The sponsors of Respect for the Aged Day ask we “upload pics to honor the elderly people in your life.” Here is my father Robert, 91, at home in Buffalo Grove.

The sponsors of Respect for the Aged Day ask we “upload pics to honor the elderly people in your life.” Here is my father Robert, 91, at home in Buffalo Grove.

Photo by Neil Steinberg

Show some respect for your elders

Respect for the Aged Day is Sept. 18 and goes against the currents of America’s youth-obsessed culture.

When I was a little boy, an elderly man from our neighborhood would go from house to house with a wheelbarrow, selling vegetables from his garden. I don’t remember his name or what he looked like.

But I remember my father asking him a question: “Who was the first president you ever voted for?” His answer: “Teddy Roosevelt, 1904.”

I bring that up because Monday, Sept. 18 is Respect for the Aged Day. Didn’t know that? No shame there. I wouldn’t know either, except that Chicago Public Media’s manager of diversity, equity and inclusion sent an email encouraging us to celebrate the day.

It began in Japan in 1966 — that word “aged” is the giveaway. Not a word many Americans would use to describe themselves or anybody else. Nor is “old.”

Opinion bug

Opinion

I remember being at the birthday party for Harry Heftman, who owned the Chicago hot dog stand at Randolph and Franklin. He was looking a bit rhumy about the eyes, and I thought of beginning a column, “Harry Heftman is looking old ...” and asked his daughter if she thought he would mind. “Oh no, you can’t,” she said, aghast, “Harry would hate that.” Heftman was 103 years old.

If you can’t be old at 103, when can you be old? And the honest answer is: never. Not in our culture. Disdain for the aged is the last acceptable bias. Our culture sticks old people in ghettos, so automatically we never even pause to question the practice.

At 63, age-wise I have a foot on the boat and a foot on the pier. Especially since my parents are both alive, at 91 and 87. Having moved them from Boulder to Buffalo Grove last year and been mother-henning their increasingly complicated care ever since, I have “respect” down cold, but can’t pen a general encomium to being old without recognizing that much of age is simply horrible — a sheering away of every hope and pleasure you ever had, while undergoing expensive tortures straight from Dante’s hell.

“The cold friction of expiring sense,” as T.S. Eliot writes. “Without enchantment, offering no promise/But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit/As body and soul begin to fall asunder.”

And yet. Old people have experiences we can only read about in history books. They’ll often tell you, if you ask. It can be a precious connection. Years ago, I took Leon Despres, the former alderman of the 5th Ward, to lunch, primarily because he was so eloquent — “the conscience of the Council.”

I wanted to know how he could have stood, a man alone, and fight for what he knew was right. People brag their whole lives about going to Selma to march. Despres chartered a plane to bring others with him.

Despres also went on a date with art icon Frida Kahlo. How many times can you have lunch with a man who did that?

I’m as biased as the next person. I remember a reader calling and asking if I wanted to go along with him and visit a woman who was turning 107. My initial reaction was an empahtic, “God no!”

But I had enough sense to draw away from that reaction, recognize its falseness and go meet Edith Renfrow Smith, the first Black graduate from Grinnell College who met Amelia Earhart and remembers her grandparents, born in slavery.

You needn’t go out of your way. Don’t be so quick to lay on the horn when the old person hesitates at a green light. Look them in the eye. When I go to visit my folks, I make a point of saying hello to every person sitting in the lobby whose eyes meet mine, inspired more by John Prine than by anybody else:

So if you’re walking down the street sometime

And spot some hollow ancient eyes

Please don’t just pass ‘em by and stare

As if you didn’t care, say, Hello in there, hello

If nothing else, make a deposit in the karma bank that you might be lucky enough to draw upon some day. My turn is coming. I can feel the hoofbeats thundering closer.

Someday, I hope somebody says to me: “Did you really meet Lillian Gish, the silent film icon, who danced with Sarah Bernhardt and starred in D.W. Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation’ in 1915?” And I’ll answer yes, I did talk with her. I have her autograph to prove it.

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