When an Elder Dies, A Library Burns to the Ground.

Library burns

A Library Burns

An old African (attributed) proverb maintains that, “When an Elder dies, a library burns to the ground.”

Books on shelves don’t tell stories. We have to open and read them.

Usually, it’s not until we’re older that we appreciate the wisdom in the libraries of those who have come before.

Elders Love to Tell Stories

Elders love to tell their stories, if only we ask. It’s amazing what we learn about the past, the present, and ourselves. We’ve become reliant on technology for “fact-finding” but it has limitations. Google’s not going to tell you how my dad pleaded and cried when his stepfather wouldn’t let him attend school beyond eighth grade with all his friends. Or how my grandmother took in laundry from the railway workers in northern Alberta after my grandfather died. With no running water or electricity, she had to haul water, heat it in a cauldron over a wood fire, and scrub the filthy clothing.

You got a whole different side of WWII from hero Harry Watts, (July 29, 1923 – March 10, 2019). As a Dispatch Rider, he would regale whoever would listen, including rapt school children, with tales of his escapades. Like riding a motorcycle cross-country behind enemy lines in the dark, with no lights, to deliver top secret documents and intelligence information to military leaders at the front.

If You Could Ask…

What was it like for my grandparents to live through a civil war and family before becoming refugees? How did people in their new country receive them? How did that inform them, and through their children, me? I’m curious about what their childhood was like and what lessons they learned. How did they learn to understand people who were considered enemies? What negotiations did they have to make to stay alive? What were their struggles? Their dreams?

There was a time when I didn’t appreciate the value of those stories. Now those authors are gone. There are others all around though, waiting for us to listen. Even with dementia, Mom has been a resource library. As her filter eroded, she shared things that were locked up for years. I always knew she’d enjoyed her nursing career, but had no idea of the depth of her passion until she moved into long term care and took her new job seriously! Now she’s beyond that but I still cherish this time with her, interrupted now by COVID-19.

Lately I’ve been spending contemplative and writing time in a local private cemetery (with permission). Large shade trees, peaceful grounds, and benches under maples welcome reflection. There’s a perfect out-of-the-way spot that overlooks a small lake where I like to sit. I hadn’t expected the steady stream of people visiting loved ones and tending graves. I wonder what stories they’re remembering and what they wished they would have asked. What stories lie buried on the serene grounds? What was in the library that burned to the ground with the passing of their loved one? How could knowing those stories have changed the trajectory of someone’s life?

Re-Reading Old Works

As we age, we accrue knowledge hopefully gain wisdom. Our perspective evolves too. It’s great to read new tomes but a good idea to go back to our favorites. Have you ever reread a book and taken new meaning from it? Not because the story has changed—the book hasn’t been rewritten— but you’re seeing it through new eyes and understanding it differently.

Most people tell me, that like me, they wish they would have asked questions of their Elders when they had the chance. We can’t change that now, but we can tap into the wisdom and stories of those who are still here. Spend time with someone and listen. You’ll both be enriched.

That way, when the library burns, the stories live on through those who have come after.
It’s like the phoenix that rises from the ashes of its predecessor as a new magnificent bird, flying into the open sky.

Photo on VisualHunt


Author, writer, student and motorcycle aficionado Liz Jansen combines her artistic mediums to create stories that inspire readers to embark on their own journey of self-discovery. No helmet or jacket required.

4 Comments on “When an Elder Dies, A Library Burns to the Ground.

  1. This touched my heart as I thought about the ethnic cleansing that brought my family from Georgia to North Carolina. Tears welled up in my grandfather’s eyes when he talked about the fear and pain of having lost everything due to racial hatred. I am amazed that this precious man could be so uplifting to me after having suffered such a loss. How I wish I could hear that gentle voice but I also wish that he had written a book!

    • What a beautiful tribute to your grandfather Ann. Thanks for sharing. His legacy lives through your creative work, but you’re right. It would be wonderful to have that book!