How do we learn about old people?

More thoughts on the last post. My grandparents may have been the only old people I really knew as a child, but surely I must have gotten just as many impressions of old people from nursery rhymes, fairy tales, comic strips, radio soaps (yes, unbelievably, this really was back in the days of radio!), and even, since I was brought up in a church, from the Bible.

So, in nursery rhymes I remember “the old woman who lived in a shoe and didn’t know what to do.”

Old Woman who lived in a shoe. c1875. My First Picture Book. London, New York, George Routledge & Sons.

In fairy tales, I recall Riding Hood’s grandmother. Poor thing, couldn’t tell a wolf from her granddaughter, even when he was up close and personal!

“Old Macdonald had a farm,” but then so did my Grandad so there wasn’t nothing much new there.

I don’t remember many fairy tale oldsters, but the witches and bad fairies seem to me to have always been older than the various heroic princesses and good fairies with their long golden locks.

Most of the comic strips I read regularly had no old people in them — but there was Mary Worth. There was always Mary Worth — a sweet helpful lady who was, frankly, a bit of a bore.

Mary Worth. Photo by Derrick Bostrom. Creative Commons license.

In Dick Tracy’s strip there was Gravel Gertie, but I don’t think she made much of an impression on me. Daddy Warbucks? I don’t think he qualified as old. I really can’t think of anyone else.

The soaps included Ma Perkins, but I never listened to that one. Stella Dallas was troubled and sad, but Lolly hadn’t given her any grandchildren yet, so I can’t see that she qualifies either.

And, of course, there was Gabby Hayes who rode with Roy Rogers and was mostly just a silly sidekick. Ma and Pa Kettle came along at about the same time; they made much the same impression on me as Gabby.

So far, my image of old is awfully blurred, but it certainly doesn’t suggest that old was important or interesting.

The Bible? I did read Bible stories, and re-told the most horrific to kids who were younger and more easily terrified than I was. Sodom and Gomorrah. Stuff like that.

Sodom & Gomorrah. Woodcut from Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493.

But no one was especially old in those stories, and Methuselah was an example, not a character. Priests, prophets and kings were sometimes aged, so the idea of the old being wise was at least introduced. There were a few women who were old or who became old — Sarah, Naomi (she of “wither you go, I shall go”, Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist….

Thank God for my grandparents. Otherwise, my idea of old people would have been utterly anemic.

My grandparents on their wedding day.

Not too many years ago when I was in charge of an education program at a county history museum. I found all sorts of people — some not-so-old and some old to show off old-time skills: soap-making, rug-making, fence building, black-smithing…. Getting their hands into glycerine, weaving, wielding a hammer or a bellows, connected the visiting students to history. History wasn’t just a lesson with no subject: it was linked with their grandparents, their neighbors and the whole community. Granted, it was still difficult to make the past as exciting as the future with its space ships and aliens, but those elderly mentors made a difference in the lives of the kids.

I’ll never forget when the elderly mistress of square dancing in our county came to teach the youngsters to dance, and to tell them something of her own history in dancing. One child was so impressed with the wonderful old lady that she ran to stop her just as she got into her car to leave, so that she could give her the basket she’d been toiling over for the last three days of camp. Now that was a connection!

Everyone needs a few old people in their lives.

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One thought on “How do we learn about old people?

  1. Just returned from a visit with four of our five grandchildren—two each from two of our kids, a single child from another, all living in different states. At the first home we went to this weekend, the other grandparents were visiting from Germany. At the second home, the children have four grandmothers and two grandfathers, thanks to death, divorce and remarraige. Most of us are still working, at least part time. As you say, life is different today.

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