Waiting at the bus stop, my six year old grandson was talking about his favourite sports just as he would with another six year old. We were on our way to Thursday’s football practice – his.
“What’s your favourite sport granddad?”
“Do you mean to watch or to play?” I asked.
“Both I suppose. My favourite to play is indoor hockey, and to watch either swimming or football. What are yours?”
“To play it’s rugby, then I like watching basketball” I said.
“You play with a ball like an egg” I said, drawing a rugby ball in the air.
“Is that like American football?”
“More or less, almost the same” I said, nodding and raising my eyebrows like Groucho Marx to show I was impressed.
We were early for practice, so we did some passing and dribbling to warm up. He collected the ball from halfway across the pitch, after one of my badly skewed passes. After almost half an hour in the afternoon sun I was sweating profusely. His cheeks were blossoming, but otherwise he seemed unaffected.
He stood there holding the ball and looked straight into my eyes in that innocent way of his, head on one side and squinting against the sun. “How old are you granddad?” he asked, right out of the blue. “Seventy”, I said. He didn’t react, just nodded slowly, tucked the ball under his arm and backed off so that we could carry on with our passing game.
A simple question opened up a generation gap between us, a gap that had not been there before. Later I wondered what had prompted his question. And what he thought of my answer.
Most likely he was looking for an explanation for my poor performance – “Granddad is really hopeless at passing a football. OK – that’s because he is old and tired, but he’ll do if there’s no one else around.”
A more (for me) flattering explanation could be that he was impressed by my fitness, enthusiasm and prowess with a football and thought perhaps I was younger than I looked with my balding head and white hair. Or maybe he thought, “you’re not that old, only seventy, now it’s your turn to fetch the ball”.
(A week or so later we were sitting in the park eating ice cream. He was at home with a cough, I was keeping him company. I asked why he wanted to know how old I was. With a wide smile he confirmed my worst fears – I was past it as a football player.)
I joined the football (soccer) mums sitting at the side of the pitch, ostensibly watching their sons going through their training programme. In fact they were involved in an intense heated discussion about the new city rules for placement of six year olds in schools next autumn. After almost half an hour of listening to their views I felt exhausted. But not our soccer mums. They turned to the merits of living in the asphalt city with small children contra the option of buying a house in the leafy suburbs.
I tried to interest them in the football training which was taking place under their very noses, but to no avail. Their thoughts were elsewhere: what to put on the table for dinner, how to get for sitters or grandparents to look after the kids at the weekend, conflicts at work, and the rest.
Another age gap opened up, like cracks in a road after an earthquake.
Afterwards we took a short cut through the park to reach our bus stop, passing a large old apple tree in full bloom.
“What kind of tree is that” I asked grandson, trying to interest him in nature.
“No idea” he said, disinterested.
“It’s an apple tree.” His favourite fruit.
“How do you know that?”
“I saw some people picking apples from it last autumn.” I said.
“Can you still remember things from last year?”
“Of course, I walk past here quite often.”
He looked confused, probably thought it was another peculiarity about 70 year olds.
On the bus home he preferred to sit with a couple of his teammates, waving and pulling faces at the driver of the bus behind us in the traffic jam. She responded by waving her wipers and flashing her headlights. My role was reduced to bag man and general dogsbody.
At home, grandma and little sister, three years old, were sitting on the settee looking at old family photos, waiting for the potatoes to boil. “Who’s that?” asked grandma, showing her a picture of two girls standing next to a large brown pony in the stables. They were about twelve and eight years old. Little sister looked puzzled, and so did big brother when grandma showed him the photo.
“This is your Mummy and her sister when they were little girls”, explained grandma. “No way” said the six year old, while the three year old preferred children’s TV. Grandma tried to arouse interest in more photos of their Mummy as a young girl, but to no avail. The idea that their Mummy had a life before she was their mother was completely alien to them. The kids seemed disturbed by the idea that their Mummy had once been young like themselves. I tried again: “Where do you think those girls went to, where are they now?” No answer. Grandma and I gave up and set about fixing dinner.
Interest in family history and delving into the lives of previous generations is something that comes late in life, often when people have more life behind them than in front of them. “Oh, I should have asked Aunt Mary or Grandma Perkins about this when they were still alive!” is a common reaction after hitting a stone wall in their genealogical endeavours. Another common sign of interest in the past are the rows of biographies and historical novels which dominate the bookcases – if not the reading – of older people.
Are they trying to cling to the past, a past which has long since disappeared into the mists of time? And where does the past go to? Who stores the events of yesterday and yesteryear? Or does the past just disappear into a black hole, sucked from our memories as we desperately try to cling onto what we have lived? Why do old people try to remember the past, with failing memory, while young people’s hippocampus is set by default to “full steam ahead”? Is it simply that for old people with little future, the past is more interesting and there is more of it, while for younger people it is the opposite?