How Old Are You?

Have you noticed that more and more people look younger and younger?  And people of an age that used to seem old are suddenly not so old any longer?

My father said that old was something people were if they were more than halfway between you and your parents.  If you are 6, high school graduates are old.  If you are 40 and your parents are 70, people 55 and up will appear old to you.  Once you get to 55 yourself, that is really no age; not like those over 70 – now, they are old.  At least if your parents are still around at 85.

Who were the first seriously old people in your life?  Did you know your grandparents?  Or great-grand-parents? 

My paternal grandmother was, although objectively old, very spry.  She lived to be 100 and was still ocean bathing at 91.  Consequently, my idea of what old means, what an 80-year-old is supposed to be capable of, (and by a couple of decades’ inference of what I am supposed to be capable of,) is on the active side.

Research shows that when our expectations are positive, we behave one way, while if our expectations are negative, we behave differently.  Expectations include our stereotypes for what old is, and that is influenced by how we were primed in childhood on the notion of old.  If we had an infirm grandparent living with us, we might get a different idea about old age than if we went ocean bathing with our 91-year-old grandmother.   That is not to say that we shouldn’t take care of our infirm parents out of fear of harming our children – but we might make sure they are also exposed to elderly people who are not infirm.  And help them understand that their grandparent was not always infirm.

This whole notion came to me because Diane Wyzga (who else?) prompted me to think about jumping off the garden shed as a kid.  And then she asked if my children knew this side of me?

They do.  I am not very secretive about the stupid things I have done in my life.  More lessons can usually be passed on from the stupid things, and our mistakes make us more approachable. (Besides, they saw me reroofing part of the house and regularly blow the gutters clean, so they know I have a thing about walking around on top of buildings.)

But the kids have only really known their grandmother after she no longer could run around.  They wouldn’t expect her rock climbing and would have a hard time imagining her as a tennis champion.  Yet, their grandmother was once that person.

As a present for my mother’s 60th birthday, I brought her to the sports paradise I have described in “Chariots of Fire”.   It was an interesting trip where I began to see that there was more to my mother than I had imagined.

A very nice English doctor invited us to play tennis; he would play one end of the court and the two of us could guard the other.  My mother didn’t look like she could run around a lot, so he expected an easy win.  She couldn’t run, but she could hit.  Low and hard and right between his feet.  Or down the lines.  She didn’t need to run because with the force and spin he had to parry, he needed to play safe to the middle.  And that was where she had planted herself.  I hardly touched the ball but had a great game all the same.  I knew my mother had been good; this was the first time I saw the shadow of how good.

Unfortunately, I caught a bad cold and couldn’t speak for several days.  When we went out to dinner, I got a pen and would write on the paper covering the tablecloth.  And that is how I discovered that my mother still remembered to write shorthand.  I was 24 before I learned that she could write shorthand.

While I miss my father so very often, I am grateful that I have been given this time to get to know more about my mother.  She stood in his shadow for much of her life / all of my life.  There are so many stories I had never heard before, that she tells me now.

Do you know your mother’s stories?  Did you ever ask?

Diane’s question, whether my kids knew of my youthful endeavors, was spot on; not for me, but for the generation that came before me.  And I wonder if that was characteristic for the greatest generation not to talk about themselves?  Perhaps particularly for the women?

I don’t know whether I have told my kids all the stories I have put on BizCatalyst 360°.  Perhaps they need to be older to appreciate them because, after all, when I was their age, I wasn’t as interested in listening as I am now.

My mother is 98; it has been a while since I stopped taking for granted that I could hear her stories the next time we met.


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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  1. Thank you for sharing this story! I spent last weekend with my aunt and uncle in NH talking about many family stories. It was great to be able to hear stories of my dad and his brother – one included a trip to Lake Okeechobee in the 70s or 80s. I loved the detail of it being hard to drive a big Cadillac through the streets lined with sugar cane.

    Then just yesterday, I was able to have a lovely chat with my aunt on the other side of the family. I loved hearing some of her stories about growing up. And we enjoyed many other topics of conversation as well.

    I may not have a good relationship with my parents – and I may not yet be ready. But its comforting to still have a familial connection with some of my extended family.

    • Thank you for reading and commenting, JoAnna.

      Yes, it is a gift to know a little more about another time that is like a foreign country for us to imagine. Cleaning up in my mother’s belonging, I just found my grandfather’s memoirs. He was born in 1882 so I am looking forward to digging in.

  2. I am over eighty who plays tennis, travels a lot and has lived a lot of time with my maternal grandfather in an era in which evenings were spent at home (up to at least 18 years old) and told and listened to stories.
    I believe that it is important for the elderly to talk about themselves and their life experiences, especially if these are multiple as can only be imagined for old age. This makes an introspective journey possible that leads to the realization and awareness of having lived. The story of oneself, past times, present life and future expectations restores identity to the elderly and offers meaning to life experiences, creating a temporal and intergenerational link between present and past in view of the future.
    The elderly must be perceived as a social wealth, a treasure trove of secrets to be revealed by communicating with him. Not a sterile following, but careful listening, to give a new meaning to their words made of values and teachings that become a real resource.
    Do not forget that the third age is the beginning of a new phase of life where it is possible to find even more ideas for growth.

    • I am so happy for you that you had time with your grandfather, Allo.

      My grandmother lived close to where I took classes in the evening, so for a couple of years we had a weekly get together where I stayed with her overnight rather than go home after school. It allowed us to bond in a way you only do when the parents are not around.

      Unfortunately, because we emigrated, my kids have not had the same opportunities to know their family. On the other hand, my parents visited us and stayed for a longer time to become part of our and the kids’ work and school day in a way I doubt would have been the case had we lived around the corner.

    • Thanks for reading, Mariah. I asked her today if she remembered when we were playing tennis and her face lit up and she said, “Yes, do you remember that English doctor?” and the look on her face was everything I could hope for.

  3. Blessings Charlotte, I lost my mom at 13, and my dad at 23. I only met my paternal grandmother, and through I have been able to discover so much of family history I would never have known, as I am one of the last 3 of six siblings. Currently writing a book on my life which I hope will help my grandchildren learn of their history.

    • I am echoing you, Lynn, as a reason why I have begun writing some of these stories. The next generation may not be interested in listening now, but if they become interested when I am long gone, it would be helpful if something was recorded somehow.

      What a blessing that you could use when you didn’t have access to first sources. I am so sorry you had to grow up so fast but happy that at least you were part of a tribe.

  4. Hi Charlotte
    I Loved this post
    I never knew my grandparents -let alone great grandparents of any strip.
    My parents lived into their nineties -Mom 93, Dad 95.
    Much of wqhat I write is stories about them – or stories they told.
    I have a lot -but I do wish I’d asked more.
    Thanks for sharing yours

  5. Charlotte,
    This post is hitting a personal nerve for me right now… In a good way.
    I lost my grandparents and my parents in my 20’s. So I never got the stories, or at least very little. I was too young to ask or think it might be important some day. I am still working on my own forgiveness.

    In turn, when I had children I started a journal of every day events and wrote them birthday letters every year that spoke to who they were growing into and how I was growing with them. It has helped me reconcile NOT knowing my parents.

    And just last week I began working with an 89 year old English woman living here in Portugal on telling ‘her story’ for her only son and grandchildren.

    Everyone has a story – and they deserve to be shared.

    Thank you for the confirmation! xo

    • Knowing your story from your writing, Carolyn, I have often had reason to be grateful for the many blessings I have had in my life – grandparents included.

      Your work with the English lady warms my heart. Best of luck to both of you.