My grandmother Clarine was an incredible human being. I absolutely could not be more proud to be her granddaughter. She started her first teaching position in 1927 at age 17. She met my grandfather in seminary; but despite her clear talent and call, the church apparently felt one minister was enough for the family and refused to ordain her. Undaunted, she famously wrote a one line reply to the bishop: Well, Moses got along fine without it, and Jesus got along fine without it, so I’ll be fine without it, too.
That was Gram, all right. A true force of nature. In addition to raising three kids on a shoestring budget – one church paid Grandpa’s pastor salary by gathering and selling scrap metal every month – she continued to tutor and teach English and Writing. We were quite young when she sat us down at the kitchen table and carefully explained how to write a poem. To celebrate her 80th birthday, she established a poetry prize at the University of Maine, to nurture more young poets.
Eventually, she just started a publishing company of her own. See, Gram passionately wanted to preserve the stories of our elders. She worked painstakingly to capture the disappearing histories and cultures of older generations. She also published several books of her own memoirs: poems and stories – embellished, of course – by turns, difficult, inspiring, and often hilarious moments as a teacher, preacher’s wife, mother, and, of course, grandmother. Hers are among the most moving poems I’ve ever read.
Will God, Who hides inside each podfrom ‘Milkweed in Fall,’ 1982; in The Caress and the Hurt, 1994
Seeds for a hundred springs,
Neglect to send, when my fall comes,
The necessary wings?
My grandmother took these two things very seriously: the wisdom and contributions of older generations, and the importance of the written word. She traveled all over the country to meet with hundreds of thousands of elders. She hosted Elderhostels, where she would read from her books and encourage others to record their precious stories, too. A powerful preacher and advocate for women, she inspired and supported people of all ages. In my own life, my faith, my work, and especially my writing and speaking, I owe my Gram a tremendous debt.
Unfortunately, she was also a tyrant. I will spare you the horrific stories of the abuse she rained down on my Dad as an infant and little boy. Her own mother had been nightmarishly cruel and violent to that innocent, bright eyed girl. But through sheer grit, my grandmother worked her whole life to transcend that legacy of brokenness. She desperately wanted her legacy to be one of redemption. Yes, she caused a whole lot of harm. But by the time I knew her, she had mellowed. She was still challenging, but as a deeply proud grandmother, she wasn’t just bright anymore; she had acquired wisdom – the wisdom of elders.
Elders. Gram understood that our culture has an ambivalent relationship with oldness, of people, places, and cultures. At times, we mock it – fusty, dusty, crusty old stuff. Other times, we seem firmly attached to a misty sentimentalism. Things were so much better in the old days. Elders not only bear the hard-earned silver crown of hard-learned wisdom. They also bear the burden of a past upon which we project our nostalgic longings for today.
This ambivalence happens in religious traditions, too. I remember back in seminary, when my colleagues and I were delving into the early Jesus Movement. There was this excitement, as if we were unlocking the secrets to ‘real Christianity.’ We had, of course, unwittingly strayed into idolatry. The Ancient Early Church was not some magically perfect community with superhuman clarity and devotion. Like us, they were doing their best to discern truth and justice for their time.
Maybe movements are like people. Pure in our infancy, vulnerable. Fiery in our youth, and idealistic. Dramatic and dangerous when maturing into power, with great potential for both deep healing and deep wounds. And then, as ancient elders, still bearing the scars and warts of the past, yet rooted in years and lessons learned. Not perfect. Just… wiser.
A few years ago, I worshiped in the old Methodist Chapel my great, great grandfather helped build in St. Ives, Cornwall. I looked around at the graceful stained glass, the tall organ pipes, and the gleaming wooden pews. I closed my eyes and imagined my great grandfather Thomas, preaching. I listened for my great grandmother Ethel, singing. To some, the chapel might seem outdated. Irrelevant. A relic from time long past. But to me, it felt like home. Old hymns, and a social justice sermon about radical welcome. Carved grey stone, and a community youth hangout room. The elders of the congregation welcomed us joyfully, and eagerly looked for shared family trees. This humble chapel was striving, each week, each year, to hold onto the wisdom of the past and find new ways to embody it, develop it, for the people and creatures of the present. It was the most powerful part of my visit to my ancestral homeland.
I love being part of an ancient tradition that stretches back even before the written word. I honor the hard work of the faithful old souls who show up, week after week, year after year, even when the culture thinks it’s fusty and irrelevant. Change, ‘progress,’ can become an idol just as easily as tradition. Youth and Elders. New songs, and old ones. What if we always, always need both?
Old Gram was far from perfect. But she kept trying, her whole life, to let the Spirit of Love guide and stretch her. On her deathbed, at nearly 94, she told me about a lesbian hospice nurse who had really helped her. She eagerly wanted to know my thoughts on ‘traditional marriage.’ I looked her in the eye, and said, Grandma, King Solomon had hundreds of wives and concubines. I’m not sure we should be aiming for ‘traditional’ marriage. She nearly cackled with glee. You’re a rascal! she shouted with pride.
I have carried that with me ever since. Tradition, and progress. Someday, with all my own faults, I’ll be an elder, too. She taught me that we can grow, when we remain faithful to our sacred Covenants, of Love, Grace, and Healing. Not deny the past, but learn from it. Not paper it over, but keep trying. What if nothing – and no one – is irredeemable? Maybe every person, every culture, tradition, and community, just needs faithful love, work, and time to grow old and wise – enough to know a few things, and enough to learn humility, too.
My Tallessyn cried when I said goodbye…from ‘The Lonely Cold,’ 1979; in The Caress and the Hurt, 1994
I looked at her, not quite believing. Who
These many years cares when one comes, or when
One goes? But these were honest tears. They flowed
Straight from the heart of the guileless child to mine,
Warmed it against the lonely cold of old.
Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee, PhD is an Ecological Ethicist and the founder of Climate Resilience Leadership, which offers resources for Climate-Proof Leadership and Unshakeable Hope. She studies intersections of ecofeminism, permaculture ethics, grief, and nature connection. She previously did graduate research on Alzheimer’s Disease and preventive research on Ovarian Cancer. She received a B.Sc. in Biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Molecular Biology from Harvard University, and an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology. She lives in metrowest Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys gardening, canoeing, learning about medicinal and edible wild plants, and rewriting old hymns to make them more inclusive.
8 thoughts on “That Old, Old, OLD Story – The Warts and Wisdom of the Ancient”
What a beautiful tribute. Thank you for sharing, and I have mentioned and linked to here on the divine feminine app.
Oh, thank you, Caryn! I will check out that app, what a wonderful idea! And I am very glad you appreciated the post.
Thanks for this beautiful recognition of the complexity of life and your ongoing faith that love will sustain us.
Thank you, Judith, for reading it and for that beautiful summary of the post.
Thanks so much for sharing your Gram with us. Yes, we do indeed need both your youth and elders! I love her mission of publishing the books of older people so that their stories wouldn’t be lost. If there was more of that, and if we listened to what our elders tell us about what mistakes were made in the past, maybe there would be less misery in the world now. Your insights into honoring the past while looking at it honestly, with all its faults as well as redemptions, are wonderful and a model for us all.
Thank you, Carolyn. Life is complex, isn’t it? It would be nice if it were simple, but maybe complexity is good; it helps us grow. I’m always trying to embrace mystery and complexity, and let it challenge and stretch me. I do hope we have more and more books of elders’ memoirs – they are fascinating and important! Peace to you, friend.
Inspiring. Compelling. Visceral. Vital. Each of these words came to me as I was reading this amazing piece of writing. Highlighted for me is the often unspoken knowing that grandmothers and great grandmothers from my generation as well, could have been tyrants; but through their children and grandchildren over time, their hearts open up. And Wisdom settles. Sophia and speaks, as if a-new. But it is more of that She is re-new-ed. Hence, re-new-ing us. Sawbonna!
Very well said. Thank you. Sophia Wisdom is still speaking! And thank goodness for that.