Honoring Our Grand-elders

May 16, 2005
Rev. Victoria Weinstein


READING "What We Didn' t Have" Richard Patterson

There were many things we didn' t have, and we didn' t know we didn' t have them, such as: Federal and State income taxes, welfare payments, food stamps, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, zoning requirements, motels, supermarkets, radio, television, quartz watches and clocks, pressure-sensitive tapes, telephone dial tones, insured bank accounts, charge cards, computers, bar codes and laser scanners, fiberglass, plywood, pizzas, Mexican food, Xerox copiers, fluorescent lights, thermostats for furnaces, deodorants, airlines, airports, interstate highways, weather forecasts, air conditioning, atom bombs, assault rifles, mechanical refrigeration, power tools, microwave ovens, trailer trucks, fast-food restaurants, sound movies, color photography, camcorders, nylon panty hose, Bikini bathing suits, electric shavers, mouthwash, car heaters, space satellites, tubeless tires, and all the devices and systems which have come from the electronic revolution.


THE SERMON "Honoring Our Grandelders"

Those words were written by Richard Kingsbury Patterson, who was christened on the Fourth of July, 1914 in the Universalist Church in Bangor, Maine. He met his wife of 67 years, Margie, by way of the Universalist church, and they were married there. Dick finished his memoirs in 1995, and he is here this morning with the four of the other six grand-elders who have achieved the honorable age of 90, and who all agreed to be interviewed by me for this occasion. The others are,

Rollin Wade Bailey, born in 1911;
Anna Pauline Willard Colbert, born in April of 1915;
Myrtle Liliane Howell Sanford Donahue, born in 1908;
Caryl Gaudette, a September baby, born in 1914;
Marguerite Goodrich Pierce, born in August of 1914;
Erdine Eileen Badgeley Winegar, born in January of 1914.

There are seven of them. What they didn' t have, you just heard. What they do have, all of them, is an abiding curiosity about life, and an appreciation of its many peaks and valleys, which they have all characterized as being "interesting." They were children of the worst Depression this nation has ever known, and they lived through the world wars. They were there 60 years ago last weekend when the Allies declared V-E day, and they remember it. Some of them served. One of them served on the island of Hawaii, cracking codes for the U.S. Navy. Another was a young crackerjack professional at the Fore River shipyards. Both women, by the way.

None of the seven were ever divorced, although five are widowed, some more than once. Some are parents, some aren' t, some have stepchildren, some have grandchildren and great-grands. They are what Tom Brokaw called "The Greatest Generation." None of them claim to have any special wisdom, and none of them expressed, over the many hours I spent talking with them, one tiny bit of cynicism about this world of ours, even if they occasionally expressed serious concerns about the future, or the current culture. And each and every one of them, when asked what their favorite era was, responded by taking a long moment to think, and then saying, "Each era had something favorite about it."

I find that remarkable. If we learn anything at all from them, then, it might be to find the hopeful and beautiful aspects of every era we are lucky enough to witness in our lifetimes, and to find our job to do in it. As one of our grandelders said, and she should know, "When things looked dark, well, you just figured they would get brighter again."

Reaching the age of ninety (and of course Rollin and Myrtle are both well over 90) has not been easy, but none of our nonagenarians claimed to have figured out the way to stay healthy and achieve longevity. "Moderation in all things," Rollin said, "Even moderation." He believes that it is the excesses that do us in, although emotional excesses are perhaps not as dangerous, and I found that having a passion for life was a key factor in all the seven nonagenarians' well-being. They have stayed alert in their minds, curious, interested, engaged. Caryl Gaudette, who is still an avid reader, digs into detective stories, history, biography, books on codes. "I' m interested in lots of things." And that seems to be a key to aging gracefully, even though slathering your face with Ponds Cold Cream might also help, as Myrtle Donahue did for many years, and she has the complexion of a porcelain doll.

Pauline Colbert – and this will not surprise you – says that helping others inspires her the most, and that working hard has given her vitality. She has worked very hard physically throughout her entire life, and exercised. Erdine says that her key is not to sweat the small stuff at all, and to be content with simple things. Caryl Gaudette modestly remarked that she just "blunders along," although we know that no one just "blunders" their way into so many community contributions and professional achievements.

Marguerite, as you may know, is an avid tennis player and attributes that activity to keeping her healthy. But Myrtle Donahue, who suffers terribly with arthritis, says that, at 96 years, she is finally starting to feel old. She has no big secrets for living this long; just good genetics, she says. And Dick Patterson wonders if his nightly cocktail does him some good, and he feels lucky that he finally quit smoking pipes and cigarettes about 20 years ago. Not all of these elders has lived the life of a health nut, not by far.

What about spiritual health and sources of inspiration? I asked most of the interviewees how they have endured the hard knocks life has sent them: many of them identified the healing power of music in their lives. Myrtle, who still lives on her own, listens to classical music all the time. All of her CDs are of the classics. When I asked her what her favorite piece of music was, she racked her brain and couldn' t think of it. I said, "It' s okay, we' ll come back to that later. It will come to you. A few minutes later, she fretted, "I can' t believe that I can' t remember that my favorite piece of music is Handel' s Messiah." (I said, "I know, I' m so sorry you can' t remember that your favorite music is Handel' s Messiah." We cracked up.)

Marguerite Pierce' s mother got her into the church choir at 14, which was a life-long joy for her. "That was rather bold of mother," she told me, but there was a particularly talented music director and her mother wanted young Marge to learn from her. (Many of you know that Marguerite' s husband, Lew, whose memorial service we had here yesterday, was also a very passionate devotee of music, and headed up our congregation' s first organ improvement project.)

Rollin Bailey has found great inspiration through the theatre, and he has learned some important life lessons on the stage, too. He once went on for a scene with a fellow actor who was bringing far too much intensity to it, which caused Rollin to also ramp up his own performance, something he instantly regretted. He learned from that, he said, that you must never let other people' s moods or attitudes adversely affect yours.

Several of our group credited bosses with inspiring them, which says a lot for their willingness to accept authority and to learn from mentors. I think this is a something it would do well for our younger generations to remember: we don' t know everything, we need to find good mentors, and we need to be willing to be taught and guided by them. Self-esteem is fine, but it' s not worth much if it' s not founded on hard work and learning and achievements that mean something to us personally, based on what we admire and strive after.

All of our 90 years gang are remarkably modest people, but they are very animated when talking about the things they' ve learned in this life. I get the sense from them that part of the beauty of hindsight is that we come to realize that even failures and losses and times of deprivation and struggle are necessary strands in the weaving of a rich life. So many of our grand-elders emphasized again and again, that it is not things that make us interesting or that make life meaningful or happy. It is having the time to pay attention to life as it unfolds, and the privilege of having something to do that makes us happy.

I had thought, originally, to talk today about issues in aging and health care and attitudes about the elders in our society, but I find that I would rather share with you more of the words of the seven remarkable people whom I interviewed for today' s service. I would like to speak for the next few minutes in the first person, in either direct quotes or paraphrases of stories that they shared with me. I hope that, in doing this, I can give you a sense of the joy it was to hear these stories, and to share the treasure trove of insight and memory that is among us in these seven. So here they are, in their own voices:

"When I was a little boy, I had an undiagnosed birth defect that affected my vision. I had no depth perception, but I never knew that until I was 34 years old. When I found that out, I suddenly understood so much of my suffering in school, and why I frequently had so many accidents on the road. But some spirit in me that was not going to be defeated made me write in the back of every single schoolbook I ever used, ‘SOME TIME VICTORY.' When I was 90, I finally felt that I had achieved a measure of that victory."

"Don' t fight it. What' s going to happen, happens. I' ve learned that there' s a lot I can' t control, and accepting that allows me to be so much happier."

"I sort of enjoy all the eras. There' s always something interesting and good about each one, even though they all have their problems."

"I' m optimistic as far as the country' s concerned. You kind of wonder about here and there, though."

"When I was growing up we never had a sense of the world as a bad place. People have no manners nowadays. No one' s kind and courteous, or thinks about others."

"When I bought my house in 1944, single women didn' t do that."

"I remember Armistice Day of World War I. All the sardine factories whistles were blowing, and all the fishing boats were blowing their whistles, too."

"I' m all for progress, but wouldn' t it be nice to stop and smell the roses?"

"I believe in the truth, even though it' s difficult. If you lie, you' ve got to keep lying to perpetuate that first lie. It' s too much work and it' s never worth it."

"I never felt special. When I began going to Star Island [a UU retreat center on the Isle of Shoals], I finally learned that I was loved, and that I was special, and that people cared about me. I could open up and confide in people for the first time in my life."

"Music kept me all my life from going crazy."

"When I get to heaven, I hope God will say that he forgives me for my sins."

"When I get to heaven, I want to hear God say, ‘well done, good and faithful servant.' I' ll say, ‘I tried. I tried hard, but sometimes I got terribly discouraged.' "

"When I get to heaven, my husband' s going to greet me and he' ll say, ‘Welcome home, babe.' "

"I' m not sure I' m going to heaven."
"I can' t imagine a heaven better than this life."

"It does not take money. When we wanted to buy my son a trumpet, we went and found the best trumpet money could buy, and we paid $5 a month on it for years. You work with what you have. We were married in the deep Depression and we didn' t have a big wedding or anything. And we were so happy."

"I kept my nose to the grindstone and was lucky to land on my feet with people who knew what they were doing."

"The worst part about growing older is that you lose all your friends."

"It' s very difficult to explain faith. It means not getting overwhelmed by terrible things, but turning my attention and energy to things that will help people. It' s in my heart. I feel that God is with me, even when my prayers aren' t answered in the way that I would like. I' m still angry about my 22-year old friend who died in childbirth along with her baby. I realize now that it happened. I can' t say it was God' s will."

"My belief in God is very strong and faith is a gift of God – and prayer either frees me from my troubles and problems or else gives me the strength and courage to meet my troubles."

"I' m pretty convinced that some tremendous power or force put things together. We can print out a Farmer' s Almanac a year in advance, down to the minute of sunsets and sun rises and tides! It' s too orderly to be an accident. You can call it God if you want to. I call it the Great Spirit."

"Young people should do what they love and what they' re interested in."

"I' d have done some things differently, but too late now."

"Keep plugging, pray to God, and hope for the best."

And finally, a toast that was penned by Dick Patterson, which he uses in his own autobiography: "To life and love, and laughter, and all the joys and wonders unfolding in this great, mysterious universe."

To life and love and laughter, and to the wisdom of the elders. Would you mind terribly, grand-elders, rising as I say your name?
Rollin Bailey
Pauline Colbert
Myrtle Donahue
Caryl Gaudette
Richard Patterson
Marguerite Pierce
Erdine Winegar

We thank you for sharing of yourselves with us today. You are our fairest flowers.