Friday, February 10, 2006

The Way Things Weren't

Seductive as it may be to look back upon a supposed golden age of extended families and traditional marriage, once we examine the way things actually were, the story is quite different.

This comes to mind as I recall the words of my maternal grandmother Ercilia in one of the series of notebooks that she came to title her Home Encyclopedia. Writing in in May 1959, at the age of 82, she had this to say about old age and, implicitly as we shall see, extended families:

Old age is the most unfortunate stage of life: you become clumsy and unpleasant, your face wrinkled and ugly, you suffer hearing loss, you bother others with constant repetition. In such circumstances, it would be most sensible for there to be a "Retreat for the Elderly."

These words were penned three years before she died. Ercilia had gone to live with my uncle Firo and aunt Lila, who were devoted to her.

You might have thought of their house as an impromptu artist colony. Lila, a pianist, still had students and their manglings of Beethoven's Für Elise on one of her pianos will echo forever in my brain. Firo was an artist in retirement who turned his imagination to his garden and to telling endless stories to his nephew.

My grandmother was a reclusive writer, leaving behind a dozen or so notebooks of poems, recollections and famous epigrams. Firo, who himself had his share of ailments, famously brought his mother-in-law a whole variety of healthful teas.

Yet the bedridden Ercilia, my family's last 19th century grand dame, was a ghost of the lady who would never step out into the street unless she was dressed to the nines, in her stole and flamboyant black hat. She understood her decline and she obviously detested her state, wishing for her own version of an ice floe.

The same can be said about the marriages of friends and relatives of my parents' generation, whom I shall allow the safe haven of anonymity and privacy. Only now as they age and die are the torturous and closeted secrets of even the most "perfect" unions coming to light.

The newly deceased Betty Friedan described the woman's side in her localized and pointed description of "the problem that has no name" in her acclaimed 1963 work The Feminine Mystique:

It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night — she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — "Is this all?"

And the men? Who could forget John Cheever's story The Country Husband, in which protagonist Francis Weed experiences a crash landing outside Philadelphia yet can barely get a word in edgewise at home, between his bickering children and impassively efficient wife's serving dinner. It is the kind of scene that might have inspired Henry David Thoreau to write that "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."

It isn't mere happenstance that once men and women were allowed to voice their despair, 50% of all first marriages and 75% of all second marriages came to end in divorce.

When I think of appeals to a better time in the past when the aged were supposedly at peace in a Waltonesque family network of love or an age in which men were men and women were mothers in hallowed structures supposedly protected by law, I am wont to recall the title of Simone Signoret's memoirs, Nostalgia Isn't What It Used to Be.
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