We heard the fence open as we finished the last grains of paella. True to form, Diego had made one of his best ones yet. The artichokes deliciously stuck to the pan. As we sank down in our chairs, paralyzed by satisfaction, we saw her walking up the garden path towards the porch. My eyes lit up. There’s no greater dessert than hearing her stories.
Ino is her name. She’s my Dad’s aunt. Their family comes from a tiny village in the mountains in the north of Spain. When I say tiny, I mean less than ten people live there year-round. There are no shops, there’s no school, no hospital; just some houses and a church. The bread man comes a few times a week, and the ice cream man comes every Monday and Friday. Besides that, it’s a village of farmers. People live off the land. They grow their own food and trade one type of vegetable for another.
My Dad spent his summers here; playing in nature with his cousins. When he became an architect, he built my grandma a house next to Ino’s. On the second floor, he built four big rooms, one for each of his siblings’ families; my cousins. Every room had a mezzanine; the kids would sleep at the bottom, the parents at the top.
Growing up, my weekends, my Christmases, and my summers were spent here; surrounded by family. My fondest memories involve everyone huddled together under a blanket, by the fire, or feasting on the porch in the summer, listening to the elders as they told stories about the past. Sadly, some of them are no longer able to. But Ino is, and I love nothing more than to sit and listen.
As she unwrapped the tiramisu she had made and cut us each a slice, we sat back, got cozy, and let her take us back. Here are some of the insights I took away, and hope never to forget.
1. The Biggest Source of Education Comes From Opening Your Mind
At the age of 10, Ino was sitting in class with her friends. Her teacher had finished the last lesson of the day, and everyone was packing up to go home. One of her friends turned to her with excitement; it was her birthday tomorrow and she was sure she was getting a skipping rope! “I’ll bring it to school so we can play during the break,” she said. They linked arms and joyfully skipped towards the door.
Out of nowhere, Ino felt an abrupt tug on her shoulder. She turned back and saw her father. It was strange; he never came to pick her up from school. He marched her to the teacher and announced that Ino would no longer be coming to school. He needed her in the field. Every day from then on, Ino would wake up before the sun was out and take their herd of cows into the mountains. She would walk for hours, no matter the weather; a tiny ten-year-old girl, alone, all day.
She would have loved to go to school. She wanted to become a teacher. She wanted to read books and learn about the world, but there was no time. When she wasn’t with the cows, she was working at home; cleaning, cooking, sewing.
She may not have received a formal education, but she’s one of the smartest people I know. Her stories are so precious, in part because they’re so rare. Usually, she’s sat back, listening intently with a smile on her face whilst other people talk. She’s inherently curious to learn; she observes, she listens, and she quietly reflects as she processes the information.
She grew up unable to express her opinion, to criticize, or to contradict. It’s terrible. But some good did come of it. She grew accustomed to absorbing what she learned from every conversation, every interaction, and every experience. It forced her mind to try to understand why someone could have that particular point of view. Her admirable humility has given her the capacity to empathize with others and understand problems and concepts with astounding ease.
Her lesson to us is this. The next time you feel bored, think of ten-year-old Ino, alone in the mountains with nothing but cows for company. She observed how they moved, listened to how they interacted, questioned why they did the things they did. She was never bored; she was always learning. So take some time to look up. Be observant, listen carefully, and dare to consider what could be.
2.Family Comes First
When Ino married my dad’s uncle, as was the custom, she moved into his family home. Within a short space of time, they had four children. And more than anything, she wanted to give them the education she never had. So, filled with pain and sorrow, but an unwavering conviction to do the right thing, she sent them to boarding school from a very young age. She wouldn’t see or hear from them for months.
Emotionally crippled by the absence of her children, Ino pushed through as both the homemaker and the farm-worker. It was her job to do everything. Throughout the day, she worked with her husband on the field, and whilst he rested back home, she cooked, she cleaned, she sewed, and she cared for her husband’s elderly parents. Everything she did was for the benefit of others.
There’s one phrase that she always says –
“When I was young, I lived for my parents, when I grew older, I lived for our children”
And yet, I’ve never met a happier person in my life. She says she’s always happy when she’s surrounded by her family; they’re all she needs. This summer she expressed concern at the fact that nowadays, families increasingly live apart. She says we often take our family for granted. Maybe she’s onto something.
Sadly, not spending more time with family is one of the top five regrets of the dying. Despite what you might think after spending the holidays together, spending time with family has the power to make us happier.
I admit that sometimes I’m so focused on ticking every task on my to-do list, that I postpone making a call to my family for another day. I can’t think of a regret I’d rather less have during the last years of my life than to wish I had spent more time with my family. Time goes by so quickly, and this is such an easy thing to fix. Even if you’re far apart — just pick up the phone.
3. Community Comes Second
I remember going round to their house when I was little (the late 90s) and opening the kitchen door to find the priest, two village people, and a lost hiker queuing up to use their phone. They had the only phone in the village. Anyone and everyone who had to make a call would take them a dozen eggs, some zucchini, or a pumpkin in exchange for a few minutes on their line.
Ino loved it. Not all the time of course, sometimes you want the freedom to have your breakfast in pajamas without a congregation lined up in your hallway. But generally, she loved the feeling that she was being useful to others. She was the person that people went to whenever they needed something. She would voluntarily clean the church, weed the cemetery, she washed the priest’s clothes. She loved making contributions to her community.
Her life hasn’t been easy. But she recalls these times with melancholy. Part of her would have liked to have more independence. To be respected as a woman deserving of education and opportunities. But she always says she’s saddened by just how obsessed society has become about being independent.
During the early stages of humanity, when we were still figuring out how to make fire, we lived in tribes. We recognized that we were stronger and safer together. We were each other’s support system. In fact, a study published in Nature in 1971 found that women who live together are often on their period at the same time. One of the theories is that this helped women raise their children and optimized their survival rates. Since women would get pregnant at a similar time, they gave birth at a similar time. Nature created a natural young mother’s group where women could support each other in raising their children.
Today, single-person households have become increasingly common in many countries across the world. Incidentally, depression rates have increased globally, and The World Health Organization points to social isolation as a likely cause. Come to think about it, I can definitely relate to this.
I’m a huge extrovert. That’s not to say I’m the loudest, but I definitely get my energy from being around people. I love to feel surrounded. Yet, I spend most days alone. I work from home, and I don’t do much socializing during the week. I either have some work to finish, or I’m tired from work. But hearing Ino speak made me realize something. The lives of the people from her generation were objectively harder than mine in many ways. But were they happier? And is happiness not the version of ‘success’ we should all be chasing? Maybe it’s time we started building our tribes.
4. Expect Nothing, and Appreciate Everything
There was no running water in the village until my dad was well into his twenties. Ino fetched water from the village fountain and washed their clothes in the river. She told us about the long winters where she would walk in knee-deep snow to the river bank, where she would kneel with her friends and wash her bedsheets in the freezing cold water. She used gloves, but her hands would still bleed from the cuts that the cold temperature left on her skin.
To me, this sounds like a nightmare. And yet she recalls this memory fondly. It was a break for her; a moment away from working on the field, or cleaning their home; a chance to catch up with her girlfriends and gossip. I was incredulous to hear that this was her version of a spa but amazed to see how easily she found joy and beauty in the smallest things in life. She didn’t expect anything, but she appreciated everything.
Her lesson reminded me of an event that happened to me a few months ago. I had been working in Switzerland for six months, during covid-19, alone, and I had been counting down the days to see my family again. Every night for months when I would go to bed, I would cry at the thought of being reunited again; I pictured them all waiting for me at the bus stop ready to embrace me as I stepped off.
Well, this didn’t happen. My Dad had driven to Barcelona to come and get me and parked in a terrible spot, on the curb. He left the lights on, my family jumped out of the car in a hurry, grabbed my suitcases, threw them in the car, and told me to hurry. It was heart-breaking. But it was also my fault. I should have been appreciative of the fact that they had come to pick me up, not disappointed by the fact that they hadn’t read my mind and met my expectations.
It was definitely a wake-up call. I know I’m more idealistic than most. I romanticize the future only to be disheartened when it doesn’t unfold the way that I hoped. If you’re anything like me, it’s better to channel that enthusiasm towards appreciating the present, now; rather than expecting things from a future that no one can control.
It’s ironic that for most of my life, I’ve chased knowledge in the form of formal education. I’ve worked hard to get a degree, a master’s, experience in the corporate world. And yet there’s so much more to learn about life when we go back to basics. When we strip away the titles, stop obsessing over material niceties, and we dial down our pace of life to truly observe, reflect, and experience where we are; in this moment.
As you go about your day today, and for the rest of your days remember these four invaluable lessons from an 80-year-old lady telling stories on the porch:
1) The biggest source of education comes from opening your mind
2) Family comes first
3) Community comes second
4) Expect nothing, and appreciate everything.