When my former neighbors’ great-grandson learned that his grandmother grew up in a home without air conditioning, he bombarded her with questions: “How on earth did you keep cool?” Listening to her explanation reminded me of my own childhood experiences dealing with hot summer days. She told the 11-year-old that the nearest thing her family had to an air-conditioner was a shady spot beneath a weeping willow tree.
This 60-something-year-old neighbor was one of the horde of grandparents who was attempting to parent a granddaughter’s child. For her, the experience was much like riding a roller coaster without an operator. The child had been left without supervision when the young mother was put in prison for repeated drug offenses. My neighbor was the only family member to step forward and assume the burden.
The basic problem was that the child had lived a hand-to-mouth existence for his entire life. He had never known what it was like to have three meals a day, a permanent bedroom to sleep in or a regular schedule for school attendance. His mother seldom had a permanent address, and the family moved from place to place every month. They slept wherever the mother could find an empty bed.
During the days when this great-grandmother was my neighbor, and I watched her try to untangle the web that had entrapped their relationship, I realized how difficult it is to bridge the gap that separates three generations. Life has moved at such a swift pace over the past half century; the separation involves so much more than the number of years. The America in which this great-grandmother was born into and grew to adulthood in is so radically different than the America this young boy knows.
In the great-grandmother’s lifetime, she experienced a shared basic value system with her neighbors and her community. Homelesssness was virtually unheard of because family members sheltered each other, and it was not uncommon for several generations to lodge in the same facility. Children who did not live in two-parent households had relatives who considered it their responsibility to help keep the families secure.
The 1960s signaled a new direction in American society. The Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements brought radical changes, including the way some families structured themselves. Many men became homemakers while women became the family’s principle wage-earner. Unfortunately, along with role-changing, a lot of clean dishes got thrown out with the dishwater. Instead of focusing on the common good of the family, many members disconnected and began the trend that would lay the foundation for the “me” generation.
So my neighbor’s great-grandson began his life in a slip-sliding generation that was trying to make up its rules as it went along. Without level-headed parents and a strong, well-grounded educational system to guide the way, lots of people got lost and drifted in and out of the good life.
I moved away and lost track of the family, and my former neighbor got sick and had to move into a nursing home. But, over time, I have met others who are treading down a similar path. There’s nothing more tragic than broken families, and there seems to be more of them today than ever before.
I’m hoping that social historians will be able to pinpoint all the ways we went wrong in letting this generation down and give us some guidelines to help us deal with future generations. Surely, we can do better.
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