by Cathy Arden on September 4, 2014


“For it is by the way they live that elders teach younger tribe members about the tribe’s culture and traditional ways of life, and it is through the oral traditions shared by elders that social values and beliefs are preserved. Essentially, elders are libraries of Indian knowledge, history and traditions. They knew what to share in order to help the present generation learn from the wisdom of the past.”

(The Importance of Elders and Family in Native American Culture, by Patricia Clark and Norma Sherman)


The photo is of my grandfather, Abraham Waretnik.  He died when I was seven years old, and yet I still remember things he said to me.   And much of what he said was passed on to me by my mother, always quoting him.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the elder generation I grew up with. The community of elders who really did raise me. Native American culture seems to know a lot about this, and honors their elders in a way that perhaps we, as Americans, are slow in learning, acknowledging and incorporating into our lives and customs.

So with the death of Joan Rivers today, whom I didn’t know but whose determination, passion for life and humor inspired me from afar, I am left with a feeling of loss and grief again. You build your life at the feet of those you love and admire, and then the people you love and admire disintegrate and you feel the foundation is gone. There’s a special affect in movies now, related to witches, or future robots, something beyond human. The skin and bones crumble into powder and then disappear. A face falls off, becomes air. There’s nothing new about death. Only new technological ways to portray it.

My parents and their friends didn’t warn me about this. Or did they? Perhaps I wasn’t listening or I didn’t understand.   Most of the voices who have guided me through life are no longer audible.   Or are they?

I often begin making the list in my mind of my elders who are gone. The list keeps growing, and more rapidly than I care to admit. They were, for the most part, writers, directors, publishers, editors, screenwriters, actors, artists. They were my parents and my parents close friends. They were my mentors. I sat at their feet as a child, at their dining tables as an adult or in their living rooms, soaking in their wisdom, their humor, their encouragement, their warnings, their advice.   When they weren’t talking to me, I still listened. I loved their world. I loved everything they seemed to know. I wondered when I’d be their equal. And I discover that now when I have become their equal, they are no longer around.

I hear their voices, though, all the time. They come back to nudge me into necessary philosophical thinking, to not allow me to lose my footing too deeply or for too long. Doris Schwerin, a writer and friend of my parents, and one of my many mentors, said to me once at a particularly difficult time in my creative life, “Honor yourself in all stages of the process.” Seems simple. But, for me, it was profound. At that time, I was berating myself for not being able to sit down at the typewriter and write. Doris informed me that all of writing doesn’t happen at the typewriter. That, in fact, the typewriter is the last phase of the writing process. Honor yourself in all phases of the process. Notice she didn’t say writing process. I only realized that decades later. Seems to me I’ve recently said these words to my daughter who is going through a particularly difficult time in her life. My daughter is hopefully learning something from me, but she is also learning from Doris. I let her know this. I give credit where credit is due. I let my daughter know the advice is being passed down.   And I can only hope the tradition will continue.

And, yes, I am the elder now. The baton is in my hand but I don’t know when it was put there. I hadn’t realized that grief comes with responsibility.

My loneliness informs me that it’s my turn.   Grief and lonliness turn to wisdom.   Pass it on.


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Iris September 5, 2014 at 11:15 AM

Wisdom: The result of embracing life’s experiences and learning from them– as you have done. It’s awesome to contemplate how much more is coming your way!


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