On Hearing Elder Voices

These days, I am hearing elder voices, as if I am on a compassionate listening tour, taking notes and names, always conscious of time.

My older sister, now 91, and I seem to always begin our conversation with remembrances of our mother who survived two husbands, seven children and two wars, not counting those her four sons endured. This reflection takes us back through the 20th century and into the 19th when Queen Victoria was still sitting on the English throne. As I listen to my sister remember, I feel as if I am in ancient times listening to the voices of the honored dead. In his “Lament of the Dead,” psychologist James Hillman encourages us, in this noisy world, to listen to these voices. Dr. Hillman suggests that by familiarizing ourselves with the rivers of conversations about grandparents and great grandparents we get a taste of psychological complexity and also take our immediate parents off the hook for our every petty complaint.

My sister was present at my birth and is the only one left alive who can tell the story. She was out shopping with my mother and they were sent home early by the air raid warnings. Apparently, that sound was the music of my birth. She remembers the love and attention I received, and my heart takes in this memory as gospel. My vanity is rewarded when I hear, one more time, about my large, beautiful hazel eyes.

I have watched my sister experience enormous hardship and heartache, and if there is ever an angel present, it is on her shoulder. She lives her life grounded in the love of family and the inevitable vicissitudes. But her voice and language is spiritual and almost transcendent. Her words of love, compassion and forgiveness seem a universe away from much of the dogmatic chatter we hear today.

When I was young, driven and a pain-in-the ass, I thought my sister a little soft and easy going. But I was wrong. She has taught me more than anyone about living through turbulent times with dignity. I learned more from her about living with grace under “fire” than I did in the military. Being young is easy. To live long as if one is blessed, to endure during the most difficult times, is a real art. My sister has perfected this art.

In this space and in this spirit I am hearing the voice of Bill, long-time friend and mentor who guided me in college after my military stint. He was a librarian at a state college in Pennsylvania and was a major influence on my education and love of literature.

What most impressed me about Bill was the way he treated his elderly father who lived with him. My friend displayed an affection and tenderness for the father that I have rarely witnessed among men. He loved his father in time and in memory, reflecting to this present day on his father’s picaresque life straddling two centuries as sailor, gold miner, cowboy and the like. Bill is still listening to his elder voices.

He now lives with his wife in assisted living. He is in one room; she is in another. She hears his voice and sings ever-so-sweetly, “Bill, where are you, I need you, I love you.” She repeats this song a number of times and loud enough so people in a nearby dining room can hear her. They in turn pick up on the anthem and join the chorus. Bill, gruff at times, could not escape the sweetness that filled the air and touched his heart.

The man lives lovingly in the present but is glad to recount a visit from a 76-year-old cousin who raised Angus cattle on a farm that has been in the family since 1801. They both fear that economics and scale will force a sale. Family members have been leaving the Pennsylvania farm for centuries now. Bill’s grandmother left in 1870. His grandfather had died of pneumonia and his wife left for Iowa with three daughters under the age of six. She was a widow for 53 years.

He offers these details with wonder and regret. The man can think in epochs, spanning 10,000 years, in an afternoon. Psychologist Hillman might say this man’s imagination is ancestral and remains alive in the images that convey history and time.

I am honored to hear these voices, these expressions of soul.

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