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April 15, 2024

What Do I Know 4

By Bernie Pilarski

The fourth in series of "Unresearched Essays," short, one topic essays, written using only information from memory, that perhaps provide an opportunity to shed a little light on who I am.

Less than four percent of the households in the U.S. are "multi-generational" households. "Multi-generational" is a term used by the Census Bureau to mean those households that have three or more generations living under the same roof. Even at four percent, that is apparently a big increase in recent years owing to the influences of the Great Recession and to the influx of immigrants to the U.S. from cultures that are more accustomed to living in extended family situations.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I was unaware of these facts before I began to think about this particular article. Aside from some clerk in the Census Bureau that was sitting around one day and said, huh, look at that, there's been an increase in multi-generational households, I don't know of anybody who might have had any reason to know this information. I looked it up, and now it is part of what I know. I don't think this violates the spirit of the "unresearched" part of these essays; after all just about everything I know I learned somewhere along the line, and I don't know of any guidelines that determine how long you have to have information before you can claim it as your own.

I knew for example that the number of multi-generational households would be small just from looking around. In my neighborhood, there were what I thought to be a surprising number of such households -- mine and four others. Two have parents living with the adult children and their families, two are Sikh families. I don't know if the Sikhs are immigrants or not. My doctor is Sikh. He wears a turban and is proud of his heritage. He was born and raised in Modesto, right here in the Central Valley, so he is more Californian than I am. Just because someone is wearing a turban doesn't make them an immigrant. The Central Valley has one of the largest populations of Sikhs in the country, another fact that I learned from reading about it, but in this case, it was sometime ago and has had a longer period of time to become mine.

So there are five multigenerational households on a street that has, I don't know, forty houses. I didn't think to count them before I began writing, so I am guessing, and I really don't know the make-up of the households more than two blocks from my house. It used to be that Granny living with the kids was just about universal. Social Security changed that, giving the elderly some options to support themselves, or maybe making it easier for kids to throw the parents out, but as I was growing up, there were very few homes that were multi-generational, and it was considered the norm that you grew up and moved out.

I remember wondering about that as a kid. It seemed a bit wasteful to me, and it seemed that one advantage to family is that it built upon itself so that each generation was a little better off than the previous one. Admittedly, I was very eager to get out of the poisonous atmosphere that existed in my household. My parents had a difficult relationship. The details are irrelevant here, except to say that everyone sooner or later became collateral damage to their war. Still, in the back of my mind, I thought that families sharing resources and building a legacy should be possible, even desirable.

I told my wife before we were married that I thought my family was intolerable, but she somewhat naively thought that I was exaggerating, and she made a tremendous effort to be family, enough so that when the opportunity arose, we and my parents moved into a cozy little duplex, each to a side with an adjoining back porch. I remember coming home one afternoon from work and as I drove up to the house seeing my wife in the yard tending her garden, our daughter playing in the grass, and my parents outside busy with some task or another. It looked pleasant. It looked right. It seemed natural.

It was a disaster.

I would have been surprised if it had worked. There were too many deep-seated issues with my family. I might say I was disappointed, but it would be more accurate to say I felt defeated. Like every kid who ever lived in a dysfunctional household, I had harbored the hope that I could somehow find a way to get my parents to get along. My parents argued viciously for as long as I can remember. I witnessed no physical violence, although my mother maintained that there had been, but there were physical consequences. My mother would get so worked up that she would have attacks -- hysterical crying, bouts of labored breathing like in an asthmatic attack, periods of sullen withdrawal. The doctors would find nothing physically wrong with her. The attacks were what we might have called them back then "breakdowns," but we never did call them that because no one was willing to admit to it. Even years later when a doctor did manage to have Mom admitted to the psychiatric ward of the hospital, Dad got her out as soon as possible saying that the doctor had made a mistake.

I admit that when it came time for college, my choice was based not on program availability or ranking of the school, I simply looked for how far away I could get with the resources I had. I wanted out. I wanted a respite. However, even though I ran, there was still the child in me that held to the hope that I could one day do some good, so I chose a major (psychology) that I believed would give me the tools I needed to heal my family.

It didn't, of course, and unfortunately I learned too late that psychology would never have provided those tools. Psychiatry might have, as it would have access to the chemicals that could have been needed to effectively alter behavior, but even then, my efforts to help my family failed for the same reasons that the doctors in the hospital failed to help -- my parents would not accept help, did not want help.

My wife's openness to try to share a life with her in-laws was generous, and a beautiful gesture toward me and my idealism, but I should never have floated the idea, I should never have agreed to it.

And yet, here I am twenty years later and I'm living in a multigenerational household again. I didn't choose this one, it was simply presented to me by circumstance -- my daughter and her husband were having a baby and we had the room, then I lost my job and they pitched in so we didn't lose the house, then she had another baby and lost her job, and then we simply found that we were indeed family. Now I'm retired, my daughter is employed, the babies are growing up, indeed one is even in high school, and even though we occasionally get on each other's nerves, nobody can turn off a damn light to save their souls, dirty dishes piled in the sink become invisible to anyone but me, and I am finding that I am surprisingly adept at being crotchety, looking and sounding more and more like Lionel Barrymore's portrayal of Mr. Potter in the movie It's a Wonderful Life, still, this time it is pleasant, it is right, it is natural.

I hope there is a "happily ever after" ending to our family's adventure, but I know there are no guarantees. It will last as long as each of us makes the effort to make it last. I also wish I was able to present a checklist for success to those who want to try their own multigenerational household, but while I might be able to spout some platitudes, I know that every situation encompasses unique circumstances and challenges. The best advice I can think of comes from something I read. In his book The Jesuit's Guide to (Almost) Everything, James Martin recounts the story of when, as a newly ordained priest, he asked an older priest what he needed to know about living in a Jesuit community. "This isn't heaven," the older man said. "You're not God. Don't be an ass."

I got the first two down pretty well, but that last one is tougher than it sounds.

Article © Bernie Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2017-10-16
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
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