Thursday, March 17, 2011

Talkin' 'bout the Generations

I love our block in the neighborhood because it seems a little slice of our nation's culture: we are single people, divorcees, married folks and gay couples; big families and small; hoarders and horticulturists, teenagers and toddlers; renters, heirs, and homeowners; bi-racial families, adoptees, and immigrants; young people, middle-agers, retireds, and senior citizens.

Our children have grown up with their neighbors and relationships with them have shaped our daughters' understanding of the world and of life.

Two doors down from us lives J, an elderly woman, whip smart and witty. She's the kind of resident who tracks the comings and goings of her neighbors, alerts us to suspicious occurrences, and bends the ear of frequent passers-by. She'll treat you to a finger-wagging if your parking, driving, dog-walking, or general manners defy her sensibilities.

For years she held weekly yard sales, which was how we came to know J so well; she was often outside in the Southern California sunshine, surrounded by the treasures with which she was willing to part--but not for a steal. On more than one occasion I've found myself bemused, wondering if I'd been had, walking home from J's with an item I didn't know I needed for a questionably reasonable price. But she was also known for slipping Big Sis a toy for free now and then, like the stuffed Santa which remains a favorite of our holiday decorations.

Since she could walk, Big Sis has loved to dash down the block to knock on J's door and chat her up. And while the habits of her neighbors have sometimes raised her brows, J has infinite patience for our daughters, delighting in hearing their news and admiring their outfits or haircuts. In turn, they write her notes and paint her sidewalk with flowers and hearts.  It's a case of mutual adoration and affection.

When J was hospitalized two years ago, my husband took the girls to visit her with gifts of drawings and flowers. She is finally home again now after an extended convalescence across the country with her family, and we're watching J regain strength as we get to know her daughter and son-in-law. She has a chair and side table set up in her front yard where she assumes her post as neighborhood watch and greeter. Her daughter snapped this photo of J and Little Sis the other day, and shared it with me as we talked about the importance of their relationship with each other.

Our children benefit greatly from the wisdom, interest, and care of grandparents and their surrogate grannies too. All children should have these opportunities; in other cultures' family structures sharing the home with elder relatives is the norm. 

My mother-in-law shared that she had a neighbor named Mamie to whom she'd escape when she "ran away" from home. When Mamie found her little protege on the front doorstep, she'd silently pull down the tea set from the top shelf and set about listening until my mother-in-law's father came to fetch her.

My honorary granny was Elise. She was the mother of my father's college roommate, and when I was a child living in Connecticut we were invited to Captain Jack and Elise's house (with barn and horses) for weekend afternoons and dinner. Their "Mini Manor" was old and grand, with a basement full of international artifacts and funky treasures, including a mink stole which alternately fascinated and horrified me. Elise was the daughter of a diplomat; she had grown up traveling the world and regaled me with tales of horseback rides across the Arabian desert and proposals from princes. Elegant and lively, Elise was a genteel Navy Captain's wife with a mischievous glint in her eye. My relationship with her spanned decades; when I was in college and working on the East Coast and she was widowed and retired to Annapolis, I'd visit her on weekends, often bringing friends who were equally charmed by her and tempted to take her out dancing with us. I dearly loved and admired her and we gave Big Sis's middle name after the woman with qualities I hoped a daughter of mine might have too.

Watching our daughters with J, and with their middle school babysitters and younger cousins, reminds me how important our relationships are with generations ahead of and behind ours. I remember the women older than I who, when I gave birth to Big Sis, looked me in the eye and honestly confided, "This may be the most wonderful thing that's ever happened to you, but it can also make you feel more miserable than you've ever felt. Reach out; we're here." As a teacher and administrator I relish that my role includes advising teenagers and younger professionals, validating their feelings and reassuring them that this, too, will pass. My husband's nickname at the local yacht club growing up was "Barnacle," because he'd stick himself to any boat with older sailors willing to teach and mentor him. Now he nurtures another generation of barnacles. 

I find hope and inspiration in my older friends' accounts of their retirement, renewal, recovery, and rediscovery of abandoned passions.  My daughters' visits with neighbors up and down the block emphasize the significance we have in one another's daily lives.  And there's a lovely symbiosis in the patient audience our elders and youngsters provide for one another...a mutual sense of belonging, a sense of context, a sense of infinity.


CJ said...


Anonymous said...

Beautiful. What a community should be wherever one finds it.