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A Shared Moment of Wisdom, Expertise, and Insight
By Harry Anderson
“You have to talk with Kate Adams!” a neighbor of mine pleaded. “She’s 96 years old and is as sharp as a tack and has lots of stories to tell. I think she’s one of the wisest people I’ve ever known.”
Three days later I was sitting in Mrs. Adams’ sun-lit Laurel Crest apartment – Glocester’s housing for the elderly – looking into smiling blue eyes and raptly listening to a lilting voice as it segued from reminiscence to literary critique to social commentary. Yes, indeed, my neighbor was right: I was in the company of an extraordinary woman.
“So, what do you want me to tell you?” she asked. “More of the same that you’ve no doubt heard over and over again from people my age who’ve lived through the Depression and the war… things like the ragman and the ice man making their rounds and the milk man in his wagon that was pulled by a horse? I bet, though, you haven’t heard of the Italian ladies who came down the sidewalk where my family was living in Providence, chanting ‘Huc-beys’ and carrying on their heads baskets of huckleberries. Or how about the men in white coats and white gloves who swept up horse droppings? [Laughing] My kid brother, who knew nothing about what these men were doing, wanted to be one of them when he grew up.
“It was 1931 – I was only eleven – when I looked out the window and saw the family next door standing in a drizzling rain among their mattresses and furniture. They had been evicted because they couldn’t pay their mortgage. So terrible…so terrible. That’s when my father said, ‘Let’s get out of the city’ and moved us to Burrillville.”
The first inkling of war came to her the afternoon of September 1, 1939, after she ended her shift as a typist for a Woonsocket business and came upon a crowd that blocked Main Street traffic. “In those days,” she said, “on the outside wall of the Woonsocket Call there hung a large chalk board and on it, someone printed the latest news, usually ball scores. But that afternoon, in big letters, the news read ‘GERMANY INVADES POLAND’ I guessed that the man I saw who was looking up at the chalk board and weeping was Polish.”
Finished with reminiscing, Katherine pointed to the book on her coffee table – Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise – and said, “Mother always reminded us to read good books. I get to maybe only six or seven a year because of my knitting. I make blankets for Project Linus, an organization that gives them to sick children. That’s a good book. My son got it for me from the library. The author says we’re making a big mistake today in ignoring the expertise and wisdom of us old people.”
The blurb on the inside of the jacket warns that the book’s title risks alienating a lot of people, especially those who hope to pull down a peg or two anyone who speaks with authority. It goes on to assert that “the digital revolution helps foster a cult of ignorance” and that “our culture life is full of burials: shame, common sense, good taste.”
Curious about what her long life has informed her regarding today’s status quo, I asked her to sum up what contrasts she sees between yesteryear and now. Benignly, without a trace of bitterness or pessimism, she answered that the Sixties loosened everything, going on to emphasize that her contemporaries learned to cope with doing without and, largely because of that, fought a great war all the way to victory.
“Now, kids have it easy. Parents defer to them willy-nilly. Where’s the discipline? And have you noticed how often we hear ‘I’m a victim’ or ‘I’m a survivor’? What gets me is how so many people have such high expectations that in general, they aren’t happy. There was a time when my father took us out to a restaurant – I remember it well because that was really special – and he ordered meatloaf. We all knew he wanted steak, but he passed it up. ‘Ha! I just saved ten bucks,’ he said. That’s how it went back then.”
On the drive home from Laurel Crest, I passed the ancient cottage on Snake Hill Road where Katherine Adams and her family had worked hard to maintain for 63 years. To one side sags a weather-beaten barn, looking about ready to collapse. What a trove of tales those buildings could spin had they tongues, I thought. And I thought of Kate and was saddened to think that she may be right and we may be ignoring the expertise and wisdom of the old.