Desolate Old Men  

Today, I would like to share a bittersweet reflection with you. Then I would like to poke at it a little. This anonymous reflection (below) about old friends was sent to me by an old friend of mine. He and I were in the Class of 1955 at Randolph High School (long since Northmont High School) just north of Dayton, Ohio. He was not only in my class; he was in my group. We were nerds together. So it meant something special to me that he wanted to send this reflection to me.

Here it is:

“When I was young, I noticed that every Friday at about 2pm, my grandfather would leave the house, drive somewhere, and come back after three hours. This happened regularly like clockwork for several years.
My curiosity was aroused so much so that I asked my grandmother, “Grandma, where does Grandpa go every Friday afternoon?”
To which my grandmother replied, ” a place called Country Bake Shop. He spends time with his friends drinking coffee and having pastries.”
This type of routine is very common among the elderly. A group of old friends would meet in some cafe, have coffee, and reminisce about the good old days. They would make sure they didn’t miss any session. After all, it is only to these guys they are able to say, “Do you remember?” because these guys were there when they lived those moments.
And then the number starts to dwindle. From a group of eight, the number goes down to five, then to three. Until finally, one finds himself alone. His friends leave him and he must now travel on alone. Even to the friendliest people he meets on the way, he will never be able to say, “Do you remember?” They were not there.
To the elderly, this is one of the most crippling experiences. Desolation. The feeling of being left behind by old friends who have been with you and shared with you all those crazy and happy moments. He is devastated by the awareness that the few years he has left will no longer allow him to expand that circle of friends once again.
Desolation. One good reason for the young to prepare themselves psychologically for old age. One good reason for them to treat the elderly with respect and compassion”.

They seem happy at the moment, though

I applaud the author’s choice of desolation as the word to describe this. As applied to a person, it means personal sorrow, but it points, too, to aloneness as the reason for the sorrow. The de- is desolation has the effect of intensifying the verb, so “really, really, alone” is the sense it has and that is the reason for the sorrow.

The aloneness the anonymous author talks about is the loss of people who share a recollection of the same events you remember. I said I would want to poke around at this idea a little. Let the poking begin.

We say we remember an event and we do. Kind of. There is a phenomenon I have come to call “narrative fatigue.” I mean the kind of drift a story we all hold in common undergoes when my buddies and I remember it and tell it again and again. As we all know, the story changes over time. It comes to reflect our current needs. So the “good old days” are the current form of the stories we tell and we tell them without the slightest notion that it has changed over the years of our telling it together.

I have thought, sometimes, that it might be even more enjoyable for us to share the changes in the story as we have negotiated them over them years, but I know that is not practical.

Another thought that occurs to me is the exclusive focus on reminiscence. There are other things they could have done, certainly and they may have done some of them that Grandma doesn’t know about. They may have “settled major world problems” in the manner of old men everywhere. They may have refined the usually tacit patterns of approval and disapproval that allow communities to function as social, rather than principally legal, bodies.

We don’t know, of course. If Grandma doesn’t know, we don’t know and there may be an understanding among the men that what happens at the Country Bake Shop stays at the Country Bake Shop. Still, it is a simple fact that every function I have imagined for these old men, with the simple exception of reminiscence, could be open to younger members. Imagining a mixed age group isn’t the easiest thing in the world, especially now that generational styles have become so widely accepted, but in a mixed age group, two really encouraging things could happen.

For one thing, apprenticeship could happen. Whatever of value these old men are doing could be passed on to the next generation of leadership. Imagine for a moment that this group of old men organizes and administers a charity for the special benefit of overachievers and underachievers. A young person who has watched that work is in a perfect place to pick it up when George has the first of what may turn out to be several strokes. The group can say nice things about George and they probably will, but what honors George more [1] than continuing his work?

The other really good thing that could happen to the old Country Bake Shop group with the addition of new members is that is might retard the process by which the group would otherwise devolve into a group of hapless old farts. The infusion of new values and especially new standards for language and behavior could revivify the group. Of course, it could destroy it, too, if it were badly done, but there is nothing like the gentle and persistent advocacy of new ways of talking and thinking to make a group resilient and comfortable with itself over the long haul. Provided—big deal—that “remembering how things were” is not the principal function of the group.

And if that happens, well…there is probably a New Country Bake Shop somewhere, where we can all start again.

[1] It occurred to me for the first time as I wrote that that the expression we ordinarily use—“honor his memory”—could just as well be used to refer to how acutely ol’ George remembered things. He could be the one who remembered who the supporting actors and the director were of a movie they had all liked a decade ago. “He was amazing,” one of the old guys could say, “especially the way he remembered our birthdays.” If that isn’t “honoring his memory,” I don’t know what is.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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