While doing some research for another piece, I recently came across an article that appeared in The Atlantic written by New York Times columnist David Brooks titled: “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” Throughout the piece, Brooks lays out many of the shortcomings that are inherent with this uniquely American model of individual families excluding their extended relatives, while opting to “go it alone.”
Brooks cites various data depicting the downfall of the nuclear family over the past 100 years or so (much of it due to socio-economic and cultural variables), yet he also sees optimism in some statistics such as: “In 1980, only 12 percent of Americans lived in multigenerational households; today 20 percent of Americans or 64 million people, an all-time high—live in multigenerational homes.”
He states that much of this recent trend is due to the financial collapse of 2008, forcing many family members to live under one roof. He also goes on to say: “Another chunk of the revival is attributable to seniors moving in with their children. More than a fifth of Americans 65 years and over now lives in multigenerational homes.”
Studies conducted by the Pew Research Center support these trends, with many respondents stating finances and health being the most significant issues in making the decision to consolidate households.
It is my belief that raising children with extended family members present (or at least close by), is something that this country seriously lacks. Working with at-risk families on a daily basis for nearly 20 years, I’ve been a frontline witness to the upside of this paradigm. Mutual assistance with child or eldercare, consistent social-emotional support, shared housing expenses and responsibilities are but a few of the more obvious reasons that I can name.
Included in that social-emotional component are the opportunities for elders to not only pass down traditional cultural norms, along with language, but also share or impart their accumulated wisdom and life experiences with other family members. Rather than limiting such interactions to special occasions, an ongoing, multigenerational connection or bond can be established with mutually beneficial outcomes for all parties.
My 90-year-old father has been dealing with some ongoing health issues and wants to give his partner a break, and this summer my brothers and I will have the opportunity to connect with him like never before, as each of us (along with our significant others), will take turns assuming the role of full-time caretaker.
We’ve had some practice over the last six months, having brought him back to New York a few times for stints lasting one to three weeks, but that has been the extent of our experience. On each of those occasions, a typical evening might consist of a delicious farm-to-table meal, followed by a round of our favorite card game, called Casina, and ultimately wind down with a bunch of us hanging out in the living room, chatting over some cocktails.
Invariably, our father will share a story from his past, seizing a teachable moment; the chance to bridge a generation gap or two by imparting some insight to those who may possibly learn from his own trials and tribulations.
Reminiscing about growing up in The Bronx on DeKalb Avenue is a frequent topic. Because his father worked off-hours for the U.S. Postal Service in Manhattan and his mother required frequent hospitalizations, for all intents and purposes, much of his youth was spent being raised by his grandparents.
What impresses me most is his ability to recall actual events (some dating back 75 years or more), be they stickball games in the street with his childhood buddies, hot summer days spent at Rockaway Beach, or the shenanigans that took place while on weekend leave during boot camp in Kentucky. One would think that the action he is describing with such remarkable detail happened only yesterday.
When asked by one of my nieces if he enjoyed high school, a wispy smile appeared on his face before he shared with her how he used to cut classes to attend day games at Yankee Stadium; planting himself in the bleachers for a mere 50 cents in order to watch Joe DiMaggio perform his magic out in center field.
He’d be sure to follow up that story with one of perseverance, being the first in his family to graduate college (six years of night school at NYU on the G.I. Bill), in order to work days and become a provider for his future family.
Maybe because I worked in corporate for nearly 20 years prior to becoming an educator, my personal favorites, the ones I never get tired of hearing, are his recollections of being a salesman. Though most of our friends and relatives are familiar with the success he had during the latter part of his career as one of the top salesmen in the country for 3M Company, it’s those early, lean years in his 20s that I get a kick out of listening to.
One particular job that always gets mentioned is his experience selling doilies and dresser scarves to various types of retailers in the city. For those not familiar with these particular items, doilies are ornamental “mats” typically hand-stitched from lace and are placed upon a coffee or side table. Dresser scarves are more commonly referred to these days as “runners” – elongated, rectangular-shaped fabric that literally runs the length of a table or sideboard where flowers or centerpieces might be placed upon them. Clearly, they weren’t the most “hip” of product lines a fellow like him could be selling, but listening to him describe his process and how it became the foundation for a successful career in sales is truly something to behold.
I’m not so naive to think that this summer won’t include a few challenging moments that we’ll need to address. Not at all. But to have the opportunity to spend quality time together —sharing stories while sleeping under the same roof for weeks on end — well, these are the gems I’ll be holding onto.