The Secret of the Elders

by Leonie Dawson on February 8, 2011

Every tribe has its elders.

You know the ones. They are the ones who have navigated through long, long years of this living business.

I know older ones of course – many of them. Those who have lived, but still haven’t learned.

The elders are different though. They are the ones who have not been skewed, jaded or ruptured by the thousand moments where the heart stands still, when hope is lost, when days are sodden with grief, when things do not go according to the plan.

I am blessed. I have three.

Three women, all in their nineties.

My grandmother Marion. My grandmother is the youngest. She is 93. She still lives by herself, up until last year in the old wooden cottage we now live in and now in a set of sweet flats where elders circle to create ornate gardens and peer their head into each other’s doors. As is the way in this small town, most of them are cousins.

My grandmother has outlived her two lovers, her two sons, and one grandson. She still works two days a week in the “boutique” – an op shop. And she dresses better than I do. She wears pearls and high heels and tight fitting, dipping bright blue dresses. She has a collection of eight retro white-rimmed sunglasses. She is uncannily intuitive – knowing before anyone else in the family (including the subject) who is falling in love, who is falling out and who needs to be told they are beautiful today.

The second (on the left) is my grandmother’s sister Lucy. Lucy has deep red hair and the innocence of a fairy. She fell in love with her soulmate when she was still a teenager. He was fifteen years older, and although I don’t remember him, his kindness is spoken about in glowing whispers. My mother likes to tell a story about someone complimenting Fred on his pink shirt. In return, he took it off and gave it to them. I tell this about Fred, because it tells you about Lucy too. Fred was the gentle man who made his life’s work to take care of and love the red-haired, kind-hearted fairy girl who chose him. Lucy has Alzheimer’s disease, and though she now doesn’t remember anyone’s name, it matters not – she loves them just the same. She knows you are good. She knows you are family – everyone is.

And the little old lady who lived down the road when I grew up. I know her – as does most of our small town – simply as Nan. Nan is 96, the eldest of the elders. Nan’s eyes are the loveliest of blue, and she likes to ask intensive questions about computers and the internet so she can understand this funny online goddess job thing I have. I remember when I was 6, Nan and Pop left on a holiday. She returned without him by her side, a heart attack having taken her love. I remember the neighbourhood’s children being gathered up to meet her on the bus, each of us holding a rose for her. She got off the bus, and cried, and held us all, then introduced us to the Swiss girl she’d made dear friends with on the bus who she’d invited to live with her for a while. And she did. That is how my Nan is – a woman with an open heart who looks to love wherever she can.

Three women.

All in their nineties.

They have lost their parents, siblings, loves, children, grandchildren. They have lived stories untold – of miscarriages, abortions, poverty, pain, infidelity. My grandmother told me she once spent the night in prison with her family – because it was Christmas Eve, they were visiting the city, there were no hotel rooms available and they had no money. So the police took them in and let them stay the night with two young children. There have been breakdowns, suicides, alcoholism, of watching children waste away for years from cancer. They have lived in tents. They have been beaten. They have lived through the bombing of London. There has been two world wars. There has been the deepest of depressions.

And yet – and yet.

These women – they glow.

They are happy.

They have a deep and ferocious faith that people are good.

They believe anything can be solved with the salve of love.

The years have not torn them asunder.

They have widened them and smoothed them like a river smooths a rock.

They glisten. They are wells of compassion, of wisdom and of laughter.

They have a secret.

I know other stories, other older ones. Those whose tapestries have warped from the threads of living, have torn and frayed and tangled. Those who haven’t become beacons in their tribes. Those who have hurt more than healed. The years don’t always mend and soften and deepen a person.

I wonder what separates the elders from the older.

And then I listen, and I see.

We drive with the elders.

Without fail, on the drive to the farm, my Aunt Lucy the fairy coos:

Oh! Those mountains! Look at those mountains! I’ve never seen anything like them! The beauty!

My grandmother is more pragmatic:

Look at this road. It’s so wide and so smooth! Such a good road to travel on!

She turns to me and says:

Leonie, you are a good mum. You look beautiful today. Ostara is the most beautiful baby, isn’t she the most lovely thing you’ve ever seen?

And your Dad, he’s an old bushy, but he’s got a good heart, and gosh he loves you children.

And my Nan, ever the heart, says about each and every day we have together:

Well, that was just the most wonderful day possible. I can’t imagine a better day.

And on, and on, and on, these women speak, singing the praises of every little thing, every little person.

Everywhere, there are blessings, there are miracles, there is a universe tending to our million needs for air, comfort, love, support, good roads, kind hearts, tending gatherings and delicious mountains.

And they are the sentinels watching for them, praising them, delighting in them, alerting us all to them.

This is their secret.

As life’s cyclones and storms and tornados tear trees and branches from limb, as earthquakes shatter and quake, as tsunamis wash and swallow, these women, they turn their faces to their sun and say:

This life is good. Just look at that beautiful sun!

May I listen, may I learn, may I know.

With love, grace and faith,