Looking Forward

At a school concert recently, a pensive mother turned to me. The gathering was festive and the gym was packed, for ours is the kind of school where entire families show up to cheer the kids on. She gazed at the crowd and said, “I wanted my father to be here, but he said the traffic was too much.” She sighed. “I told him all the other grandparents would show.”

Her father lives 40 miles away, and with rush-hour traffic it could have taken hours to get into town. Then again, if he had lived nearby, it would have been a short walk and a nice time.

It got me thinking about generations. They used to be closer—like right in your face. They often lived together in the same house or apartment—Grandma and Grandpa and their kids, and their kids. It was crowded. Families were bigger 30 and 40 years ago, and sometimes eight or ten people shared a bathroom, standing on line with their toothbrushes like soldiers in an army barracks.

It certainly wasn’t all good. But I‘m thinking it wasn’t all bad, either.

While there are still many poor people, America, in general, is a more affluent place today, and more of us than ever have been able to buy privacy. More of us have our own individual bathrooms, our own individual homes. We make visits to grandparents who live in apartments and condos in other cities.

Forty years ago the aged often lived in what we would call reduced circumstances, sleeping in little rooms and depending on the generosity of their children, along with some small savings or a small monthly check. Now many older Americans have Social Security with cost-of-living increases, pensions, investments, savings, senior discounts. As a group, the old in America have the highest net worth of any demographic in our population.

And who, would begrudge them? They worked hard, survived the Depression, fought in World War II, and paid the taxes that defeated Soviet Communism. They deserve to be comfortable.

And yet.

I once had a conversation with Ronald Reagan in which he said he thought the TV show The Waltons was popular because it showed all the generations of a family living together and supporting one another, and that people are naturally drawn to this.

Mere nostalgia for another era? Maybe, but a wise nostalgia, I think. There were compensations for yesterday’s overcrowding. When I was a girl, I had a great-aunt who used to come live with us for months at a time, and her presence enriched my life in many ways. One is that she was deeply, authentically eccentric, and her eccentricities were lively and interesting. Sometimes when she couldn’t sleep at night, she’d roam the house reciting poetry in a soulful and dramatic voice. These days they’d give her a sedative and recommend outpatient treatment, but back then people were less sophisticated and more open-minded: They allowed each other to be weird.

It was in the common dailiness of life that the benefits of my aunt’s presence were revealed. She’d talk about World War I, and the Titanic, and what it was like to have been a lady’s maid. And I realize now that she was a kind of buffer between my parents and their children, a human hiding place whose very presence added context to our lives.

A friend of mine shared a bedroom throughout her childhood with her grandmother. Grandma did a lot of the cooking, wonderful Hungarian stews. She helped my friend understand her own mother; just by existing, Grandma took some of the heat off the often intense relationship that exists between mothers and teen daughters. And Grandma was the family’s oral historian; without those stories my friend says she might have a less strong sense of where she came from and who she is.

I asked this friend whether her own mother would ever come live with her. No, she said, with what I think was regret. Her mother has already told her, “I never want to be a burden on you.” And she meant it.

She must be a terrific woman. But burden? I don’t know. We won’t as a nation be going back en masse to the old ways and crowded houses anytime soon. But I can’t help thinking that you’d be lucky to have three’ or even four generations living in one house if you could, because you could keep the essence of life, and the richness of it—birth and death and history and love—close.

Generations living together was messy. We in the modern era are more tidy, even more antiseptic, and a lot of us are doing a pretty good job of keeping discomfort at bay. But I wonder if in this we aren’t also keeping some big parts of life at bay.