Recording the Stories of Seniors: Can't Begrudge a Good Grudge

As the author videotapes the stories of his grandfather and others, he realizes that with the "golden years" come a lot of bones to pick.
By Joe Novara
October/November 1999
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When members of this senior center got the chance to go on record and tell their stories, many had to get out all the gripes they'd been holding in.
ILLUSTRATION: DAVE KLUG


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The videotape displayed my face, close up, responding compassionately to every nuance of my grandfather's narration.

"... so, that's when my big brother Tony clumped the plate of spaghetti on my head. To this day, every time I see a bowl of pasta I want to scream."

The senior center regulars, gathered in the TV room to watch my grandfather's video memoirs, offered support:

"That's big brothers for you, Iggy."

"Tsk, tsk. A lifetime of Italian dinners ruined."

"Shh," another voice warned, "here comes the good part." The group immediately quieted. Some even mouthed the words before Gramps spoke them.

This was not what I had in mind when I offered to camcord my grandfather's life story.

It all started when I asked Papa Ignacio what he wanted for his birthday.

"Nothing. I don't need any more stuff. What does an old man need? Just someone to listen to him once in a while."

So, that's what I gave him—listening time. On a long Saturday morning I sat and listened. One remembered insult was succeeded by another somebody-done-me-wrong story followed by a carefully savored grudge. I found myself wishing never to do this again.

Tape. Videotape. A video of me listening to him. That was the answer. The clinical social worker in me shaped this idea into a treatment plan that would guarantee Gramps unqualified, empathetic listening whenever he felt lonely or neglected. The nonprofessional, selfish side of me just wanted him to get sick of hearing himself complain about the past.

Not a chance. Instead, he became a star at the senior center. Everyone wanted to see his "movie." His pals lined up for the after-pinochle matinee like Rocky Horror Picture Show cult followers. So it was no great surprise when the senior center's social director asked if I would record myself listening to some of the other guys as well. I was about to beg off when I heard her voice catch.

"Please," she pleaded, "I can't hear your grandfather's tape one more time."

How could the people-helper in me refuse? As a service to the seniors, if not their families, I volunteered to tape all the stories that needed to be told.

One by one, week after week, surrounded by their inquisitive churns, the seniors recounted their tales:

"... then my brother Darrel gave me some Monopoly money and sent me off to the comer store to buy candy. Haven't trusted him since. And, by the way. I think the Meals-on-Wheels scalloped potatoes they serve on Thursdays taste great!"

"... there was the time my older sister Bonita made me eat scorched potatoes. Now I hate potatoes—including those gluey scalloped potatoes they serve us—and in such small portions."

"... ever since Fritz wrecked my brand new Schwinn with the whitewall tires, I haven't trusted him with my wheels. I never bought a car from him. I don't care if he did own a Yugo dealership. Now he wants me to lease one of those collapsible walkers you can stop and sit on when you're tired. Ha! I'll never lease anything. And by the way, I wish you guys would shut up about the potatoes. I'm tired of this constant bickering."

That last sentiment sounded a responsive chord. So I asked in my most professional, nondirective manner, "How come I seem to hear so many painful and negative past experiences?"

"Maybe it comes with the job," my grandfather replied. "Doctors see sick people. Social workers hear griping."

It was time to turn the camera on the audience. This was looking more and more like a group therapy session in the making.

I framed up Mr. Loves-Scalloped-Potatoes. "It's the media's fault," he complained. "You spend all your life watching the evening news, so what do you expect? Nobody wants to hear nice things."

Next, Gramps spoke up. "Besides, if you forget your grudges, what have you got left?"

"Here, here!" and "Ain't it the truth," arose from the back row of elderly women joining in the discussion.

"Who asked you?" Mr. Burnt-Potatoes barked.

"We can harbor resentments as good as any of you," one woman replied, glinting steel blue eyes that matched her recently tinted hair.

"We want a chance to be on television, too," another perky senior announced, jabbing her cane like a sword.

"This is starting to sound like a grudge match," I observed.

"Yeah," Papa Ignacio added, "like Family Feud or something."

"And we could have Academy Awards," Mr. Loves-Scalloped-Potatoes added, "and give out Oscars."

"What kind of Oscars?" I asked. "Oscar the Grouch?"

A sudden stillness fell over the group as they stared at me, stone faced. Finally my grandfather spoke up. "Son, this is serious business. When you can't remember what you had for breakfast, the sharp details of a good resentment is a joy to be treasured."

What could I say?


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