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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Talking To Old People

When my parents moved to Chicago in 1939, they left behind in Philadelphia both sets of parents; my father’s brother and sister-in-law; my mother’s sister and brother-in-law; and a handful of nieces and nephews.

I arrived on the scene in late 1943 to join my older brother as our parents’ only children, a more or less typical nuclear family for the times, though not so typical was the distance that separated us from our extended family.

In the ‘40s and ‘50s, those nearly 800 miles between Chicago and Philadelphia might as well have been 8,000: flying, except for an emergency, was out of the question, though we did manage an annual car trip east. Our relatives rarely came west; not only would it have been too costly, but what travel they did manage were mostly short trips not far from Philly.

And so to stay connected to everyone across that vast distance meant phone calls—though mostly for special occasions—and whatever letters might pass between my parents and their respective families.

Which is all to say, I didn’t grow up with any relatives living nearby, especially older ones, the grands- and greats- my friends often relied on to answer those large looming questions they might not ask their parents: Will I ever get a boyfriend? Should I go to college? Is it OK to move out of the house before I’m married?

And then maybe the really big one: what am I supposed to do with my life anyway?

I wonder now if that access to my older relatives would've made a difference in how my life has unfolded. Possibly. I’d like to think that my Poppity Swaine or Nanny McCarthy would have passed along some wisdom they‘d accumulated throughout their lives, some of it I now know was hard-earned.

But as my life is still unfolding, I take comfort in knowing that asking the Old Old—those 85 and beyond—is still available to me. And to all of us, no matter our age.

To find out how, read this:

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