Last week, I met a wise storyteller who told me this beautiful West African story:
An old man had three children, all boys. When they had grown up to manhood, he called them together and told them that now he was very old and no longer able to provide, even for himself. He ordered them to go out and bring him food and clothing.The three brothers set out, and after a very long while they came to a large river. As they had gone on together for such a time, they decided that once they got across they would separate. The eldest told the youngest to take the middle road, and th esecond to go to the right, while he himself would go to the left. Then, in a year’s time, they would come back to the same spot.So they parted, and at the end of a year, as agreed, they found their way back to the riverside. The eldest asked the youngest what he had gotten during his travels, and the boy replied: “I have nothing but a mirror, but it has wonderful power. If you look into it, you can see all over the country, no matter how far away.”When asked in turn what he had gotten, the second brother replied: “Only a pair of sandals that are so full of power, that if one puts them on one can walk at once to any place in the country in one step.”Then the eldest himself, said: “I, too, have obtained but little, a small calabash of medicine, that is all. But let us look into the mirror and see how father fares.”The youngest produced his mirror, and they all looked into it and saw that their father was already dead and that even the funeral custom was finished. Then the elder said: “Let us hasten home and see what we can do.” So the second brought out his sandals, and all three placed their feet inside them and, immediately, they were borne to their father’s grave. Then the eldest shook the medicine out of his bag, and poured it over the grave. At once their father arose, as if nothing had been the matter with him.Now which of these three sons has performed the best?
When the storyteller pauses, people guess….the oldest (because he brought the medicine.)
No, it wasn’t the medicine, says the storyteller.
The middle one!
The youngest one!
The audience is confused. So which was it?
The storyteller pauses, eyes darting back and forth over the audience. It was the oldest son, because he remembered his father. You see, it wasn’t the medicine that brought the old man back to life, it was the fact that his sons remembered him. The youngest son had his magic mirror for a whole year, and never once did he look in the mirror to see how his father was doing. The middle son had the magic sandals for a whole year, and not once had he gone to see how his father was doing. These two kids had been having a fantastic time for a year, playing around with their sandals and mirror, but hadn’t had a thought for their old father.
In West Africa, no one is really dead unless he is forgotten.
The notion that children are the future is a Western one, the storyteller told me. In Africa everybody knows that the children are not the future, because they don’t know anything. The elders are the future, because the pass on the wisdom that sustains the future. Call your Grandmothers and Grandfathers, he said. Sit at their knee, because they deserve this honor, and talk to them, ask them to their stories, their wisdom.
So I called my grandmother. And my eyes and heart were opened to a kindred spirit, a wise guide that had been there all along.
My grandmother is a wonderful woman, but not one who’d you think of when you think of an “elder.” Always an extraordinarily beautiful woman who enjoyed a career as a singer before marriage and family, she always loved music, dancing, eating sweets, and travel. She suffered from depression through her life, and was extremely dependent on my grandfather to take care of her—she had an eighth grade education, and never learned to drive, manage finances, or do any type of skilled work. People still see her like that—an excitable little thing that needs to be taken care of like a child. She’s still there in body, and people talk to her about her medicines and her caregiver, and whether she’s feeling nervous that day. But the world has forgotten her, as a person, as a woman, as a wise and beautiful spirit. So I talked to her, I told her about my life and things I was doing. I asked her about hers.
The rest of my family worries and questions my choices and my relationship–out of love–but constantly. My grandmother said something different. She said, you and Nick love each other so much and you’re always having so much fun. You remind me of your grandfather and me. We always had such a wonderful time. We would go dancing, play music, sing, go to the beach—oh we enjoyed our lives so much. You have the same thing. You love each other so much and have a great time, and that is the most important thing. It’s the only thing.
When I think of my grandparents, I remember them when they were in their sixties or seventies, dancing. They would be all dressed up, dancing to one of their favorite songs, my grandmother singing along in her glorious soprano voice, and my grandfather, who had no musical talents, hopping along, singing out of tune, eyes closed and free hand expressively interpreting the song. Towards the end of his life, sometimes they would have tears in their eyes as they danced…tears full of meaning and memories. But they never stopped dancing.
When my grandfather died ten years ago, everyone was worried that my grandmother would go soon after. But she didn’t. She was sustained by her memories of all the wonderful times she had with her beloved. And she is sustained because she loves and embraces life, and fun and food and new shoes and pleasure. I don’t want to die, she tells me, life is so wonderful. I love ice cream and new shoes and music and dancing and family parties and babies. Love and joy are the most important things. The rest is just details.