When I was 5 years old, my very best friend was my white-haired, oversized grandmother – “Grandma Spitz”. She lived just down the street and I honestly can’t remember having any other friends that really meant anything to me between the ages of 5 and 7, when I lived closest to her. Grandma Spitz and I would play cards endlessly and sometimes make a peach pie from the peaches in the yard. They lived right next to a freight train track, but had a nice little yard with lots of fruit trees.
Her kitchen is where we would spend most of our time. I remember all the jars she had on the counter – a depression-era holdover. There were containers of all things – rubberbands, straws, toothpicks, and on and on. She saved and used everything to the fullest. It was now the 70’s and it was my first encounter with the concept of recycling.
When I was 7, we moved 1000 miles away from my grandmother and I experienced the deep pain of loss for the first time. I buried this loss within in a way that a quiet kid will. Grandma Spitz and I stayed in touch by letters, and saw each other on the occasional visit.
When I was 20, Grandma Spitz had a series of strokes that took her away from me again in a different way. She lost her speech completely. She lost most movement in her hands and limbs. She couldn’t write or play cards anymore. She was transferred to a nursing home. The facility was very modest as my grandparents lived on a small pension. She had a roommate, and the place felt like a hospital.
When I had the opportunity to visit her, there would be such an intense light in her eyes. She was a great deal thinner, but there was still a vital energy within her. She would squeeze my hand so hard and just nod her head at me, as if hoping that I’d understand her thoughts. I was able to bring Hank to meet her before she finally passed away from her last stroke. I think that she understood that we were engaged and I hope that her lively expressions meant that she approved. After reading “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”, I realized that she probably was fully aware, but just could not speak.
My grandmother meant so much to me, in such a deep way that it’s hard to explain. It’s beyond words and into the realm of total unconditional love. I carry this with me still and because of this, I feel that I have a connection to and appreciation of the elderly. It pains me a great deal to see how segregated our society is from its wisdom keepers. I see how technology catapults us forward at the speed of light, seemingly making our elders’ knowledge obsolete. But I believe they still have much to teach us about humanity and relationships and the world. About living life and making it through challenging times, and how to celebrate the good.
The first film Hank and I ever made together after college was about Native American elders and was called “Bless Me with a Good Life So I Can Reach Old Age”. I am so happy to be returning to work with and spend time with elders who’ve lived a full life and have memories and stories begging to be shared. It’s my honor to help record their legacy and be with them as they leap into the unknown for yet another time in their lives. This is a large part of why I’ve made this film with Hank. I’d like to think my grandmother would be proud. — Jilann