extended families

I have written before about the experience I had growing up in the same house as my paternal grandparents. When I was very young, I had an inchoate sense that my mother and father and sister and I were living in Gran and Grandma’s house. But later, after my father got out of prison and after Gran was forced into retirement after a horrific automobile accident, the terms and conditions seemed gradually to shift, and I started to feel that the house was somehow now our house and Gran and Grandma were living with us. But in fact all along we were just a family living together, and never at any point was this an odd thing. It was common enough in our social class — working class, lower-lower-middle class — in those days that I don’t think either of my parents were ever the least bit ashamed of it, though surely they were at times frustrated by it.  

These days, though, there can be great shame associated with living in extended families, because of the peculiar sense of independence that so many of us have. Young adults don’t feel independent unless and until they are living away from their parents; and as for the parents, as they age they dread the loss of independence that would accompany having to move in with their children. 

There is at least the chance that the current crisis will change those feelings. Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of Americans are going to lose their jobs in the coming months. Not all of them will have homes to go to — “homes” in the Robert Frost sense of a place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in — but those who do will have a chance to revisit our assumptions about the necessity, indeed the very value, of independence. And that may not be an altogether bad thing. 

three stories to reflect on

Ross Douthat:

The sexual ethic on offer in our own era should make Catholics particularly skeptical. That ethic regards celibacy as unrealistic while offering porn and sex robots to ease frustrations created by its failure to pair men and women off. It pities Catholic priests as repressed and miserable (some are; in general they are not) even as its own cultural order seeds a vast social experiment in growing old alone. It disdains large families while it fails to reproduce itself. It treats any acknowledgment of male-female differences as reactionary while constructing an architecture of sexual identities whose complexities would daunt a medieval schoolman.

From the Economist, “An entrepreneur brings professional grieving to eastern Congo”:

Deborah Nzigere, a 65-year-old Congolese woman, is nervous when she sits down for her job interview. Her hands are clasped tightly together, her words are slow and deliberate; she is blinking too much. “What inspired you to pursue this career?” asks one of the two people on the interview panel. Her answer is garbled, she mentions money. When asked to give a demonstration, she giggles awkwardly and leaves the room. She comes back in crying.

“Bettina,” she howls and throws herself to the ground. “Bettina, Bettina, why did you leave us?” She thumps the floor with a flattened palm, her body convulses with sobs as she moans and wails. The interviewer’s eyes fill with tears. Mrs Nzigire has got the job.

Christopher Mims in the WSJ:

Through Papa, college-age young people can sign up to help seniors by going to the store, doing housework or just hanging out. For these “pals,” Papa works on the same gig-economy model as Uber or Postmates. Ten hours a week of Papa service is covered for members of Humana ’s Medicare Advantage insurance who are in a pilot program in and near Tampa.

Ms. Sumkin’s Papa pals take her on trips to the store since she can no longer drive, and they also help combat her loneliness. Ms. Sumkin says that, aside from occasional visits with her children and grandchildren, her only regular human contact is a bi-weekly stretching class and time with those insurer-provided friends. “They’re all very nice and, you know, I’ll converse with them and find out what they’re doing and studying and so forth,” she says. “It’s for me a very important service.”

members of the family

C. S. Lewis, from “Membership”:

The very word membership is of Christian origin, but it has been taken over by the world and emptied of all meaning. In any book on logic you may see the expression “members of a class.” It must be most emphatically stated that the items of particulars included in a homogeneous class are almost the reverse of what St. Paul meant by members. By members he meant what we should call organs, things essentially different from, and complementary to, one another, things differing not only in structure and function but also in dignity. Thus, in a club, the committee as a whole and the servants as a whole may both properly be regarded as “members”; what we should call the members of the club are merely units. A row of identically dressed and identically trained soldiers set side by side, or a number of citizens listed as voters in a constituency are not members of anything in the Pauline sense. I am afraid that when we describe a man as “a member of the Church” we usually mean nothing Pauline; we mean only that he is a unit – that he is one more specimen of some kind of things as X and Y and Z. How true membership in a body differs from inclusion in a collective may be seen in the structure of a family. The grandfather, the parents, the grown-up son, the child, the dog, and the cat are true members (in the organic sense), precisely because they are not members or units of a homogeneous class. They are not interchangeable. Each person is almost a species in himself. The mother is not simply a different person from the daughter; she is a different kind of person. The grown-up brother is not simply one unit in the class children; he is a separate estate of the realm. The father and grandfather are almost as different as the cat and the dog. If you subtract any one member, you have not simply reduced the family in number; you have inflicted an injury on its structure. Its unity is a unity of unlikes, almost of incomensurables.