Voices from the past, loud and clear

I’ve been feeling my age lately.

I know, I know. I’ve written about this before. Same story, different issue.

But this time, I’m walking around on a cranky knee, watching my 16-year-old son make mature decisions regarding his future, marveling at my 15-year-old daughter fixing a meal for her younger brother, beaming as my 10-year-old readies himself for his part in the chorus of a high school musical.

Some days, the hubs and I actually have time alone before the sun goes down because the three kids are busy with their own lives, which are becoming increasingly more tangential, less congruent, to ours.

Time marches on.

And then in the mail the other day arrived a letter from my aunt.

That right there was unusual – getting an actual letter instead of an e-mail? How old school.

And what was inside was even more so. My sweet aunt – my dad’s sister – had photocopied some letters her father wrote her mother before the two ever married, when they were just a couple of crazy 20-somethings. A note was attached:  “Hope you can read this letter from Navy to Loie,” wrote Aunt Mimi. “Some things are different in this century and some are the same.”

Hmmm, I thought. Intriguing.

The date on the first letter was Richmond, Calif., July 19, 1933.

Now, I had a bit of an idea what this was about. When I was a high school sophomore, I had to write an oral history on an older adult. Lucky for me, my paternal grandparents were visiting my southeast Missouri hometown for the Christmas holidays. I asked my grandpa if he’d let me interview him, and he agreed. We spent several hours talking, me with pen and notebook in hand, my grandpa with an ornery look in his eye. Sometimes during the interview, I wondered if he were pulling my leg with his stories.

Because I’d never in my 16 years heard the stories he told: Of his days in the U.S. Navy in the early 1920s, picking up dead soldiers from Central America, spending time in port in San Diego, going to college as an “older man” in his mid-20s, which earned him the nickname “Navy.”

Navy

College is where he met my grandmother, Lois. She was six years his junior and a serious Park College coed. He tried for years to woo her, but she was a hard sell. She had goals – to become a teacher – and she didn’t want some romancer to get in her way. But a few years after the stock market crash of 1929, she had to leave Park and return to Marceline to find a teaching job so she could help her family make ends meet.

Loie, when she was a little girl.

Grandpa, an independent man by then, paid his own pay to college and finished in about three years, including time spent at the teachers’ college in Warrensburg. But he couldn’t find a job after graduation, which frustrated him. So he took his money, bought some camping gear and a good pair of goggles, bade his poor mother adieu and hopped a freight train heading west.

So that’s the back story on those letters. By the time I heard that story, my grandpa was 78. He died a year later. I haven’t heard his voice in 27 years. Until, that is, I read the letters my aunt mailed me.

“Procrastination is the thief of time,” began a letter dated July 24, 1933 from Bakersfield, Calif.

I could just hear my grandpa deliver that truism. He had a way with words – I have a vivid memory of a hot August day in 1977. I was laid up with a toothache on the couch at my grandparents’ house. Everyone else had gone shopping for new school clothes, but I couldn’t. Grandpa volunteered to stay home with me.

I was watching something on TV when Walter Cronkite broke in with a special report: Elvis Presley had been found dead in his Memphis home. Elvis. Dead.

I gaped at the TV, but my grandpa just kept on playing solitaire and making a tsk-tsk sound. “It’s about time,” was all he said.

My dad inherited that trait, and these letters reminded me of that.

In my grandfather’s neat handwriting, the letters detailed for Loie his trip west, the beautiful scenery he saw – mountains, rivers, valleys, gorges – and the desperation he encountered in Hoovervilles around the west, families begging for food, educated men working menial jobs. My grandpa chose the transient life for a bit, but for others he encountered it was the only way to survive. The experience cemented my grandfather’s views for the remainder of his life.

But what my aunt was talking about, her cryptic words about some things never changing, was the fact that my grandfather invited my grandmother to join him in the hobo life, if only for a little while.

What? They weren’t even married, my mind screamed. Grandpa and Grandma thinking about…shacking? And he wrote it down?

“How would you like to be out with me for say – one week?” he wrote. “I have run across many girls and women on the road. They have quite a time of it.”

Hmmm. What did he mean? Do I want to know?

Needless to say, Loie didn’t hit the road with Navy that summer. She was too practical. And she didn’t want to lose her job. They didn’t marry for another two years, mainly because Loie had a good-paying teaching job, making more than Navy did as a teacher. And she knew that as soon as she married she’d have to quit so a man could have her job – married women didn’t need to work.

So Loie stayed single until her salary fell below Navy’s.

The rest…well, I know most of those details. But these letters my aunt sent gave me a glimpse into the lives of two young people whom I never met until they were well past middle age. I thought I knew them so well, but suddenly, they’re mysterious strangers.

And like that, my 44 years seem yet a blip in history. And I don’t feel so old.

How old am I, anyway?

In my mind, I feel about 25 – a little more confident than I was at 20, able to legally buy booze, past the point of being rated negatively because of my age by my car insurer.

But I look in the mirror and realize that I need to use a nighttime moisturizer with Retinol, that if I move my head to the right or left the wrinkles show on my neck, that there’s a ginormous about of gray underneath the top layer of my brown hair.

Still, if I keep to my own kind – and by that I mean mostly 40-somethings and older, I can feel pretty good about myself. In my zumba class, for example, I’m  on the young side and feel downright lithe.

But two days a week, I’m in my graduate classes. This year I’m surrounded heavily by folks in their 20s, some not even a full year out of undergrad. And it’s rough, I tell you.

One day, another middle-aged classmate and I were walking to our cars after class with a young woman in our cohort. We both went to the University of Missouri in the 1980s, so we were comparing years. He was there from 1984 to 1987.

“Aw, we just missed each other,” I said. “I was a freshman in fall 1987.”

And then our young friend piped up. “I was just 2 in 1987,” she said.

Pow. Like a punch to the gut.

“Gee,” I said, “I guess I could be your mother if I had been a teen mom.”
“Yep,” she said happily. “Guess so.”

Now, when I was her age, I didn’t like to point out to my older coworkers that in fact I was not born at the time of the assassinations of JFK, Bobby Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr. I didn’t want to remind anyone of my youth.

These days, though, I guess youngsters don’t mind everyone knowing they’re, well, young. Also these days, I use terms like, “Now, when I was your age…” and words like, “youngsters,” all the time.

This same younger classmate and I worked on a group assignment during our first semester of the social work program. We were assigned to put together a presentation on the treatment of the LGBTQI community in the United States. During our planning session, I brought up the case of Brandon Teena and the film, “Boys Don’t Cry.” I was going on and on about it when I realized my friend had a look of confusion on her face.

“That sounds interesting,” she said, before asking how to spell Brandon Teena’s name.

“You remember the movie, right? Hilary Swank was in it…” my voice trailed off as I realized she had no idea what I was talking about.

“What year was that?” she asked.

I said it was in the late 1990s. “Oh, that explains it,” she said. “I was probably about 13 or 14.”

And I was a mother of two when that movie came out.

Hey, people can’t help when they’re born. I know that. And I never want to be the person who considers it a character flaw if a coworker or what have you isn’t as old as I am and thus hasn’t lived through the world events that I have. You all know some older person who constantly reminds you that you didn’t know how bad it was during the Depression, etc.

Still, I just feel this kind of thing – me trying to relate something from my life to someone much younger who has no clue what I’m talking about – happens more and more.

In another class this spring, we ended up having a discussion of the Affordable Care Act and birth control pills and mandates and what have you. And one particularly impassioned classmate said she was just so tired of all the fuss about birth control. “I mean, it’s been around since the ‘70s,” she said.

 “Actually,” I said, “it was the 1960s when birth control pills became available.”

“Well, whatever,” she said. “It was a long time ago.”

Yeah, I guess it does seem like a long time ago when you were born in 1990.

So I think, like many older people, I will just start keeping my mouth shut lest I sound irrelevant. Like the afternoon that I was struggling with a statistics assignment on Excel and I blurted out, “Geez, I haven’t taken statistics since 1988.”

And I looked around and realized, yup. No other student in my class was even born in 1988.