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

A Timeless Bond

Intergenerational Encounters
Wojciech Bonowicz
Reading
time 11 minutes

Kindness, generosity, and acceptance are just some of the invaluable elements of  intergenerational gift exchange. During the encounter between the eldest and the youngest, the time experienced expands in both directions, offering the past and the future, at once.

Displayed at the Louvre, the painting An Old Man and His Grandson [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 tempera painting on a poplar panel depicts a man with gray hair, a forehead crisscrossed with wrinkles, and a nose deformed by disease, holding a little boy in his arms. They’re gazing at each other with love and care. The man is smiling gently while the boy appears serious, but his long and bright curls playfully spill out from under his hat. His 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 old man’s passing—Ghirlandaio’s surviving sketch depicts the same face, only with his eyes closed. In both works, the artist rendered it so accurately that when looking at it today, it’s easy to determine the disease the portrayed man had suffered from. However, that’s not what’s most important. The Italian master succeeded in capturing something that is extremely difficult to convey—in the eyes of the grandson, the grandfather’s deformed face is transformed—it becomes almost beautiful. The boy loves his grandpa just as he is—including what might seem ugly in the eyes of others and what constitutes the passing of time. The kid’s gesture—placing his small hand on his grandfather’s chest—can be read as a desire to seize this moment. For the grandson, death doesn’t exist; his grandfather is immortal and will forever be by his side.

Certainly, this painting can also be treated as a meditation on transience. Perhaps it’s with reason that Ghirlandaio placed a window in the background, behind which an allegorical landscape is seen—two mountains, one covered with lush flora, and the other, a bare rock. Between them, a wide, empty road symbolizes life, from birth to death. It doesn’t run straight, but meanders, giving one the time to get accustomed to what awaits at the final destination. Yet, the viewer’s attention is primarily drawn to the foreground. The artist has positioned both figures in a way that brings focus to what is happening between them. Interestingly, by putting the disfigured nose in the center of the composition, the artist simultaneously designated the line that connects their eyes as the main axis of the painting. It runs through the center, making the whole scene, although melancholic (after all it’s a memory of someone who’s no longer around), take on a serene character.

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There is one more important element—the physical resemblance of the two protagonists. It’s 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’s noticeable that they are related. The similarity, 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 through the grandson.

The Gift of Time

What happens to time in the encounter between distant generations can be well 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’s as if with the arrival of grandchildren, life begins for the third time. According to the French philosopher Jean Améry, one sign of aging is that we stop seeing our future in the eyes of others: no one asks about future plans, society says that changes are no longer possible or even expected. Yet, when grandchildren are born, the future seems to open up anew. Naturally, the body doesn’t become stronger, nor does it get miraculously healed. Nevertheless, leaning into the future is real and felt deeply; it is no coincidence that the Polish Romantic poets addressed their “late grandchildren” as the symbolic offspring, expecting they would be the generation to understand them and carry on the work they didn’t get to complete.

However, the change in experience of time has a second aspect, which again is best described metaphorically. Grandchildren, through meeting their grandparents, get to 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. A child, of course, 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 grandparents, through 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 puzzling, paradoxical way—they’ve visited before.

I know that I was very lucky, and not everyone is—I got to know my grandparents, I was able to spend holidays with them, and even sleep next to them in the same bed. I remember not only their faces, but also their smell, voice, and touch. I remember Grandpa Józef’s scratchy breath when he was sick, and the time Grandma Maria rubbed my aching belly after eating green  currants. 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 rule. My family, however, were humble, hardworking, and loving people.

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 were alive, growing up, and coming over for visits. But whenever Grandma Maria said, “Boys, go cut some nettles,” one of us would immediately grab a basket and run behind the barn. Grandma added 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 tart smell. The biggest reward for us kids was that we felt needed by our grandparents—we could hand them a cane or glasses, pick apples in the orchard, or bring water from the well. We were always excited for  Sunday to come—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.

The Grandparents Were First

Argentinian journalist Martín Caparrós attempted to recreate the fate of his grandfathers—a Jewish man living in Poland and a Spaniard from the vicinity of Granada. He notes that in the eyes of grandchildren, a grandparent is someone who was there “at the beginning of things.” Younger generations don’t think about when things first appeared, as they’ve grown used to them being  a natural part of their surroundings. Older people, on the other hand, remember a world in which things were scarce or hard to access, some were just being invented, or were undergoing rapid changes. In the shed next to my grandparents’ wooden house, there still stood an oil lamp—a reminder they both lived most of their lives 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 spectator even fainted. Caparrós writes about listening to his grandfather’s tales and wondering what it was like to be present then.

In his essay Grandparents, Caparrós poses another question that arises whenever we begin to think about our roots: in what way is a person a continuation of others? The author is less interested in what genetics have to offer in this matter, 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 constant proof of that species’s existence.”  Yet, despite how different they may seem, it’s 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 the eldest makes the time perceived by the youngest expand—stretching 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 rather double. Moreover, because of grandparents—if we’re lucky—we also “get” aunts, uncles, and cousins. That way, our world expands and fills with people with whom we are bound by 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’re given. Indeed, 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 like doors that lead to other rooms.

Squint Your Eyes

I must admit I am always touched by the sight of a young child holding the hand of their grandmother or grandfather and taking small, timid steps. 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 situations isn’t always fun, and many elderly people don’t receive such kindness and respect. These scenes, however, show what is possible—and what is, and remains, beautiful in a rapidly changing world.

A generational gap continues to increase due to technological progress, as well as changes in communication amongst one another as well as perception and understanding of the world. Simultaneously, the accomplishments in the field of medicine mean that the line that used to predetermine “old age” is shifting—today, we don’t really know where it is and whether the term itself is still appropriate. We live in a world where no one wants to be treated as  a “departing”—as if we learned from Améry’s grim insights, letting anyone who desires so to have a future. There is nothing surprising about this—societal changes mean that most of us will be able to decide when to become “senior citizens” and what meanings we’ll ascribe to the 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. By no means it’s certain that future generations will be more self-centered and thus less patient than previous ones. Equally, it is also possible that a survival instinct will make them more caring and collaborative. 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. Longing may suggest a course of action that is unthinkable today.

After all, it was longing that inspired the passage below in Elizabeth Bishop’s autobiographical short story The Country Mouse. Bishop’s childhood was far from idyllic. Contrairly, it was rather unhappy; the early death of her father and her mother’s illness led the girl to moving around between the homes of relatives. Thus memories of the moments the world revealed its more beautiful, friendlier side to her, 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.

This translation was re-edited for context and accuracy on February 23, 2023.

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