar this morning, as we explore growing up, growing old, and growing true. Three sub-themes in the larger theme of growth.
First there is growing up, which we heard a little about in the video from earlier. The adult interviewer asks a five-year-old, “What age do you think you’ll move out of your parents’ house?” And the five-year-old replies, “I think I’ll be nine.”
Interviewer: So when you move out of your house at nine, how are you going to get anywhere?
Kid: Maybe my mom and dad will drive me.
Interviewer asks another kid a different question:
Interviewer: Do you know how much a house costs?
Interviewer: Do you think it’s like, twenty dollars?
Interviewer: Fifty dollars?
Interviewer: A million dollars?
Interviewer: Higher? Five million?
And so on.
What does it mean to grow up? It means a crossing a line and you can never go back. You cross a line and you can never go back to that place where independence from parents is unimaginable. You cross a line and you can never go back to that place where obliviousness about money is perfectly safe.
By the time Baba showed me the skin mountain game, she had blown past all sorts of lines. Both her parents had already died; she had been married for decades by then; she had three kids and many more grandchildren.
Establishing one’s independency—however that looks—is the classic marker of growing up, but the only thing I’d add here is that it’s a primarily external marker, and a person can have this and still seem not very grown up. What’s missing is mature character. As in: taking time seriously, confronting responsibilities head on, taking care of your health, investing in true friends, focusing on self-improvement, and being generous and giving back.
Baba had all these too. She was grown up externally and internally.
She was also growing old. That’s what growth involves for everybody: time’s relentless arrow, moving bodies from infancy and childhood and youth to young adulthood, middle age, old age, death.
The elastic skin of my child hand, vs. the not-so-elastic skin of Baba’s hand.
This is the part of aging that can seem so frightening. You lose a control over your body you really didn’t know you had until things start changing. At 46 my eyes could focus on print material just fine. At 47 something happened almost overnight and I began to be an ardent supporter of the reading glass industry. Readers in about six locations at my home. Readers in the car. Readers in my backpack. Readers in my office.
Aging changes our eyes, our faces. We experience entropy in our arms and legs—slow gradual decline into disorder. “Then comes the creaking days,” says Ecclesiastes 12 from the Hebrew Bible. “Years creep up in which one feels like saying, ‘I have no taste for them.’ For the sunlight darkens in the eyes; dimmed is the light of the moon and stars; and the vision is patchy like a cloudy sky after the rain. The hands and arms, the guards of the house, begin to tremble. And the legs, like battle-tired soldiers, are unsure in their step. The grinding mills, the teeth, are fewer, and the windows of the mind fog up . . . “
I listen to that, and what I need to lighten things up is a counter story like this one, from Virginia Ramig. A friend of hers told her about an aunt who had loved to paint ever since she was a child. Some of her happiest hours were those she spent creating colorful images on canvas. As she aged she developed macular degeneration, leaving her with only peripheral vision. But she was not deterred; she continued painting. Then she had a stroke which kept her from using her right hand. As soon as she was up and around she began painting again, now using her left hand. She joked, “This will be my abstract period.”
The message is telegraphed very well by French writer Jules Renard: “It is not how old you are, but how you are old.”
I want to be like the aunt who painted no matter what.
Actually, I want to be like my Baba, who was growing old and yet her spirit was one of the youngest I ever knew.
Growing old never has to mean your soul dies. Creakiness in the body never needs to means creakiness of the mind, or heart.
But there is a third and last thing I want to say about growing. That it’s an orderly process. It’s not chaotic. Just as the coffee bean reveals its taste when boiled, the human spirit reveals one layer in the course of living, and then another, and then still another.
Or to stretch the coffee bean analogy to perhaps the breaking point: the coffee bean that is the human spirit is so rich with untapped potential that no amount of boiling water will drain it completely of flavor. There is always more flavor there, to come out.
Psychologist Erik Erikson said that there are eight layers of flavor, in fact. He expresses them in terms of pairs of opposites. First is trust vs. mistrust. This is the layer that comes to the fore at infancy. Then, at toddlerhood, it’s autonomy vs. shame and doubt. During preschool years, it’s initiative vs. guilt. In early school years, it’s industry vs. inferiority. In adolescence, it’s identity vs. role confusion. In young adulthood, it’s intimacy vs. isolation. In middle adulthood, it’s generativity vs. stagnation. In late adulthood, it’s fulfillment vs. despair.
You may not be familiar with Erikson’s theory, but I ask only that you have allowed the words describing each of the stages to wash over you. They are all important words, would you not agree? One momentous stage unfolds and leads to a different stage, and on and on. Growing true is not random, but a constant process of being opened up to more and more of what you are.
There is no end to growing true. There is no end.
All those years ago, sitting at the kitchen table with Baba, and she’s showing me the skin mountain game, and then we play Scrabble and Trouble together. This was happening when she was in the growth stage that Erikson calls “generativity vs. stagnation.” It happens in middle adulthood, when people can feel powerfully called to provide guidance or a legacy to the next generation. And if they do not heed the call, if they distract themselves with false priorities, they end up feeling stuck. A feeling of stagnation drags them down. They might have checked off all the boxes of what being a “grown up” means, at least in the external sense, but things are starting to feel shallow. Things are starting to feel hollow.
That’s where Baba was, in her growing true process. And she heeded the call. She was generous with me, and she left a legacy.
I hope others will say that of me, and of us all.