Updated: Oct 6, 2022
By Brandon Schettler
My grandma Carmyn once told me a story about her childhood. She was in the woods with her younger sisters when they saw a woman with tattered clothing and nightmare-black hair running toward them.
Remembering the infamous stories of the Wild Woman of Borneo told by her brother, Carmyn grabbed her sisters and sprinted the whole way home. Moments after they returned, the Wild Woman herself came into the house, laughing hard enough to cry. Carmyn realized she was none other than her oldest sibling, nicknamed Sister. She reminded Carmyn that she had told her not to go into the woods, but since she had gone anyway, Sister decided to scare her away. Carmyn looked Sister in the eyes and said, very sincerely, “I hate you.”
Usually childhood tales imply change and growth. But my grandma still doesn’t like being bossed around, and her sister is still bossy.
Here’s a story that my grandma won’t tell. When Sister turned 95, my grandma decided not to go to her birthday party in New Mexico. She planted a full garden by herself in that same year; no physical impairment prevented her from catching a flight. Carmyn avoided the birthday party because she didn’t want to be around her sister, the same one that terrorized and bossed her as a girl. Instead, she told Sister that if she lived to be 100, she would go to her party. Her thinking: she won’t live that long, and I won’t have to go.
In a few days, Sister actually will turn 100. She invited Carmyn to her party. Everyone who remembered what happened five years ago is reminding Carmyn that she can’t back out of it this time. And Carmyn is telling them that she doesn’t care what she said, she’s still not going.
The truth? She doesn’t like her sister any more now than she did running away from the Wild Woman. She has not forgotten or forgiven but refuses to tell Sister how she really feels.
If I hadn’t listed their ages, this would have sounded more like a middle school strife than a conflict between two adults. Many cultures place elders in the highest positions. They are meant to instruct and guide younger generations. We don’t always associate them with mathematical or spatial intelligence, but we do consider them wise—stemming from decades of experiences, failures, and growth.
My group, the infamous young-twenties, are the bane of the elderly. We act impulsively, garner useless grudges, disvalue the virtues of patience and deep thought. We are supposed to transform through our failures into the tamer middle ages, and eventually, if we’re lucky, into revered elders.
If my grandma’s interactions with her sister have taught me anything, it’s that the lines aren’t always defined. Age doesn’t imply wisdom any more than youthfulness connotes foolishness. Most people will never see a full century, yet these elders are arguing about birthday parties.
For all our fascination with boundaries and distinctions between ages, I’m not convinced that much ever changes. Turning 18 didn’t make me an adult. I had different privileges and rights, but I didn’t instantly transform. Being 95 doesn’t make my grandma an elder according to our expectations of maturity, either.
That’s not to say that no one changes. They do. The experience is out there, but it’s our job to become the adult, the middle-aged worker, or the elder. Age is more of a guideline than a transformative force.
Most importantly: no matter how old, telling loved ones your honest feelings and going to their birthday parties always matters.
Brandon Schettler is a student at Emory University.