From whence we came

Wilken's Watch

I traveled to Thailand a few years ago with a Thai-American businesswoman friend of mine. She had 11 siblings still there, all over south central Thailand, in a circle radiating out from the country's incredibly exciting urban heart, Bangkok.
We also visited the little town a few clicks from the Cambodian border where her parents raised 13 kids. I saw a lot of things on the ground in Thailand that were very different from the daily events I see in Queen Anne. But the most interesting facet of Thai life (they are having their troubles now, sort of red versus blue states writ large, but we've got our own similar difficulties) I saw over and over was the respect for older folks.
Here on the ground in America's once most livable city, old folks, unless they are friends and family, are often shunted to the side. In Thailand, family is everything and respect for elders within and generally without the family is a given.
Since I live 3,000 miles from home and only see my 91-year-old mom a few weeks every year, I tend to loosely adopt older neighbors. I see them struggling up and down the streets to the store, fighting to keep their independence in a society that is ultimately geared to profits and trying to stay young, or at least stay appearing young as long as you can.
I love talking to people even further down the trail of age than I am, hoping to see glimpses of my future, or sometimes, hoping to hell what I'm seeing isn't my particular future.
Passing 60 without stopping and seeing the increasingly older reflections in my mirror, coupled with almost two years recently of working at an alleged retirement 'home' for folks with dementia, almost all of them in their 70s and 80s, has made me an amateur researcher in the land of the older American. It's also gotten me thinking a lot about my grandparents for the first time in 40 years.
My Dad's folks were Germans. My Grandpa Wilken was a first-generation German from northern Germany. I think I remember Hamburg being mentioned but to be honest, as a kid, I didn't really listen to old folks unless they were talking to me about me, or answering my endless questions about the life around me. I was always a 'Why?' kid first and foremost, still am for that matter.
Grandma Wilken was from Bavaria, of Prussian stock. I could tell from things she said that she felt her folks, and southern Germans in general were of a higher social caste than the flatlanders from up North, which included Grandpa, naturally. I remember being truly puzzled by this because in our schools in Cincinnati, hard by the Ohio River and that nebulous area on the other side, Kentucky and the south, the 'hillbillies and briars,' were the folks even we, the spawn of German-Irish immigrants, felt free to mock.
At five or six years of age I remember being puzzled that in Germany it was allegedly the southerners who were "superior." I guess I assumed that everywhere North was cool and South was not. I later lived in the American South, courtesy of Uncle Sam, and started running with my first black friends, and then my view of the region lightened and darkened at the same time. But that's a different story.
Grandma Wilken stayed home, Grandpa worked every day, down at the post office, along with the police force and the building trades, the first step up and out for Midwestern Krauts and Micks of their day. But Grandma, the watered-down Prussian, was obviously the boss. And the center of her entire family, my dad and his four siblings included.
Not respecting Grandma wasn't an option, which isn't necessarily always true nowadays in families, including my own -- my two grandsons seem to enjoy my company but I am not crazy enough to try and make them do chores for example, something my Grandma struggled over with me for years without ever truly succeeding or giving up.
I spent a lot of time with Grandma Wilken, especially after Grandpa died, and I grew to really love and respect her. She was open-hearted but also tough in a way I've never achieved. At the base of this strength was a deep faith that had nothing to do with the talky, showy and judgmental religiosity we are bombarded with now by politicians and other alleged leaders. The other thing running Grandma's life was her love of other folks and her curiosity about them. After she died, when I was 16 or 17, I went into her little apartment where she'd ended up and helped my Mom clean it up.
My Grandma attended a little one-room grade school in rural Indiana as a child and my Mom and I discovered she still had a correspondence, via letters, with 10 or 11 of the survivors from that country classroom of 70 years before. Grandma only had an eighth-grade education, at best, but she was one of the smartest folks I ever met. I never told her that though because I've only lately realized what I then thought were folksy old ways were actually a means to a long and fruitful life.
My Mom's family, composed of Germans, Irish, and it turned out even some German Jews, who buried that part of their origins upon arriving in what was then a blatantly anti-Semitic, and even anti-Irish environment (my German-Irish grandpa told of hiring sites for laborers that featured one anti-requirement, No (N-Word) or Irish need apply) ascended in a very different manner.
But that's another, even longer story about from whence I have sprung, born and raised by folks slipping back in the mists of time who were a lot more like my Thai friends (at least when it came to oldsters) than they are to us, their descendants.[[In-content Ad]]