CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- There is a holiday for nearly everything; there should be one for honoring our elders.
While holidays are nice, however, our culture should really embrace something more robust than a holiday: a cultural shift of increased respect towards seniors. This should be reflected personally and politically.
As a child, at social functions, I sometimes spoke with my elders more than my peers. I liked their wrinkles, stories and direct eye contact. I am now in my 20s and still count seniors as some of my greatest friends and role models. Since I live away from West Virginia, I do not see these friends enough.
I do not see my grandmother enough. For over 45 years, my grandmother and late grandfather on my mother's side built a marriage as fortified and elegant as a fortress flanked by flowers. I strive for my love and friendships to emulate theirs. And I hope that the Charleston community will one day feature as largely in my life as it did, and does, in theirs. And did in the life of my father's parents.
Elders make swell pen pals. I still correspond with Lucille "Lu" Pianfetti, a former West Virginian. She is 99. She taught me West Virginia history as a child. Pianfetti said West Virginia was the last state in the United States to allow women to serve on juries (in 1956). Elizabeth Simpson Drewry, the first African-American woman elected to the West Virginia Legislature in 1950, launched this initiative. The reason it took so long was that men complained they would need to install another bathroom, Pianfetti stated. To this, she always retorted with a laugh, "Hadn't they ever heard of a plumber?!"
Some of my dearest friends are seniors, like neighbor Betty Jarvis, and former neighbors Bob and Pat Perelman. I love their company.
And my elder acquaintances inspire me: At almost 100, Charlestonian Ken Hechler swims, and continues to hell-raise. He marches on mountains in protests to save them from mountaintop removal dynamite.
Another friend is Beckley doctor Donald Rasmussen. He is over 80 and works daily to help patients fight black lung, a preventable occupational disease caused by mining. This disease kills hundreds of miners and former miners annually. As a younger person, Rasmussen allowed me to visit his clinic. There, a surface miner told me that having bits of coal in your chest makes it hard to breath. Each time he gets ready for bed and lifts his shirt over his head he starts wheezing and must stop to catch his breath.
Seniors are my heroes. My friend Perry Mann writes for The Charleston Gazette regularly. He is nearly 100! He speaks his mind without fear of what the public will say. He is not afraid to challenge the status quo and share his opinion. He also makes divine Southern biscuits, keeps a garden and cans the leftover produce.
Being away from home makes me remember and appreciate my friends more deeply. Indigenous Americans believe that elders are the most valuable contributors to society. And yet, the Western culture most readily on display trumpets the benefits of the new and "improved." Even our computers tend toward obsolescence, breaking down in five years or less.
And yet, to be old is to be sacred. Like mountains. Or water. To have friends who are seniors is a treasure. They are the feistiest, most intrepid people I know.
Kaufman, originally of Charleston, is a former West Virginia Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar and now teaches in Maine.