When Luke's wedding was scheduled in my teens, Ma got a recommendation for a dressmaker to construct my gown (it ended up absolutely gorgeous; I wore it to family affairs until it fell apart).
Ma and I drove to Jersey to a two-story house; the door was answered by a smiling, middle-aged Hispanic woman, the lady of the hour. As she and Ma sat and leafed through magazines and fondled scraps of cloth, I observed the going-on of the home.
Well, people kept appearing and disappearing. I couldn't believe that such a modest building could comfortably contain all the many generations ensconced therein.
But this is where Americans and the rest of the world differ: Americans want their kids out, while everyone else doesn't understand why they have to leave in the first place.
Jennifer Conlin is living this overseas model now, as she describes in her column called "Reverse Parenting." In "Guests: Meet My Relatives (They Live Here, Too)" she describes the different cultural mores in the many lands she has spent time in.
Our eight-story apartment building in Cairo was occupied by one large extended Egyptian family ... save for us, the “odd” American nuclear family living on the fifth floor. We watched our neighbors run up and down the stairs babysitting the youngest, delivering meals to the eldest and giving birthday and wedding parties for one another in the shared back garden.
In Paris and Belgium, where we lived when our children were babies, I wondered at first why all the young mothers had older nannies. I soon learned they were the grandmothers, who either lived nearby or with them, lending a hand while their daughters were at work, which would have worked well for me as I dashed between deadlines to day care.
What’s worse, we were often mistaken for family deserters. An Italian friend once asked me what had led my husband and me to live an ocean apart from our closest relatives. “It must have been a horrible argument,” she said, sympathetically stroking the head of one of my children as if she were an orphan.
America may be (currently) the king of the heap, but there are a lot of us who are lonely. I wonder if it because a close relationship with the people we share blood with and so care about most is considered embarrassing, a sign of unhealthy dependance. We are driven to pursue extra-familial connections, but they are hard to attain.
Conlin still feels compelled to blushingly explain to visitors that she lives with her folks. Actually, it's her parents' house.
So when we finally returned “home” to the United States, it did not seem strange, as much as comforting, to initially bunk up with my parents. But then we realized the built-in benefits. There was always someone around to make dinner, collect a child, watch the dog and lend a buck, be it for the mortgage or medications. Together we can live much better, financially and emotionally, than we could apart — and that includes my older single brother who is like another parent to our children, particularly when we travel for work. Most important, despite our fast-paced life, we are able look after my parents as they slow down. In many ways, we get more space by living together. By sharing the work of each age group, we are all less burdened — the old saying, “Many hands make light work” is true — even if some of them have arthritis. . .
Sounds all good. I know many people find their families abrasive and impossible, but I getting along well with relatives isn't supposed to be effortless. What good relationship is?
“There would be a homicide in my home if I lived with my parents,” most new friends say after I have explained our situation. Believe me, there have been moments, I tell them, but so far no deaths.
Better than a deadbeat roommate.