At first glance they don't look like anything an American girl would know--the old women in Greece in their black clothes. Bent, walking with difficulty, without teeth but smiling, they greet me warmly and continue on their way. In the beginning, when I came here, I could not understand what they were saying because I did not speak Greek. But I always wondered what they were thinking, what experiences and what stories they carried hidden under the black dresses, even what they would say about me. There was a distance between us, which I filled with my imagination.
A woman who is ninety years old today would have been eight when the first world war started and eleven when the Russian revolution took place. She would have been twenty four when the Great Depression started and in her thirties she would have lived through the second world war. She would have experience from the years of the civil war, the dictatorship, and so many other things. How many stories she could tell! Really she has lived through the whole last century, a century full of political, social, economic changes.
The stories I hear though, don't have any relation to the stories I learned from books in school. The stories I hear are about the women's families, about those specific people who are related to them. One was successful, another died. This one emigrated, that one married, and another never married at all. They are eternal stories.
Maybe the history I read in the schoolbooks, is not very important to them. At the end of their lives, they want to remember those people who had the most impact on their own lives—the people in their families. The other, the great events, passed by them or over their heads, passed and did not change them much. And the society remains the same, like a lake that holds its shape, regardless of the rain, the storms, and the beautiful days that passed over it.
Or maybe they have something to hide. If a story implicates someone you know who lives in your area, or someone who has relatives that live in your area, then you would hesitate to tell that story to anyone. People become discrete and close-mouthed. The stories are for themselves and their families. They are not for strangers. This thought gives me a feeling of disappointment, but also boundless curiosity. It is impossible to understand a person.
The last century, greedy and full of quick movement, freedom, comfort, facility, violence and sex, has changed almost everything in our lives. It has made us quick and easy like the machines. However, there are still some people who didn't change as all. And they don't talk much. When they are gone, how will we remember ourselves?
© Margaret Wesseling, 8-1-7