Living life is fun and we’ve just begun
To get our share of the world’s delights
(HIGH!) high hopes we have for the future
And our goal’s in sight
(WE!) no we don’t get depressed
Here’s what we call our golden rule
Have faith in you and the things you do
You won’t go wrong
This is our family Jewel
Sister Sledge, We are Family
Over this last summer, I lost my last two grandparents. Yes, they were a married couple, both in the nursing home, and they died 26 days apart. It was a tough month.
I have spent a lot of time over the past few years looking at the way our culture treats people, treats families, treats life: but it was my grandparents’ deaths – and the last couple years of their lives — that really brought these lessons home for me.
I went to check my email today and I saw this picture and headline on Yahoo.com. I didn’t think about it much at first: I don’t tend to read anything at yahoo – I just check my mail. But it haunted me. It inspired me. I knew that behind that front page clip was inspiration for this post. Boy was I wrong. I eventually went back to it and read the article. It was a typical ‘don’t let your kids walk all over you and make sure your parents write their wills’ financial advice column. Phooey.
But I still want to talk about what the headline said to me.
I think one of the most dehumanizing, isolating and truly damaging facets of current American culture has to be the memetic drive for familial independence. That ideal that pushes kids out of the house on their eighteenth birthday (whether at their own behest or their parents), that drives our elders into nursing homes and every single individual toward the American dream of the nuclear family, suburban house, picket fence, blah.
When my son was born, my honey and I shared a house with another couple. We were poor: we were young: we had no idea what we wanted from life, all we knew was that the picket fence was not for us. We were not ready to be parents. I didn’t know how to be a pregnant woman, he didn’t know what to expect from a pregnant woman and we had no elders in our lives to give us guidance. We stumbled through. We made it. But by the time our son was born, the support structure in our household had been so stressed that it ended in a fiery blaze. Luckily, none of us were permanently, visibly scared by the inferno. For our little family, we ended up buying a little house far away from everything and everyone we knew. For me, that meant almost complete isolation for the first few years of my sons life.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, I watched my grandparents deteriorate. It took years: decades, even. The first blow: when my aunt virtually forced them to sell their farm. After a lifetime of connection to the house and the land, they were suddenly stripped of their identity. For my grandfather, that was the death blow. They were moved into a small apartment in town, with other retirees all around. For my grandmother, it was the death of her younger sister, who lived in another apartment nearby: after she was gone, my grandmother was alone. It didn’t take long for the recurring, long term visits to the nursing home to start. Just the same, the lingered, my grandfather getting angrier each day, my grandmother slipping further into apathy.
Two stories of my life, overlapping in time. I would have been thrilled to bring my grandparents into my own home. I know they would not have come: leaving the farm was heart rending: leaving the only community they have ever know would have been unthinkable. This was never an option anyone else in my family ever considered (especially those that still lived in their hometown). Its just not the way things are done in modern America.
And how much have we lost in this? Its not just the support, but the knowledge and wisdom of our older generation is lost to us. And the respect, a sense of purpose of being needed is lost to them. I never want to see another generation of my family shunted away, to be treated as if their needs in their declining years are too much bother, to be degraded, stripped of their dignity and the peace that comes of belonging.
Whatever else we have yet to add to our list of necessities for a sustainable society, another has to be creating a place, a purpose and a role for every member of our family and our community.
(Originally Posted September 28, 2006)