Think about all the words we read, write, see and hear that have general definitions but also a variety of personal meanings and interpretations. Marriage means different things to different people. So does Love, Hate, Innocence, Guilt, etc. Without personal context, words are often just words.
One of my favorite examples is the four-word comment on age by the actor George Burns: “Young. Old. Just words.” In 1977 Burns starred in the movie OH, GOD! He was 81. For years, he and his wife Gracie Allen did comedy routines and a sit-com together. Gracie died in 1964, 32 years before George died at the age of 100.
My parents had enjoyed the “George Burns and Gracie Allen Show.” When George died in 1996, a tribute to both of them was on television. I remember my parents watching solemnly. Mom said George and Gracie had been apart a long time, and now they’d be together again. My dad said an emotional “Goodnight, Gracie.” Dad’s mother had died of spinal meningitis when he was a very young boy, and her name was Grace. Unfortunately, by the time his great-granddaughter was born in 2003 and Molly named her Grace in honor of Dad’s mother, Alzheimer’s had begun fading his attachment to the word Grace.
Two weeks ago I was with my mother in Kansas, and when we celebrated her early 96th birthday together, I knew the truth of Burns’ quote about young and old being just words.
Because of her dementia, Mom’s concept of now doesn’t mean as much to her as then, especially when the “then” is life as a child growing up on the family farm in Missouri with her brothers and sisters. To her, I am not so much her daughter as I’m “just the nicest girl” who comes to visit. And my brother isn’t her son but usually Sam, who was her brother. And that’s okay. Mom is calm and content with those memories, despite the confusing words that are often used to try to explain things to her.
Satchel Paige was a major league baseball legend in his own lifetime. He asked an important question that we each should answer for ourselves. “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?”
Young. Old. Are they just words for you?