Sunday February 24, 2013
Tales that lines tell
CULTURE CUL DE SAC
By JACQUELINE PEREIRA
Old may be gold, but few of us like where Father Time is herding us. All the same, the elderly are an interesting bunch — if you care to pay them some attention.
I have always admired lines on people’s faces. Naturally, not on my own – that’s a continuing personal battle to beat time’s unwelcome inscriptions. But the creases on elderly people’s weathered faces tell a multitude of stories. Experiences etched permanently into soft flesh speak of lives put together without re-writes.
I need to confess something else. In the early evening on the day this piece was due, I was at Kinokuniya at Suria KLCC. As I was thinking about what I was going to write, I eagerly handed over my list of books to a helpful staff member. When she returned to the counter, I was disappointed not to find Al Alvarez’s Pondlife: A Swimmer’s Journal in the pile.
I’ve always liked ponds and swimming (not necessarily in that order), so I was looking forward to finding out what the author’s swimming diary held. Although it was a repetitive, year-round activity, The Guardian book reviewer had written that she couldn’t wait to plunge in alongside Alvarez as he recorded each swim in the outdoor ponds on Hampstead Heath, North London.
As soon as I returned home, instead of rushing to my laptop, I leafed through Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry. A tale of a married, recently retired man who receives a farewell letter from a dying woman he knew 20 years before is hardly a book to boast about. Even if it was a 2012 Man Booker Prize nominee. Without informing anyone, the elderly man travels 600 miles to deliver his reply to the hospice, on foot.
That was when the uncanny similarity struck me. The first book I did not get was an octogenarian’s account of his wild swimming pursuits, and his effort to re-affirm his life. The second one, which I was so reluctant to put down, was about another old man’s appraisal of his own life’s shortcomings when he sets off on his journey of self-discovery.
Now this is not quite what I’d like my readers to know – that I’m hooked on books about old people. I did think twice – or maybe more – before deciding to reveal all. Then again, why are elderly people such an unfashionable subject? Why do we experience secret embarrassments about them?
Obviously, we fear becoming old. As for myself, though advancing in age for sure, I am definitely not ready to while away days in retirement, regaling the next generation with stories. In the course of my career, my most absorbing interviews have been those with the elderly.
One of my most memorable interviews took place on a remarkable winter afternoon, a conversation with the late François Lesage. He was the celebrated scion who, for over 50 years, led his family’s couture embroidery atelier, catering to all Paris’ great original couturiers: Worth, Balenciaga and Dior.
His adoration of beads, threads and sequins stretched into the realm of fanaticism, radiating like glittery polished jewels on a Marlene Dietrich dress. He was in his 70s then, yet with merry, twinkling eyes, he recounted tales of his time in Hollywood and about the actresses of that era.
More than a year ago I met a poet and social activist from Kerala, India, who, though now in her 80s, had no plans to rest, let alone retire to a house by the beach. Running her shelter for abused women and children, creating awareness about mental health issues and occasionally penning pieces of poetry, she did not have time to stop. Her mobile phone rang constantly; while in conversations she hurried people to get to the point.
For one who grew up in a household of intellects, including communist party leaders and congress politicians, she also thought nothing of travelling far and wide to get her message across.
Earlier this week, an elderly relative passed away. Always a colourful part of our lives, he was never short of stories. Whether among family, friends or strangers, he would whip out tale after tale, taking great pleasure and pride in telling them in his own quirky way.
He would corner you with chance conversations, and monopolise the mic at social events. Yet you found that pieces of the jigsaw of his life fell into place for you during the most unexpected encounters. As his loved ones now know, we shall not see another like him.
Perhaps my admiration for the elderly is because, as the eldest child, I was brought up in the constant company of adults. Spending formative years with my grandparents and aunts, I was raised on 1970s platform shoes and the stories my grandmother told of the people and the village she had left behind on another shore.
Acknowledging that we learn from the elderly is not something to be ashamed of. Their recollections of the past keep us grounded and true to ourselves. It’s stories like these – with or without lines – that connect us. These collective experiences of our family, community and country are the foundation for our future.
If you are young, impetuous or impatient, then it’s time to stop and take a moment to listen. Ask, absorb and associate. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to embrace my lines to allow the tales to find their way. It’s through these stories, ramblings if you like, that wisdom passes from one generation to another, one line to the next.