Yesterday’s post prompted me to take a “process break” from my usual observations on family heritage. I had mentioned yesterday that I let the visual cues from a picture lend me a mindset that caused me to make misinformed judgments. In this particular case, I let the picture of a child lead me to draw conclusions based on an assumed perpetuation of that childhood stage.
However, as I closed the article, I mentioned that the reverse also happens: when we see pictures of people from their last stages of life, we tend to also draw conclusions. Those conclusions—generally inferring that the current elderly appearance retroactively defines the whole of that person’s being—lead people to interact in a much different manner than if they could have had a relationship with the entire person.
This very thing was demonstrated to me so clearly five years ago, when my own mother was severely injured in a brutal car crash. Air-lifted to a trauma center for treatment, she was kept in a medically-induced coma until stabilized in preparation for surgical repair of her broken neck. During that time, of course, she could not speak for herself in any way that would form a relationship with the staff providing her nursing care.
Naturally, the nurses, looking at this disheveled survivor in her mid-eighties, were left to their own devices in formulating judgments of just who this person was. Everything from assumptions about her health to presumptions about her personality evolved from the cues of appearance. For instance, my mother was normally very slender, but the injuries had caused her to swell incredibly; this was taken to be the usual “fat” of old age. Because the neck surgery couldn’t be attempted based on other underlying health complications, and the neck had to be maintained solely by use of a brace called a halo, nursing and therapy staff based prognosis on what they assumed to be an “average” elderly patient, and thus didn’t urge her to do her best in treatment. Generally, she was left to be an “old woman.”
I don’t know what prompted me to do this, but when our family flew halfway across the country to be with her in those first few comatose days, I felt impressed to print a copy of one of her studio pictures—the one you see above—from the portfolio of her young, hopeful days as a professional dancer and actress. Without saying much, I posted the photograph on the wall next to her bed.
It didn’t take long for the staff to notice.
“Who is that?” they would ask, pointing to the picture. They would always be amazed to hear the answer. Thankfully, it gave me a credible opening to explain that, even up to the day before her crash—she was on the way to a hike in the hills after her customary daily workout when it happened—she was still able to replicate the steps of some of her former dance routines.
It wasn’t a sudden change, but nevertheless, I’d call it a dramatic reversal of perception. I’m grateful to say that, though I’m sure the treatment rendered was always of professional quality, it somehow became more human, more relationship-oriented, after the little insertion of that visual aid. The mental pictures we carry with us generate our every move more than we realize.
I come from a line of long-lived women. These are women who don’t begin to consider old age until dismissing their seventies. Tennis? Jogging? Golfing? No problem: these women engaged in life and hard work with endurance, often until they were in their late eighties or nineties.
But to tell someone that—especially professionals who are already trained to know better—is such a hard task. Seeing is truly believing. We are all captive to that fact. I’ve done the very same thing in my own professional work—see an old client, translate that visual snapshot into an entire lifetime of being. There is no denying that old age has its baggage, but somehow, no matter how old the cover, there is always a young person still resident inside, as historian Page Smith observed in the book on his own journey, Old Age Is Another Country.
John Barrymore is attributed with observing, “A man is never old until regrets take the place of dreams.” Perhaps that is what we see when we observe people whom we automatically label as elderly: we paint them with regrets.
And yet, what is it we seek to do when we delve into family history? We seek to strip these old people—these relatives we once may have known—of that late-stage veneer of regrets and repaint them with the freshness of the hopes they harbored throughout the many stages of their lives.
Now, as family historians, we may only paint by numbers—or worse, only connect the dots. But somehow, we hope to progress until we are accomplished at this portraiture and can deftly replicate the very nuances of their entire being.
We seek to reverse John Barrymore’s weary epitaph and permit those supplanted dreams to regain their rightful place.
That’s how I want to remember the people in my life.