Sometime back, I wrote a post called The Oldest Man in the Parish. It was about my 91 year old father in law and his memories.
Sadly, my father in law is now very ill. We hope for the best of course but at 91, pneumonia is quite something to get over. Whilst dealing with the rising grief and also the many practicalities involved in possibly having to get to an Irish funeral, I have been thinking a great deal about the loss of such experience from the world. Strangely The Times had a piece today about the recent death of the UK's oldest woman - who died at 114 years old. It was entitled "The Last Victorian" yet she was born in 1900, only a year before Victoria died.
My father in law was born in 1923. The Irish Free State was not even a year old. He lived in rural Ireland in a one room farmhouse (with a large number of siblings) and went to school - for minimal schooling - barefooted. Meat was rarely eaten and poaching for salmon was rife. He came to England during the Second World War and his passport declared him to be "an alien" (I know, I have seen it). Most of what he earned went back to feed his siblings and mother, his father having come to England with him - they were wartime agricultural labourers. He always says that his first memory of being in England was being on a train from Holyhead to Nottingham and finding himself in the middle of an air raid, the train plunged into darkness.
From then on, he worked to better himself, to earn more than just a living. He married an Irish nurse who was actually born in the same county as himself but they met in Leeds of all places, at a dance hall. After marriage he built up a haulage business with his closest brother and went into local politics. I well remember a first meeting with him at which it became apparent that we were poles apart politically but we were able to agree on the necessity to at least vote and have your say.
I find myself in awe of his achievements. My husband was the first of their family to go to university. A fact which reflects unbelievably upon my parents-in-law's progress as immigrants. (I can only hope that they were not too disappointed that he came away with a future wife as well as a degree!)
Every death is a loss to human kind - a unique being, never to be repeated; often a wealth of knowledge and experience lost forever. But the loss of the elderly is a confirmation of the march of time and history. We tend to feel that the loss of a young person far outweighs the loss of an elder. In many ways, this is true. At least with an older person, one can rationalise by saying that they had a long and hopefully useful, happy life. But they are still someone's relation. And they are still a source of knowledge and memory that cannot be replaced.
Our society does not value such virtues. A friend who is barely 50 recently spoke of the prejudice she is now facing in the job market. She is in human resources for goodness sake! Surely experience of human behaviour should be valued there if nowhere else!
If I do not post in coming weeks, you will sadly know why now. Please spare a thought for the oldest man in the parish. He and his contemporaries are the reason we are all where we are today, for better or worse.