01/04/2008 10:00 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

CULTURE ZOHN: (4th) Ring In The New With Someone Old

My mother spent the holidays with us. Though she does not relish sojourns in Southern California as it disables her capabilities as a flaneur (she does not drive), we were the (tennis) court, this year, of last resort (she still plays twice a week): her boyfriend of many years had just died and it was a troubling time--her routine had been mightily disrupted. We hung out and cooked a lot and took walks and she ate with all the grandchildren, one of her true pleasures that doesn't have to do with four wheels and a full tank.

But more than anything, she was missing the theater and other events she and her BF used to attend together, an eighty year old and an eighty-seven year old with subscriptions to at least four different theater company seasons, plus opera, ballet and the NY Philharmonic and incidental lectures and symposia. When I recently went to Lincoln Center, she came along at the last minute and took a senior special at the Met (4th Ring) and saw Norma--an opera with which she wasn't familiar with but which later had her studying the libretto for days after.

When people decry the aging audience, I think of them. Neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor hail ever prevented them from attending a performance. They never took taxis, always busses that took forever, but they were uncomplaining, resolute about not letting the tickets go to waste. And they saw everything first before any of us--often in previews--because the price break was considerable, yes, but also because they were willing to experiment just for the pleasure of being part of something early on.

This aging demographic troubles people. It is dismaying to see so many gray heads in audiences for "culture", and programmers are at pains to "replace" their audiences, understandably, which are gradually dying off. But this was the generation raised on live, on Bernstein, not warmed over Britney Spears, and they find few thrills in a download from You Tube.

Often, when I ask my mother what she's seen the night before, she's a little fuzzy. Yes, it's a memory thing, but is it any wonder that so many performances night after night meld together? Yet neither she nor I would have it any other way.

It's from our parents that we see how culture either does, or does not, play a role in the quotidian, that it's not just for special occasions. It can be expensive. But subscriptions are much less so, and off off, and now most of the major companies have student and senior rush tickets subsidized by corporations to serve newer (read, younger) audiences.

Two films I saw over the holidays, Away from Her and Savages deal with the crushing blow of aging: in the first, a husband watches his wife gradually lose her mind to Alzheimers and fall in love with another patient at the nursing home she eventually must occupy; the other concerns the plight of two very smart children who turn out to not be so smart when it comes to figuring out what to do with their Dad as he slips into oblivion.

Granted, these reflect an intellectual demographic that does not mirror society as a whole.
But they poignantly remind that the data base of every "senior" is rich and fertile and we should all be harvesting their memories of performances, great, and small, from yesterday and long ago, to catch the glimmers of insight and delight.

And we shouldn't flinch when we see gray hair in the adjacent seat. Make it a resolution, in fact, to take your mother or your father, or an aunt or uncle to see something with you before they can't. (Especially those of you still trotting around after Springsteen, you know who you are.) Imagine how patient they have been with all of us--it was probably one of the most trying things in the world to be a parent in the 1960s and 70s.

And let their passions be a lesson: teach your children well.