What Have You Learned From a Grandparent or Elder?

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What Have You Learned From a Grandparent or Elder?

Have you had close relationships with grandparents or other elders? What memories come to mind when you think of them? What life lessons have you gained from your time together?

In a Modern Love essay, “At 93, Teaching Me About Possibility,” Richard Morgan writes about what happened when he abandoned “grayspeak” — talking to elders as if they are toddlers — and embraced real conversations with his grandmother:

Awake from a nap in her favorite chair, my grandmother ran her fingers through her wavy white hair, looked out her window at the English Channel, and asked me what I would wish for if I had just one wish.

She often asks this, and I always answer the same way because it will make her happy — “To have Granddad back” — which usually gets her reminiscing about him. But on that day a few months ago, she shook her head, then said with a sigh: “Richard, we had our innings. Good innings. Make a wish for yourself, dear.”

I wish I knew we could have been like this sooner.

For decades I had the same kind of grandmother many people have: a money-filled birthday card in the mail; a phone call on Christmas; a pleasant little song and dance so polite and practiced that it became like the way people say “Bless you” after sneezes.

Then, about a decade ago, she began to lose her hearing precipitously. The phone calls got harder. And I noticed that if I asked what she had for lunch, she might say, “Oh, the weather has been lovely today.” So accustomed to the family’s same few questions, she seemed to recycle the same handful of answers.

Our time together was diminished. She was diminished.

This is called “grayspeak” or “elderspeak,” a shift in the way we address elders that treats them less like sages and more like toddlers or pets. We say things like, “Today was rainy. Did you see the rain?” and “Was your dinner yummy?”

It’s a bogus, tedious and stupid way to interact, so I fought it. I started to show up for her more, in person, despite her living in Dover, England, and me in New York City.

During my visits, I started throwing her curveballs: What did you do with your first-ever paycheck? What did you think about when you were hiding in caves during the war? What was the best invention of your lifetime?

Her answers: Buying electricity for her parents’ house so she wouldn’t have to scrape candle wax off the stairs. Eating oranges. Running water (with microwaves a close second). More than answers, they were springboards into unexpected conversations.

  • Have you ever had a close connection with a grandparent or an elder? What is, or was, your relationship like? What life lessons, big or small, have you learned from them?

  • What is your reaction to Mr. Morgan’s essay? What moments, conversations or lines were most memorable, surprising or moving? Did any remind you of your own experiences with the older people in your life?

  • Have you ever spoken to your grandparents in what Mr. Morgan calls “grayspeak” or “elderspeak”? Does the essay make you think differently about doing so?

  • Mr. Morgan said that to form a deeper relationship with his grandmother, he started asking her curveball questions, such as, “What did you do with your first-ever paycheck?” and “What was the best invention of your lifetime?” What is a “curveball question” you would like to ask an elder in your life? Why?

  • Mr. Morgan writes, “We are each other’s best gift.” Does reading the essay make you wish you had deeper connections with older people? If so, what might you do to move past a “relationship of polite predictability” with them?

  • Bonus: Write a story of no more than 100 words about a grandparent or an elder who has been a part of your life. Post it in the comments, or submit it to Tiny Love Stories.

  • Students 13 and older in the United States and Britain, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public and may appear in print.