I was recently at a social event with other women in their seventies, and I realized that almost all of us had at least one parent, stepparent, or parent-in-law still living. We talked about our children and grandchildren, but we spent more time talking about the sometimes difficult and often hilarious process of relating to and helping to care for our elders. This is a relatively new problem. When my parents and in-laws were in their seventies, their parents were already gone. Years ago, they used to talk about the sandwich generation. This term seems to have been coined in 1981 and referred to women between the ages of 35-54, who had young children and elderly parents (at that point elderly meaning over 60). Now that sandwich generation has turned into a Dagwood concoction – with great-grandchildren, grandchildren, children, and parents all out there looking for love and support of various kinds. And the stress is not all on the women.
This is all made more difficult by the fact that most often families are stretched out across the country or the world. Dropping off a casserole once a week isn’t an option; neither is babysitting regularly so your married children can have a date night. People of our generation can, and often do, move to be close to at least one other member of the family, but that still leaves others in far-flung places, others we try to keep in contact with, visit when we can, and for whom we feel both guilt and empathy.
And it is only going to get worse as life spans increase. I have written previously about how much older grandmothers are now than they were a couple of generations ago (“The Age of Grandmothers”). Our children waited to have their kids; in my seventies I have babies among my eight grandchildren. What does this all do to the concept of family? Who gets priority – the nonagenarian or the new mother? And in such situations, can we even effectively measure need?
I recently read a novel by Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter. It is in the voice of an old woman, a Vollendungsroman about old age and the winding down of life. She does go back and tell us the story of her life, but from the point of view of the old: “This is the story of my life, that while I lived it weighed upon me and pressed against me and filled all my senses to overflowing and now is like a dream dreamed. So close to the end now….”
This excellent tale reminded me that some families have been more stable in location and attachments than our generation is. Hannah Coulter lives in the Kentucky farmhouse where she raised her family, next door to her in-laws and her husband’s uncle. The sadness of her life is that none of her three children stayed on the farm, and there is a touching scene in which the last son tells his father, Nathan, that he is going to graduate school:
There was nothing more to say, Caleb didn’t need a graduate degree to be a farmer, and Nathan did not say anything. He went on eating. He had his work to do, and he needed to get back to it. Tears filled his eyes and overflowed and ran down. I don’t think he noticed he was crying.
The book’s provisional happy ending comes when a black sheep of a grandson returns to the family home to try farming. I don’t know what the author thought, but the reader is far from sure that the situation will turn out well.
Of course, there was no expectation that our children would stay close. We educated them, hoped they would become adequately and gainfully employed, and spend at least some holidays with us. Common wisdom among many oldsters is that it almost never works to move to be close to your children. They may ignore you; they may move themselves. But I wonder sometimes. I love my privacy; I was never much of a baby person. But as I spend my time among the old, I wonder what we have lost. Hannah Coulter is sure that she has lost much, but that her children have lost even more. I am not sure. There is no way to be sure.
This week’s story is a fairy tale for old folks: “Tale of Two Grannies.” These grandmothers live in an enchanted village where the children and grandchildren never move far away, but their experiences are not the same.