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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Generational change

A recent post from my cousin Jean to say my Aunt Kate passed away. She was the last survivor of the generation of fathers/mothers and aunts/uncles from my extended family. She had a long and happy innings and a peaceful passing.

My brothers, sisters, and cousins are now, it seems, the elders of this tribe. We are the "old farts", as Jean puts it, for the legions of sons and daughters and cousins to wonder about. "My sister remembers the Kennedy assassination". "My dad was in Vietnam." "My crazy aunt drove a cool retro Corvair." "My Uncle was the first in the family to have an Apple IIe--before the internet."

And so on.

Except there's this huge difference between my experience of extended family and what I suspect is our kids experience, between the baby-boomers we are and the GenX's we've spawned.

The word that leaps to mind is "atomization"--the reduction of something to parts, usually resulting in annihilation. The tribe is much less cohesive than it was. I suspect we're not the only tribe to experience this.

For one thing, the tribe has spread out geographically. Whereas the tribe used to occupy the industrial regions of the US northeast--Pittsburgh, Baltimore, D.C. (plus a brief abberation into Florida), all within a few hours drive. Holidays were thus something we could coordinate, and summers at Ocean City Maryland regularly coincided with the holidays of cousins and aunts and uncles, and we'd see each other in the evenings, when the grown-ups would drink high-balls and play cards, the teens would hang out on the boardwalk and play pinball, and there'd be a big group breakfast the next day at the Lackawanna restaurant.

Geographical spreading-out was a chosen thing. Happy hunting grounds of better jobs and cheaper suburbs were always developing elsewhere--the factory-rich Ohio valley, the lush Pacific Northwest, and sexy, beckoning Florida. A better life was always elsewhere.

I should talk, of course-- the biggest bedouin, and most footloose nomad of the lot.

Funny that "westward the wagons, through the sands of time" ethos, which is so American, resonated so strongly in my family of Scots-Irish immigrants.

But it's more than the tyranny of distance and the pioneer spirit that's atomized the tribe out during the past generation. I sense people just need family less and less, or think they do.

Is consanguinity being consigned to myth--the idea that ties of blood create a special relationship that transcends ties with friends and colleagues? After all, we can't choose our tribe, and therein may feel constrained--less free--than in relationships we've chosen to have. Is this generational change, which seems to priviledge family less than it used to, a final push for personal freedom?

Perhaps too, I am seeing the past through the lense of nostalgia, as all old farts are wont to do?

Or perhaps, my boomer generation--spoiled and indulged by depression parents who were glad the war was over and the good guys victorious--are simply less good at keeping the tribe cohesive, as we set out, over last fifty years, ruthlessly to seek our fortune in a world that had been won for us.

I don't know the answer, but it's worth thinking about, as we attempt to wear the mantel of the wise elders, if we would have our kids generation learn from our experience.

I Do know, that I miss the tribal get-togethers, and the sense of deep, safe belonging it lapped me in, and which I now find no where, and may never again.

This is a picture of my Dad's family on vacation at Lake Erie in 1935. All gone now.


  1. Sorry to hear about your Aunt. As a candidate for the next generation after you I can say that the world is different, in some ways worse but mostly better I suspect. The world is indeed smaller but then we're all further away. Always remember how to use a Webcam and then learn the holographic tech when it comes out.

  2. Rob -- great blog. Spot on! I love the picture. We don't have many pictures of our Grandfather, and the ones we have are hard to see. So it's nice to see a really good picture of him. What a handsome guy! And now I know where all my curly hair comes from -- my Dad!
    He was bald as long as I knew him, and always said he got it shot off in the war! ;-) Thanks for this blog. Love, Jean