If there is a singular human being who is responsible for priming me to become a gerontologist, it is my maternal Gramma—Jewell Cochran. My Gramma comes from poor, scrappy folk. No one knew who her father was and she grew up without much stability. After her teenage mother abandoned her she was fostered by various family members until in her late teens she left her people in the Yakima Valley to move to Southern Oregon, where she found a job as a waitress. She met my grandfather, Preston Gustav Hotz, a much older man who frequented the café where she worked.
This grandpa is a pivotal character is my family history as he changed Jewell's lot in life in many ways, and thus, two generations later, mine. At the time he met my Gramma, he was training to become a geologist, and she yearned to become his assistant, as well as his partner. In fact, they spent much of their life, along with my mother and her two siblings, exploring in a little Airstream trailer the Western United States, surveying and mapping the Great Salt Lake, Mt. Shasta, the Klamath Basin.
My small, strong, stubborn Gramma spent most of her life dreaming on behalf of others – sometimes even living vicariously through others. Her life was never quite big enough for her, so she tried her hardest to create bigger lives for the rest of us. I was the first person on either side of my family to pursue college besides my grandpa the Geologist, and I owe this to my Gramma, as she planted the notion in me like a dormant seed for some new kind of plant, and she protected me the best she could from the harsh conditions of my immediate family so that strange seed in me might grow. (When I was in college and graduate school, I would send the materials for each of my courses to my Gramma—syllabi and reading lists, even books, and copies of the papers I was writing – so that she could follow my journey, think along with me, see how her work on my behalf was amounting to something.)
Recently I saw my Gramma Jewell—This past July, my thirteen-year-old daughter Isobel and I traveled to Spokane to fulfill a recently-made promise to reunite, at least one time per year, with the women on my mom’s side of the family. It was a short, intense trip—there are 4 generations of us now, and many of us have fraught, complicated relationships, we carry difficult family history around with us in our bodies; we are all so much the same, and so very different in so many ways. Finally after all of these years, the adult women among us are more realistic about how much time we can live under the same roof together—4 days is about right. 4 generations; 4 days! Our 4 generations includes my 87 year old Gramma Jewell, my 62 year old mother Susan, 59 year old aunt Martha, 42 year old me, 32 year old cousin Rachel, 13 year old Isobel, 3 year old 2nd cousin Samantha (who sometime demands to be called Sophie), and her 10 month old sister Emily.
My Gramma has lived with my aunt and her family ever since my grandfather died of Alzheimer’s a few years back; soon after he died, she started having a series of small strokes. Whereas she used to divide her awake time as an old woman between taking long walks, writing letters, helping with chores, and reading, now she spends most of her time sitting in her recliner reading large print books and observing the activities unfolding around her; her lucidity is ever-shifting, so it is of benefit to sit quietly beside her for long stretches of time so you don’t miss one of her insightful questions or statements.
The first night of our visit, I crawled into bed beside her. She asked me a series of questions to confirm that what she was remembering about me was in fact accurate—which of “her girls” I am, where I live, what I do. She got all the details correct. She was a little confused by my daughter, whom she hadn’t seen for a year and who has undergone a teenage-transformation. While I snuggled-down in bed with my Gramma, she on her back, I on my right side with my arms and legs embracing her and my body curled around her, eventually she cast her mind into the remote past, when she was a girl picking apples on an orchard; when she was a young married woman and mother, raising small children and helping my grandpa with his work. She was luminous there beside me, in her flannel pajamas, her teeth and face freshly washed, her hair cut exactly like mine but completely silver. The smell and feel of her skin – like a soft, almost over-ripe peach – started to unwind tight little tangled balls of my own memories. I had temporal distortion—Isobel had changed so much in the past year; I certainly felt time working on me; but my Gramma seemed suspended in time.
So, why do I tell you these stories from my life? What relevance do they have for our work as intentional-agers and radical gerontologists? These stories foreground relationships, specifically how who we become as we travel through the life course happens in the context of the web of relationships of which we are a part – together we dream, grow, fight, get stuck, care, misunderstand, and try again. These stories also speak to the tremendous capacity we humans have throughout the life-course for transformation, for thinking new thoughts alongside old thoughts, for trying out new ways of being alongside old ways of being.
We all have our own version of these stories.
For the past couple of months, post-family reunion, I’ve been reflecting upon how I’ve had some movement in my ways of being in the world and relating to the women in my family – it feels like a miracle, especially as I wasn’t expecting it, worried I didn’t have the capacity, though I have hoped. Since the trip, I’ve been asking questions such as: From where do these glimmers of new patterns of thought come? Are they the inevitable fruits of being worked on by life for a few decades? My provisional answers are: Perhaps, probably, in part, but something else needs to happen – we know this from our own experiences and it is supported by scholarship on development and learning in adulthood, psychotherapeutic perspectives, as well as centuries of insights on spiritual practice– to experience deep development and change, we must in some way accept what life gives us and, like alchemists, take it through some sustained, ongoing process of intentional reflection that causes it to transform into the source of new thoughts and actions.
This is quite powerful, yes? You see--We have the capacity to take our own selves as the objects of our inquiry; we can ask questions, we can refine our questions about ourselves as we accumulate more experiences. If we are fortunate, we have people in our lives who love us, who figuratively or for real crawl into bed next to us or sit beside us waiting until we say something meaningful; they reflect our best selves back to us.