Thoughts on Aging and Wisdom

12:26 PM

A few years ago, I asked my grandmother Helen Marie Goulé Smith what it felt like to almost be 100 years old. She replied with a chuckle and a twinkle in her eye, "Darling, I feel trapped sometimes. I still feel 20 years old inside. I feel like a young person inside a body that doesn't seem like mine anymore." Even though I know she was trying to find humor and connect with me as a younger person, her response terrified me.  Aging is something that I have been rumbling with lately, especially as I have watched my parents age.

Helen boating in California, 1940's
Recently I visited my grandmother, Helen in the retirement home where she lives. As a family, we had celebrated her 100th birthday just days earlier. When I entered her room I saw that she was sleeping perpendicular on her bed with her legs hanging off the side. It was around 3:00 pm and too early for bedtime. When I first glanced into her dark bedroom and saw her laying this way, my stomach dropped. I thought she had passed away. She had collapsed onto the bed while her favorite Hawaiian music played loudly from her stereo. I turned the volume down and went over to stir her. I breathed a sigh of relief when she moved, smiled, and then closed her eyes again. We laughed about how she was laying on the bed the wrong way and I helped move her feet around and under the covers. Then she said in her grandmotherly way, "Everything will be alright, darling! Everything is going to be OK."

I crawled in next to her and spooned my sweet, frail grandma. I could hear her crying softly, but since her back was to me I could not see her face. This position allowed me to let my own tears flow freely and which to my surprise came so quickly and abundantly. As I laid there I wondered if she was sad because she missed grandpa or if she was frustrated from being caught between earth and heaven. She was sleeping more and the moments she was alert and cognitive required more of an effort. I am sure that her aging body was aching and that she was in pain. Then I wondered about my tears. I knew that I was mourning with her and I felt of her loneliness. She missed grandpa dearly. I missed him also. However, I think that I was also crying about the whole aging thing!

Helen and Harold Smith on their wedding day. 

Growing old can be obviously painful and lonely at times. Yet, there is no way to stop the process so I have done a lot of soul searching lately on the subject. Our culture and the media seem to celebrate youthfulness in such a way that there tends to be some shame associated with looking older. As people mature into their 40's, it seems that society immediately looks for and discusses any physical signs of aging. Oftentimes a person's wisdom or life experiences are hardly ever mentioned or valued until their eulogy is written. I wish our society valued wisdom more than beauty.
I would like to grow old gracefully and I believe obtaining wisdom is part of that process. Otherwise one just becomes a wrinkled teenager. A person can grow older and not become wise. I believe wisdom is gained when a person continues learning while remaining humble and self-reflective.
While organizing and unpacking some boxes, I found a photo of my Grandmother Helen. It was taken by my daughter, McKenna when she was just 14 years old. She titled it, Beauty is Wisdom and entered it in a photo contest at school.

"Beauty is Wisdom" by McKenna Petty. The subject of her photo is her 95 year old great grandmother, Helen Smith.

 I looked closely at the photo and my grandmother's face and how her wrinkles hugged her smile and wrapped around her bright eyes and I saw joy. I remember when the photo was taken in our front yard at the little Orem house. McKenna got up close to her great-grandma's face that day and started snapping away. While she took these photos, she told her how beautiful she was and lovely her skin was and how she wanted to show others what wisdom meant. Grandma was flattered and joyful and we all smiled in the sun together on that fall day just five years ago. My daughter appreciated how her grandmother's face had changed over time because she recognized the knowledge that she had gained in the process of aging. McKenna knew through family stories and time spent together, that her grandmother valued education and chose to study nursing before marrying grandpa.

Helen Goule, Nursing School Graduation Photo 1937

She had also heard the stories of about how Grandma Helen, as a young mother in the 1940's, worked night shifts at the hospital so that she could be with her children during the day while grandpa worked as an Electrician. McKenna knew in detail how Helen felt about and coped with the polio diagnosis of her small daughter, my mother Penney. Throughout our lives we have all heard our grandmother wisely say, "Don't worry, be happy!" as she has faithfully lived her life.

Penney Smith, polio survivor with her mother, Helen G. Smith

The morning after I found McKenna's photo of my grandmother and had been reminiscing about her 100 year long life, I came across the beautiful, heartfelt story of a mother who was gracefully preparing to die after battling cancer for two years. She was in her forties and ached for more time in her life. Her husband wrote of their life together and their faith and their family and it all brought tears to my eyes.

 Seeing my grandmother's photo, pondering her life, and then reading this dying woman's story all in the same morning had a powerful effect on me. It made me think deeply about my feelings regarding aging and my lack of excitement about wrinkles, etc. I felt extremely humbled as I had this strong realization that growing old is luxury not afforded to many.  And then I felt grateful because I felt a little wiser.
Grandma and Grandpa living it up on their Catalina Island Honeymoon, 1937

Grandpa and Grandma Smith loved life and were always up for an adventure!




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  1. Wendy... your blog posts keep inspiring me. Thank you for the time it took to write this post.

  2. Great job. You're an amazing writer. Grandma Helen is quite an amazing person. And good job, McKenna for taking those photos.