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Relativity in a Nuclear Age

by Julia Sneden

"Abbie," my 83-year-old great aunt Martha said, "you know you shouldn't eat cherries if you're drinking milk."

My grandmother turned a look of mild annoyance on her older sister. "Martha," she said, "I've been drinking milk and eating cherries all my life."

"You have not," said Aunt Martha. "My mother told us it would cause indigestion. I don't know how you could have forgotten that."

"I can hardly forget what never happened," said my grandmother. "Perhaps you're confusing what our mother said with all those weird dietary pronouncements The Doctor (Martha's late and unlamented husband) loved to make."

"Abbie," her sister said, "I'm five years older than you, and I know. But then, you never did pay much attention to what Mother said about domestic matters."

"Martha," my grandmother snapped, "you certainly are older than I am, and so is your memory."

At that point my mother rose from the table. "Please," she said, "can't we just enjoy dinner without arguing? My children bicker; you two bicker. It seems to me that siblings never appreciate how lucky they are. I always wanted to have a brother or sister," she said, and her voice quavered, "but now I'm beginning to be glad that I never did." And with that, she threw down her napkin and stomped off to the kitchen.

There was an appalled silence. My brother and I sneaked guilty glances at each other. Aunt Martha did something fussy with her napkin. My grandmother headed for the kitchen to comfort Mother. My father, who had grown up in his grandfather's large household with six aunts and uncles who were like siblings to him, just smiled.

"Family dynamics," he said. "Tricky stuff."

As "retirement communities" and "assisted living" complexes spring up all across the country like mushrooms after a cool rain, I find myself thinking about the generations of children who will never live in a house with grandparents or other elderly relatives. For them, "family dynamics" refers to what goes on within the nuclear family, and the more I think about it, the more I come to believe that that tidy little nuclear unit is not all it cracked up to be. Nor, I am convinced, are the one-generational dwelling arrangements that are supposed to free seniors of all the messy inconveniences of life the only answer to all the problems of getting old.

Those retirement communities are great for a while. As long as you have your health and your driver's license, they afford carefree living and lively companionship in much the same way a college campus does: you're housed with others your age, and employees of the institution do the chores needed to make life run smoothly — things like maintenance and food preparation and yard work. You're still free to visit your children and grandchildren, but you don't have all those annoying chores that once tied you to your home or necessitated hiring help to do them for you.

You do, of course, have to give up some personal freedoms in return. And once your health begins to break down, there are suddenly many restrictions on your life style. Some are caused by the nature of your illness, but some come from "Management," those people who run the place where you live. In my mother's case, those interventions involved forcing her to move from her garden apartment to a smaller one in a large building, and from that to the "Health Center," a euphemism for infirmary, where the truly infirm (and she was) are held virtually captive. I am sure that many people are grateful to have "Management" take over the hard decisions that come with having an elderly parent, things like: At what point do you step in and take control of your mother or father's life?

The sad truth is that old age requires us to give up personal freedoms, no matter what our living situations. At some point, it is no longer safe to drive the car, or lift the heavy garbage can, or climb the ladder to clean the gutters. Sometimes it is no longer possible to eat what we want, go where we want, do what we want. And frankly, when faced with that moment, I would much rather be living among those who know me and my tastes and priorities than to be living with strangers who must be paid to take care of me, no matter how well-meaning they may be.

I'm not at all sure that any of my children would be willing to take me in, and I certainly don't like thinking about the possibility. But at the same time, I remember my early childhood as an entirely happy one, spent in the company of my brother and parents, along with two grandmothers and a great aunt, all under one roof and all reasonably content.

It can't be easy to create such a living arrangement. Adult "children" who have been on their own for years can't help finding it difficult to have aged parents back in their daily lives, no matter how much mutual affection they share. Privacy is an issue for all concerned. Differences in religious preferences or political loyalties or firmly-held opinions of any kind can destroy even the best intentions as adult family members set out to create a joint household. It is hard for the elderly to defer to an adult child in matters of parenting even if they're not living in the same house, but if they live with those children and grandchildren, the matter of ultimate authority can be dicey indeed. Even things like food preferences or the distribution of household chores or annoying little personal habits suddenly loom large.

That said, it seems to me that there are some very good parts of living in a multi-generational household that make the effort worthwhile.

For one thing, there's a healthy perspective that often develops. Children who grow up hearing about the scrapes their parents got into when young learn a lot about forgiveness and growth and the possibility of redemption. The middle generation receives support during those difficulties that come with parenting. And the elderly enjoy the respect that comes when the kids and grandkids tap into the wisdom that life has (willy-nilly) given them.

Children who live in a multi-generational household learn early on that they are not the big gem hanging at the end of the necklace: They are just links in a chain that started long before them and will go on long after them.

Their parents receive some freedom and relief from the need to pay constant attention to the children. (When I was little, I never had a babysitter who wasn't related to me).

And grandparents find themselves feeling useful, not just as babysitters, but as boon companions to a teenager, perhaps, or as sources of financial or psychological assistance to all.

My husband's family had probably the ideal situation. Both sets of grandparents lived in their own houses, but within a mile of the house where he grew up. He had not only all four grandparents nearby, but also a great grandmother. He (and they) loved it.

When my own children were young, we were pretty much a nuclear family. The closest grandparent lived 90 miles away. Fortunately, the grandparents all took an active role in becoming more than just visitors to their grandchildren. Still, it wasn't the same as the intimate, daily knowledge of one another that both my husband and I experienced with our extended families.

There is a depth to that kind of living that can't be created by artificial means. It takes a series of little things like being allowed to help sort Aunt Martha's thread drawer and button box as she hummed gently off-key or told stories of her childhood; or watching as Grandma expertly pitted her breakfast prunes; or feeling Grandabbie's gentle hand on my shoulder and her quiet: "You're a good child." It also takes seeing things like my mother throwing down her napkin to make her point, or listening to the squabbles of sisters who are seven decades older than I. It even takes having to sit at table while Aunt Martha, who chewed every bite precisely 100 times, finished her dinner. Talk about a lesson in patience...

There is a resonance to that kind of upbringing that is almost gone in this modern world, and we are the poorer for it.



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