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For those that enjoy a good relationship, the bond between grandparent and grandchild can change the ...
2023-01-25 09:00:00

A Timeless Bond
Intergenerational Encounters

“An Old Man and his Grandson,” Domenico Ghirlandaio, ca. 1490, The Louvre (public domain)
A Timeless Bond
A Timeless Bond

Kindness, selflessness, and acceptance are just some invaluable elements of the intergenerational exchange of gifts. During an encounter between the eldest and the youngest family members, time seems to expand in both directions at once, offering the past to some and the future to others.

Read in 11 minutes

Hanging in the Louvre, the artwork An Old Man and his Grandson (Italian: Ritratto di vecchio con nipote, ca. 1490) by Domenico Ghirlandaio is perhaps the most beautiful representation of the bond between the oldest and youngest generations. The oil painting on a wood panel depicts a man with gray hair, a wrinkly forehead, and a nose deformed by disease, holding a little boy in his arms. Both look at each other with love and care. The man is smiling, and while the child appears serious, his bright, long curls playfully spill out from under his hat. The boy’s cheeks are smooth, and his nose and mouth are proportional, in contrast to the deformed face of the old man.

The painting was probably created in the aftermath of the man’s passing—a surviving sketch by Ghirlandaio depicts the same face, only with closed eyes. In both images, the artist captured it so accurately that today it is possible to accurately determine the disease the man would have suffered from. But this is not the most important thing. The Italian master succeeded in depicting something that is extremely difficult to grasp and portray: here, in the eyes of his grandson, the deformed face of the grandfather is transformed—it becomes almost beautiful. The boy loves his grandfather just the way he is—and this includes that which might seem ugly in the eyes of others and which constitutes the mark of the passage of time. The little boy’s gesture—placing his small hand on his grandfather’s chest—can be read as a desire to preserve this moment. For the grandson, death doesn’t exist; his grandfather is immortal and will forever be by his side.

Of course, this painting can also be treated as a meditation on the passing of time. In the background, Ghirlandaio included a window in which an allegorical landscape is visible: two mountains, one covered with lush vegetation, and the other a naked rock. Between them, a wide, empty road symbolizes life, from birth to death. It doesn’t run straight, but meanders, giving us the time to get accustomed to what awaits at the end. But the viewer’s attention is primarily drawn to the foreground and the relationship between the man and the boy. Interestingly, having positioned the disfigured nose in the center of the canvas, the artist simultaneously designates the line connecting their eyes as the main axis of his painting. It runs through the center, making the whole scene, although melancholic (it is, after all, dedicated to the memory of the dead), take on a serene character.

There is one more important element: the physical likeness of the two protagonists. It is not obvious at first, but upon closer inspection—through the eyes of the boy, ignoring the wrinkles and disfigurement of the man’s face—it is hard not to notice that they are in fact related. Resemblance, as well as mutual love and affection, reduce the notion of time in this scene to an insignificant affliction: the grandson recognizes the grandfather in himself, the grandfather will live on in the grandson.

“An Old Man and his Grandson,” Domenico Ghirlandaio, ca. 1490, The Louvre (public domain)
“An Old Man and his Grandson,” Domenico Ghirlandaio, ca. 1490, The Louvre (public domain)

The Gift of Time

What happens to time in an encounter between distant generations can only be described through metaphor. Naturally, this is about time as we experience it—and how we experience ourselves and others in time—rather than time as measured by clocks and calendars. For older people, it is as if with the arrival of grandchildren, life begins for the third time. According to the French philosopher Jean Améry, one of the signs of aging is that we stop seeing our future in the eyes of others: no one asks about future plans, society tells us that changes are no longer possible or even expected. Incidentally, Améry wrote these bitter words when he was fifty-five years old—the same age I am now. But when grandchildren are born, the future seems to open up anew. Of course, the human body doesn’t become stronger, nor is it miraculously healed. Nevertheless, leaning into the future is genuine and felt deeply; it is no coincidence that the Polish Romantic poets addressed “late grandchildren” as their symbolic offspring, expecting that only they would be able to understand them and carry on the work they themselves could not finish.

But the change in experiencing time also has a second aspect, which again can only be described through metaphor. Through an encounter with their grandparents, children extend their lives into the past. Here is someone who lived in this world long before I appeared, and simultaneously, they are a part of me—they exist both next to me and within me. Of course, a child would not be able to explain what “long before” means, nor could it imagine what this “part” might be. Still, in the face of their grandparent, from what they hear from them and about them, they can absorb this knowledge. The past is a distant planet, but a planet that—in some perplexing, illogical way—they’ve visited before.

I know that I was very lucky, and not everyone is: I met my grandparents, I could spend holidays with them, and even sleep next to them in one bed. I remember not only their faces, but also their smell, voice, and touch. I remember sick Grandpa Józef’s heavy breath, and the time Grandma Maria rubbed my aching belly after I ate some unripe blackcurrants. I remember Grandpa Wincent leading the cow out of the barn and Grandma Mila leaning out of her bed to greet me. They were all good to me, which, as I later learned, wasn’t the same for everyone. They were humble, hardworking, and loving.

Some say that grandparents’ love for their grandchildren is unconditional. Ours was certainly like that: there were no obligations or judgments, just pure affirmation—it was enough that we existed, grew, visited. But whenever Grandma Maria said, “Boys, go and cut come nettles,” one of us immediately grabbed a basket and ran behind the barn. Grandma added the nettles to the potatoes she prepared for the pigs; they cooked on the stove next to our dinner, filling the kitchen with a characteristic, slightly sharp smell. The biggest reward for us kids was that we felt our grandparents needed us: we could fetch their cane or glasses, pick apples in the orchard, or bring water from the well. We were so happy when Sunday rolled around—there was less work and more time for stories. This is how we were transported into the past: when Grandpa Józef reminisced about his childhood, he became me, and I looked at the world through his eyes.

In the Beginning, There Were Grandparents

The Argentine journalist Martín Caparrós attempted to recreate the fate of his grandfathers—a Jew living in Poland and a Spaniard from the vicinity of Granada. He writes that in the eyes of grandchildren, a grandparent is someone who was there “at the beginning of things.” Younger generations do not think about when things first appeared, because they’re accustomed to the fact that they are a natural part of their surroundings. Older people, on the other hand, remember a world in which things were scarce or hard to come by, were only just being invented, or were undergoing rapid changes. In the shed next to my grandparents’ wooden house, there was an oil lamp that reminded me that for most of their lives they both lived in a world without electricity. Caparrós recalls his grandfather’s story about first seeing an airplane as a teenager: when the “beast of wood and fabric” rose into the air, people began to pray, scream, and cry; one of the spectators even passed out. As a boy, Caparrós writes, he listened to his grandfather’s tales and wondered what it was like to be present “at the beginning of things”. 

In his essay entitled Los Abuelos [Grandparents], Caparrós also asks another question, one that comes to mind whenever we begin to think about our roots: in what way do we constitute a continuation of others? The author is less interested in what genetics has to say on this, and more in how the unknown and, to some extent, the foreign (after all we know less, rather than more, about our grandparents) enter into our everyday life, from the past, in the form of different habits, fears, or prejudices. According to Caparrós, in the eyes of the young, old people are a separate species, and “grandparents are the constant proof, the most widely seen specimen of that species.” And yet, although they seem so very different, it is simultaneously impossible not to think about what they’ve given us, the mark they’ve left on us. Perhaps “something in them,” Caparrós wonders, could explain why, for example, our sense of humor is the way it is, or why we’re tempted to jump as we lean out of a window, or whether our excessive mobility is down to the fact that our ancestors had to look for new homelands because of persecution.

An encounter with their elders makes the time perceived by the young expand—it stretches back as far as the memory of those offering their past to them. At the same time, grandmas and grandpas are like additional parents, only older. In the child’s mind, awareness of their existence causes each parent to split or double. Moreover, thanks to grandparents—if we’re lucky—we also “get” aunts, uncles, and cousins. In this way, our world expands and fills with people with whom we are bound by something more than friendship or camaraderie. Even if we contact them infrequently, or not at all, we know that their relationship with us is predetermined and doesn’t change. It’s a rather strange feeling: to be part of something we’ve not chosen, but something we “found.” Yes, we can ignore this bond or even reject it, but we’ll never be able to break it off completely. A keystone in the shape of grandparents binds both the living and the departed. Our grandparents are the doors that lead to other rooms.

Squint Your Eyes

I must admit that I am always touched by the sight of a young child holding the hand of their grandmother or grandfather and taking small, wobbly steps—I don’t even try to fight it. Just like the sight of a granddaughter showering her grandmother’s wrinkled face with kisses, or slightly older grandkids waiting patiently for their grandparent to rest and catch their breath, so they can carry on walking. I’m old enough to know that the reality behind these kinds of images isn’t always happy, and many elderly people don’t receive such kindness and respect. But they show us what is possible—and what is, and remains, beautiful in a rapidly changing world.

An increasing gap resulting from technological progress, as well as changes in perception and understanding of the world and communication, separates the younger and older generations. Simultaneously, successes in the field of medicine mean that the stage of life that was once referred to as “old age” is shifting—today, we don’t really know what it is and whether this term is still appropriate. We live in a world where no one wants to be treated as “departing”—as if we learned from Améry’s grim insights and are now letting anyone who desires so to have a future. There is nothing surprising or outrageous about this— societal changes mean that a large number of us will be able to decide when to become “senior citizens” and what meanings we’ll ascribe to this term.

Ultimately, our longings will determine our behavior in the face of change. If we yearn for tenderness and beauty, simplicity and honesty, we’ll seek exactly that. If we appreciate the value of intergenerational exchange, we will try to uphold and cultivate it. It is by no means certain that future generations will be more self-absorbed and thus less patient than previous generations. Equally, it is also possible that a survival instinct will make them more caring and obliging. The average age in Western societies is rising, meaning that people over sixty will gain a statistical advantage—whether they’ll be appreciated as allies and teachers or seen as a burden will also be a matter of choice. In the future, longing may suggest a course of action that we cannot imagine today.

After all, what else, if not longing, inspired the below passage in Elizabeth Bishop’s autobiographical short story The Country Mouse? Bishop’s childhood was far from idyllic. On the contrary, it was rather unhappy; her father’s early death and her mother’s subsequent passing meant that the girl constantly moved from one relative’s house to another’s. Thus memories of moments when the world revealed to her its more beautiful, friendlier side were all the more precious. As Bishop writes:

One night I was taken to the window in the upstairs front hall to see the ice on the trees, lit by the street lamp at the end of our drive. All the maple trees were bent by the weight of the ice. Branches had cracked off, the telephone wires were covered with ice, and so was the row of thin elms that grew along the street—a great pale blaze of ice filling the vision completely, seeming to circle and circle if one squinted a bit. My grandfather, wearing his nightshirt and red dressing gown, held me up to the window. “Squint your eyes, Grandpa,” I said, “tight!” and he did.

Translated from the Polish by Joanna Figiel

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