From Generation to Generation: All We Need Is Love

Sometimes I wonder if my niece, Laura, and I would be so close if her dad (my brother) hadn’t died from a rare blood disorder when she was in high school. A death in the family sometimes dissolves even the most loving bonds. But when my brother died, I think we all got closer. Still, I adored Laura from the moment she was born. I was in college in New York City; my brother and sister-in-law lived about a mile downtown, a short bus ride away. I shared an apartment with four other young women, and we had one phone. (Yeah, those days.) When it rang at 2 .m., all my roommates could guess: the baby had been born. The next afternoon after classes, I took the bus across town to Mt. Sinai Hospital and saw what I then considered the most beautiful baby ever born. (Since then, my own two kids and Laura’s two have competed for the title.)

As Laura grew, I adored her even more. Remember those times when you were a teen and you just couldn’t talk to your mother? Laura was lucky to have me and another aunt, my sister-in-law’s sister Heidi, close by. Then, some time after she finished college and settled in Boston, we became friends. It helped that my kids adored her. My daughter in particular has become particularly close with her. In fact, Laura promised she’d have a baby if Ariel chose a college near Boston. Sure enough, baby Ben arrived a few days before Ariel’s freshman orientation. Someday Ben will tell stories about how he spent many days of his babyhood in a sorority house (being totally doted on by a bunch of wonderful young women). Harper arrived in time for Ariel’s senior year.

So this is how we have it now: a mishmash of generations who love and adore each other. I know Ariel tells Laura stuff she won’t tell me — back atcha Ariel, if you don’t think I talk to Laura about you! Oh, also add into this my sister-in-law, Zelda, who is, well, a sister and a friend.

As I mentioned in a previous post, over February vacation, Laura and the kids came into the city for a day of fun with me, Ariel and Zelda. We began at Dylan’s Candy Bar, had lunch at Alice’s Tea Cup and then went on the the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Harper had enough after about two or three mummy cases. At first she was a little spooked — she is only 4 1/2. But after a while she informed us that there was nothing to be frightened of: after all, mummies are only dead people wrapped in tissue paper. (Love the tissue paper idea — I guess that’s what it looked like to her.) 7 1/2-year-old Ben loved the medieval armor exhibit. I mean, take a little boy and show him some interesting looking swords, and he’s in heaven.

Ben wanted to see the musical instruments and ancient coins, but Harper had had it, and we headed out to the park next to the museum where we all sort of pooped out on the bench and talked a while about what was going on in everyone’s life. Then, too soon, it was time for them to catch a cab back to the train.

I think about everything that went into making this such a special day: I live in New York City, where there’s always something fun to do. Laura lives in Boston, not too far away. Zelda lives in Lancaster, PA, also not too far. Ariel is in the city. We all had a day off.

But more than that there’s this funny generational thing that makes Laura my niece and one of my best friends — and Ariel and Laura first cousins and best friends. Ben and Harper worship Ariel, and I can see the day when Harper and Ben are there to babysit Ariel’s kids. There we were, over 60 years separating the youngest from the oldest of us, with so much in common, so much to share.

And there’s a lesson here: These days with all the articles about how Baby Boomers are selfish and not planning on leaving their kids an inheritance (um, first let us get over the college payments and plan our retirements; then we’ll think inheritance), when I look around, I see different generations working, playing and getting to know each other. Some people like to make theories about colliding generations. I’ve been shrugging them off as trouble makers. When I was small, there were always moms we wanted to hang out with and friends of our moms who were so interesting to listen to that we’d hang out with them.

With all this talk of Gen Y, Gen X, Baby Boomers and Traditionalists (or whatever we call the generation of those born before 1946), we’re all just people. As divided as this country is politically, I find that when we don’t talk politics, we have a lot in common. So that’s what I think we should concentrate on — building community and relationships, in our neighborhoods and so on. These days we have online communities. Are you reading this? Well, welcome my friend. Leave me a comment, and I’ll reply.

As usual, I’ll leave you with some things to think about — and comment on.

  • What are the best ways for building communities that include several generations?
  • What are your inter-generational stories and memories?
  • Hop/skip generations used to be so common in the days of large families, when uncles and aunts would sometimes be younger than their nieces and nephews. Is there anything like that now?

And that neighbor of yours, the kid who’s driving you crazy with his skateboard, the old lady with her cats — take a moment out of your day and start a conversation. It’s a beginning.

The Weird Sisters

3/4/12 On days when my older brother buried my favorite doll in the backyard (this happened more than once; your dad was a typical big brother, dearest Laura), I remember strongly wishing that I had two sisters instead of a brother and a sister. The three female protagonists of this new-to-paperback novel by Eleanor Brown re-kindled my fascination with all-girl families. Rosalind, Bianca and Cordelia — we meet them as adults — return to their parents’ home in a college town near Columbus, Ohio because of their mother’s struggle with breast cancer. None of them wants to be there — even the oldest who thinks she does. Over the course of the novel, the characters all learn more about themselves and each other. The potential for closeness, we find out in a wonderful surprise flashback toward the end of the book, has always been there. But they are different in their outlooks, passions and even lack thereof. Brown fills out each character with believable detail. Remarkably, she uses the first person plural, “we,” for much of the book. The “we” generally includes only two of the sisters watching the progress or mistakes of a third. However, as those who make up the “voice” shift, the voice is fluid, and somehow the “we” becomes a kind of “close third” person narrator — not the up close and personal of a first person singular “I,” but also not an inclusive, single but plural point of view. Brown’s narrative technique is original and surprising and works so well in a story where the siblings have always been, but not fully recognized that they are, part of a unit. Even when bonds unit them, they remain individuals.

As part of the promotion for the book — which has worked out really well seeing that today The Weird Sisters made it to the New York Times trade fiction best seller list, not to say it didn’t deserve that on its own merits — Penguin Books USA (twitter handle @PenguinUSA) began a Twitter book club, with the hashtag #readpeguin that has met at random, but announced, times during the past few weeks. I have been able to be there for a few of the discussions, as has Eleanor Brown (twitter handle: @EleanorWrites). Since people participating have been supposedly reading only a few chapters at a time, there has been much speculation about future action: “Maybe the father has a secret too,” someone wondered. Interesting to me, though, have been discussions about the family. No real spoilers here, but when the distant father, able to communicate only through quotes from Shakespeare’s plays (even the Sonnets don’t count), to the point that his letters are pages taken from the plays with lines highlighted and commented upon, shows his love for the girls, people said, “oh, he’s a loving father.” No, he’s a horribly distant father who loves his children. He is an emotional cripple. His relationship with his spacey wife, also loving but not quite there for her daughters, excludes the girls and, I believe, induces the problems the young women all have with relationships. Twitter readers also fixated on sibling birth order. These women embody some stereotypes about the oldest, middle and youngest siblings in a family. That’s OK. Society has an impact on who we are. But believe me, the stereotypes can be turned on their heads. After my brother’s death from a rare blood disorder 20 years ago, I became the oldest child, even though I was, technically, the youngest. Brown’s siblings, interestingly, also step out of their stereotypical birth order roles when circumstances demand new behaviors.

Personally, I find the academic, book-loving family interesting. A couple of years ago my son and daughter were in the back seat making up a conversation, complete with fake accents, between Nietzsche and Freud. “You know, other families don’t do things like this,” my son’s girlfriend piped up from the middle seat. My kids have grown up in a highly intellectualized atmosphere with a philosophy professor for a dad and an English Ph.D. for a mom. Yeah, there’s a lot of sports watched on TV, and my daughter and I were pretty faithful to Project Runway. I mean, unlike the Andreas household in Weird Sisters, we don’t just live in books. Still, there’s a warning here to all parents who don’t get down to the nitty gritty of their children’s worlds: Pay attention to your children, when they’re little, when they’re teens, when they’re adults. Everything they say and do is important, so don’t miss it the way pater and mater Adreas have in this book.

I had a few quibbles with the plot, but they’re minor. In one scene two of the sister smoke pot together and lose their inhibitions. I felt it was a little contrived. I’m also not convinced that in the end everything seems romantically on the right path for all the sisters. For one of the women (no spoilers), considering where she’s living, what’s she’s done and the path she’s chosen, a love life does not seem to me to be a definite. I think Brown could have done better here. Otherwise, though, the book is nearly perfect. It will be loved by book clubs that have not yet discovered it because there is so much to talk about. Women especially will be drawn to its pages. But — yoohoo, men out there: open the covers. Great characters and a compelling plot will greet you. (Click on the cover picture to get to the Barnes & Noble website.)

Our Children, Their Pets

If you had asked me a few months ago, I would have stated in the most definitive tone, “I do not like animals.” Of course there have always been exceptions. When I met my husband, he had two poodles, a standard and a miniature. They were the sweetest things going. Of course, it was kind of love Howard, love his dogs. But Zeno and Tyronne were love-worthy. Definitely. A year into the relationship, I had become their primary caretaker — because that’s what happens. Which is why when my kids were little and asked for pets, the answer was always no. I knew I’d be the one walking the thing on freezing mornings or cleaning its cage, whatever. When my son was about eight, he asked for a pet rat. Being under the delusion that kids change quickly (which they do, but not in this case), I said, “sure when you’re 12.” That may have been the worst lie I ever told them because when my son was 12, I told him no way. And they both kind of resented the no pets policy ever since. (My son did have pet goldfish twice. The first one died in its bowl over a weekend; the second went upstairs to a neighbor’s tank, where it probably died immediately, but those generous-hearted men bought another so my kids could go visit.)

Pretty soon after my son graduated from college and acquired an apartment in Brooklyn, he also acquired two ferrets: Julius Caesar (known as Caesar) and Dizzy Rascal (known as Dizzy). I kind of hated these two animals at first. I mean, what does a ferret do besides

Dizzy and Caesar in their hammock

“ferret around”? Not much except smell a lot. Still, my son loved these two guys, and I developed a certain affection for them, enough to ask about their well-being and sort of take a peek into their cage when we would visit. Maybe I should also mention that we were willing to help foot the medical bills when Caesar swallowed something and needed surgery. It wasn’t just my son we felt for; we cared about the animal. Dizzy died a few months back at the ripe age of 6 1/2 — the lifespan for a domesticated ferret is 5-8 years. So now I kind of worry about Caesar alone in his cage. I may not love this animal, but I care about it.

A year ago, my daughter and her boyfriend adopted a dog they found listed for free on Craig’s List. I was beyond dubious. Craig’s List? They had to be kidding. But they went to look and fell in love with a cute many-breed mutt, definitely part dachshund: short legs, but a larger body and a tail that’s always upright and wagging. I wasn’t so happy when

Landry under the table, hoping someone drops food

after their visit to the vet, they informed me she had said Landry (named after the New York Knick) had one of the worst cases of fleas she had ever seen. Even when I met him, he was just, basically, a dog. And when it became clear that Landry would be living with us for a while, I was resigned. But a lot has happened to Landry in the year since my daughter and her boyfriend brought him home. To begin with, he has learned some commands and words and responds when we speak.  (I am pretty sure that the owners who either lost or abandoned him didn’t speak English.) He does tricks like “shake hands” and jumping on his rear legs to reach for a goodie. He is a top “people greeter.” When someone he knows comes in the door, he wiggles the rear part of his body and wags his tail like mad. Say the word “treat” or “dinner” and he’s all ears. Landry almost never barks. He was not meant to be a watchdog. But he’s a great companion. He likes having his people around — though not too close to his face.

So while I’m happy my daughter and her boyfriend are starting a new chapter in their lives, I will miss Landry a lot. Not that I want another dog.

How do you feel about your grown kids’ pets? Are they kind of like — dare I say it — grandchildren?

Meanwhile a few tips about grown kids’ pets.

  • They belong to your kids. What they eat, when they eat — it’s all up to your kids, not to you, even if you have had plenty of experience.
  • Give advice only when your kids ask. Again the pets belong to your kids.
  • Let your kids know how great their pets are. My daughter actually loves it that her dog was happy to be with us. My son appreciates that his dad plays with the ferret.

Sound a bit like I’m talking about grandchildren? Let me know in your comments.

We Teach Our ADULT Children How to Drive

My 25-year-old daughter doesn’t have her driver license. If you’re from New York City and you just read that sentence, you probably aren’t too shocked. Many New Yorkers never learn to drive. There’s no need to. Subways and buses, which go to most parts of the five boroughs, run 24/7. (Or not, depending on the on-going service disruptions due subway construction. This recent article from the New York Times captures our sense of entitlement, frustration and dependence.) In fact, I had a much easier time of the teen years than did my friends in the suburbs, ex-urbs or car-dependent urban areas: I did not have to worry about my kids driving drunk. Sure I had to worry about all the other things parents of teens do — teens do stupid things and can end up in trouble, or, worse, hurt. And it wasn’t until my son was in college that he mentioned that one night their senior year of high school, his friend Ben had taken his grandparents’ car (with permission) and driven them all to Great Adventure down in Jersey. But back to my daughter. While many New York City non-driving kids do learn in college because getting off campus becomes imperative, my daughter went to school outside of Boston, and was within walking distance of the “T.” (My daughter had one friend in college at Emory who owned a car before she managed to get her license, and got in trouble at a routine traffic check because she was driving without a license. As I said, young people can have lousy judgment.) So here she is, at age 25, without a driver license and maybe about to move out of New York City. (Yes, I wrote those words, and I’m sick over it, but that’s another blog.) Her permit had actually run out. But she took care of that. And now we (and her boyfriend) have been giving her driving lessons. I must say that this time around–she actually did try half-heartedly several years ago–she is fantastic. She steers well, keeps to the speed limit, and shows great confidence and determination. She came upstate for a few days and drove the long way to the supermarket (six miles) and the very long way back. We had even thought of making a trip to the outlet mall in Lee, MA on Friday. I90 may be one of the easiest interstates around. But we woke Friday morning to snow, and that killed our outing. No more driving lessons from us for a while. No outlet bargains for us.

The Marriage Plot

1/15/12 When the Fall 2011 lists came out and I saw the Jeffrey Eugenides had a new novel, I was all “ooo, that.” Then came the so-so reviews, and my interest flagged a bit. Still, a couple weeks ago I downloaded it to my iPad, and, wow, those negative reviews? Totally wrong. First a warning: The Marriage Plot is an “intellectual” novel. There are lots of references to philosophers and writers that were in vogue in the 1980s, when the action takes place. Also, the protagonists are students at Brown University. So we have that. Well, yeah, I read most of the stuff that Madeleine and Mitchell and Leonard drone on and on about, including Roland Barthes. I did get my Ph.D. in English just when everyone at Yale was paying more attention to Derrida and Lacan than to the words writers were putting on the page. Luckily, I was at Columbia, and I could get away with writing a dissertation that totally skirted the semioticians, structuralists and the deconstructionists and just talked about the stories on the page (the Arthurian romances that had originally been inked onto vellum). So in many ways, this trio and their friends are living my worst nightmare, and I found Eugenides’ dissection of that era’s literary wobbly house of cards amusing — and painful. I wouldn’t want to have to read that kind of criticism again; I wouldn’t want to be a graduate student again; I wouldn’t want to suffer love the way these young people do. Suffer they do, but no more than the characters in a Jane Austen novel. Except in a Jane Austen novel, as Madeleine’s senior thesis points out, it’s all about getting married in the end. Not so here in a world where bi-polar disorder was still treated with lithium and homosexuality regarded as not quite normal. Again, it is the 1980s. Garth Risk Hallberg’s essay in today’s New York Times, Why Write Novels at All,” touches on an issue relevant to this novel and to baby boomer writers and readers: just who are these Gen X people in the novel. They’re too young to be us, too old to be our children. Reading this book is a bit like visiting the zoo and watching some species that resembles us but isn’t quite us. Don’t expect to be gripped by this novel. But do expect to be moved. And a little heartbroken. (Clicking on the book cover will take you to the Barnes & Noble site.)