I can report that my parents are still doing well, despite the virus that’s threatening us all.
For the past few years my parents have lived here by themselves, retired and advancing into their senior years but otherwise happy and active. But now their oldest son has returned, so, at least temporarily, that makes three of us.
I recall the days long ago when all of us lived here, including my brother and sister. But now my sister lives with her son in Rochester. Under normal circumstances, my parents would visit them once or twice a week; now, under the cloud of pandemic pandemonium, perhaps only once every other week.
My brother lives with a cousin of ours in my uncle’s house in Fenton; he still comes over here each weekend to work on his current car project. My uncle himself, however, has lived in his sailboat down in the Florida Keys for some time now. I haven’t seen him in years.
My father’s mother, who is my last living grandparent, lives alone up in Midland. It’s been some time since I’ve seen her, too.
In these coronavirus-stricken days of isolation, what I find myself pondering about often is distance. Yes, social distancing and all that, but also its metaphorical aspect. Specifically, the distance between members of one’s family.
I think about a pair of brothers who served as my hosts while I was traveling through Kolkata, India, both of whom have the first name of Muhammed. They have wives who are also sisters to each other, and all of them come from the same ancestral village in a neighboring state; both wives had been arranged for them by their late father. The brothers’ families, including children, all live with each other in the same old apartment building, along with their aging mother. This is a norm in this part of the world.
We use the term “nuclear family” to describe the indivisible family unit of parents and children. But in Asia and elsewhere, kin from a much greater spectrum seem to remain close to each other with a steely bond that I would describe as “nuclear.”
As shown above, this most manifests in the number of generations and family branches that reside with or close to each other. In countries such as these with radically different economic circumstances from ours, it just makes more sense to stick together. Everyone helps each other out, and if one shall rise, the family must rise with them.
The mindset, of course, is that family comes first; the self is secondary. I imagine that this was once more so a reality in the Western world as well, long before its abundance of wealth and convenience materialized.
Here and now, many older folks move into retirement homes because, in most cases, they don’t even think about burdening their children’s families with the sometimes grueling amount of care they require and impinging on their happiness.
In Vietnam and elsewhere, this is simply not an option. Parents always continue living with one of their children’s families – typically the eldest son – as they age. Even if it’s feasible, one would be considered an extremely selfish and ungrateful child if they placed their parents in a nursing home. Filial duty is sacred.
It’s obvious that families with such arrangements have more intimate ties, too. During much of my time in Asia, I met many a young person who said that even though they dream of traveling and working abroad someday, the idea of being removed from their families was difficult, if not impossible. And even those already living apart from their families expressed how they speak with them on the phone every day, which at the time made me reflect on my paltry once-a-week calls to my own parents.
Another trait of higher family intimacy stuck with me. In India and Bangladesh, between extended members of a family, the exact nature of one’s relationship is not as important as you and I might hold. Many times I heard friends casually refer to someone as “brother” when they were in fact a cousin, or even a friend. Someone invited me to meet his “uncle,” which turned out to be his father’s cousin. (I’ve never even met my father’s cousins nor know their names.) And so forth. I think some of my hosts thought it a bit funny when I kept asking if their “sister” was really their true sister or not.
Experiencing all of this created small fissures in my own perceptions, even a slight feeling of discomfort. In this culture, we hold as an American prerogative the belief in individuality, the ability to leave one’s own family for a time in order to “find oneself” and “build one’s own life.” With my family financially secure, I’ve taken plenty of opportunities to chase that spirit of independence abroad. Having strong family commitments hasn’t entered my reality yet. I hesitate to think about how they could curb my freewheeling lifestyle right now.
(In saying this, I realize the irony of my being nearly 30 and living with my parents at the moment.)
But then I often wonder if we as a culture are missing out on something crucial. If we depended on each other a little bit more for support, for shelter, for love, for everything, how much happier would we be? Could we achieve more than we currently do? Would our hearts be warmer?
One of the Muhammed brothers in Kolkata noted my age, which he reasoned was the optimal time to get married and settle down. These days, I’m sure that I am one of many who are in my age range and still haven’t even thought about stepping into this chapter of life yet. However, Muhammed raised a point that I had admittedly never considered before.
“At this age, your children will be mature enough to take care of you once you are older,” he said.
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