Creative Writing – The Other Thing the Greatest Generation Did

The Other Thing The Greatest Generation Did

W. James Jonas III

December 2005

This was the first Thanksgiving Bob and I were spending at my grandmother’s home.  Bob was not the first significant other to meet my Gram over a holiday meal, but it would be the first time she had an openly gay couple at her table.  While my mother and father enjoyed hosting most holiday gatherings, Thanksgiving Day, in an aging Southern California community, was still the domain of my Gram as it had been when my grandfather was alive.

Gram was a WASP (not the kind that live in suburbs raising 2.4 children going to Rotary but the kind that were unsung heroes of the Army Air Corps in World War II).  These brave women operated planes, that were often lacking in safety equipment, with difficult training assignments.  For the most part, they were flying to support the combat missions of their equally brave, but often more noted, male aviator counterparts.

Grandpa also served in the War as a logistics officer, and he met Gram at a 1945 social gathering.  They married soon and selected California as the place where they would build a home and a family.  Grandpa did not want to return to his childhood home in rural Texas, and Gram was eager to avoid the farm in West Virginia.

“I trust you appreciate how open minded we have all been to let this happen” my mother selected as her opening utterance after desert and coffee.  “Perhaps you would like to elaborate dear,” was my reply.

Billy Jean (my mother) and I have been lovingly but openly hostile with each other (after the meal, of course) since the days I brought girls to holiday gatherings and proceeded to get very drunk.  “Well you know this is a traditional family holiday, and given that your lifestyle is such an abomination, I think it is very open of us to all be together.”

Billy Jean had just given me an ideal exit opportunity from an uncomfortable homo-hostile family moment.  The meal has concluded.  You speak a few lines offering another point of view and then, with pretended affront, step away.  But, I was not done with Billy Jean just yet.  We still had a topic to discuss and a little surprise at the end.

The issue of the traditional family, keeping couples together, and the whole debate about family structure had been part of my thoughts for the last several months.  Texas (our home) had just passed a constitutional amendment defining marriage in a very gender specific way.  While that had very few practical implications for our lives, the discussion of the traditional family got my attention.  What can you do to keep a family together?  What is the most stable family structure?  What generation had done the most to contribute to the instability of today’s families?

Ever since I stopped drinking, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners were my times to engage my family in explosive points of view that were of current interest to me or share a bit of news.  This day would follow that pattern.  Bob had endured similar performances at my mother’s house a few times, but it would be new for him to watch my grandmother as a participant.  Gram was very sharp, very open-minded, and did not seem to mind it when her daughter (my mother) would get intellectually cornered.  Dad seemed to be somewhat amused at our exchanges as well, but I really think he merely preferred these sessions to the drunken screaming matches of past years.  In any case, Dad had already left the house with my brother and grandchildren in tow to get ice cream and a Starbuck’s (yes, we had already had coffee and desert).

“Mother, you are right.  I thank you for your understanding.  We really need to be tolerant of the forces that have damaged the traditional family.  It is so hard for couples to stick together in these stressful times.  There are many pressures and it seems like there are few sources of stability.”  At this point, mother was ready to accept my apology for my lifestyle, but she was not ready for what I said next.  “And so it is very open for all of us to have allowed Gram to be with us on such a holiday when her generation did so much to eliminate the traditional family.”

I smiled at my Gram, she was not sure she agreed with everything I believed but she had heard these thoughts before.  Our weekly visits over the phone always included diverse controversial and new subjects that I was exploring, and she knew this would be my topic for Thanksgiving and was in on Billy Jean’s surprise.

“What do you mean, my parents DEFINED the traditional family.  They saved this country.  You will never imagine how hard they worked to assure all of us can enjoy freedom and prosperity.”

“Of course mother, I understand what you think you know, but let’s look at the stereotypical family today.”

“Most would say that is a man and a woman living in a house with a couple of kids.”

“So, this traditional man and this traditional woman get married when they are in their late twenties or early thirties, and they begin having kids.”

“Now, let’s look at the stressful times in the life of any person.  What is the first time turmoil is part of a young person’s life?”  Billy Jean had no problem agreeing with Gram and me that it is puberty.  “What support mechanisms are in place to support young people during that fragile phase called puberty?”  Billy Jean let me have it, “Well, if the child’s parents are not divorced or GAY, there is a mother and father at home as well as the school teachers, and hopefully a church to help them through this difficult patch.”  Gram’s digression on the stupidity of public schools today and mother’s recent falling out with the Methodist church (yes, I too thought that denomination was the biggest tent possible) gave me the opportunity to refocus her response to the  key point – the family provided support during this turmoil, and the answer clearly was an older person, usually parents.

“Are there other times of similar stress or difficultly?  When is the next difficult period?”  We all quickly agreed it was the early years of marriage or trying to build a long term relationship.

“What about the next difficult period?”  Billy Jean wanted us to agree it was birthing children, but she soon saw the limitations of that selection compared to raising children and the related challenges.

Mid-life crisis, menopause, and general acceptance of not being a kid (the not so fabulous forties) was agreed as the final period of challenge.

“During these challenging periods after puberty, who can these men and women turn to for support?”  Billy Jean really said it as if she meant it, “Well, each other of course!”  “Let’s think about this, mother.  Two people are drowning and your answer is that the most appropriate person to help them is each other? (Billy Jean rarely gets my analogies on the first pass.)  Great, you are going through turmoil and your best and only source of support is someone who is going through the same or similar challenges you are going through?  That is not a traditional family; that is a recipe for failure.”

“Who in the hell came up with such a stressful system where the whole family unit staying together is depending upon two adults getting along while they are both going through many changes and challenges?”

“Did it always work that way Gram?”

“No, my parents never fought in the house.”

“Why?”

“Well my grandmother would not allow it.”

“Ok, you mean they never fought at Thanksgiving because your grandmother was a strong person and kept every one in line during the holidays and such.”

“No, my grandmother was in the house 24 seven.  My grandmother lived with us, and things were very different when that older generation was part of the family at every moment.”  It finally struck me why the Walton’s all turned out so nice (yes, even Mary Ellen).

“Was it the same when your grandmother was growing up Gram?”

“Yes, it was the same for all of the generations of your family that were in this country and those ways were brought over from the old country.”  Before World War II, I am told the “old country” was called Germany.

“So, what happened to change that Gram?”

“Well, we changed all that.  You see, your grandpa and I wanted to have a different lifestyle that was free from the old ways.  Most everyone our age felt the same way.  We did not need to return to the farms and ranches where we grew up.  By working in the war effort, most of us had learned a skill, earned money to pay for an education, or found a mate, so we got away from our folks.”

“It never really occurred to us that we needed the old folks around.  Some divorces happened, and there was always someone to blame.  Our parents died fairly young so the issues of nursing homes and all of that did not really face a lot of us raising families in the 50s.”

“So you see mom, the Greatest Generation took the traditional family out of existence.  The stability of one man and one woman staying together and building a stable family unit has been a failed proposition.  However, the historical model of stability is one of multigenerational support.”

“By the time the children of that “great generation” were selecting where to live, there was a generation’s worth of traditions, houses, and cultural mores that went against sharing the same home with your folks.  Only young kids (or those that were not capable of supporting themselves) shared a home with their parents.  What was forgotten was that none of us can truly support ourselves.

We are very comfortable letting extended groups provide us food, light, and general protection, so how did we get off track about the structure of the family?  Well it was because Gram’s “Generation” was billed as being so damn great!  They defeated the Nazis and destroyed Japan; they must know everything.  It never occurred to your generation, mother, that your parents might have gotten it wrong.”

Gram was laughing because she loved it when I was sarcastic, but she also agreed with my point.  “We just never appreciated the stability of the families we came from.  We wanted to make it on our own, have our own homes, be independent, and we never realized how different our homes were until we were in them.  By then, it was too late.  Our homes were too small and far away from our folks; we were busy with raising kids; and if it had occurred to us to go back to the old ways, we would have looked out of place; besides, mother and father died in 1954.”

“Before you all returned from World War  II, many folks in America lived with their folks.  After you all started the suburban life of the 1950s, only adults who were really sick or poor lived with a relative.  The fact that it takes more than one generation under a roof to create stability was overlooked along with the supporting biblical references that are so obvious (if you read them with an open mind).”

“Well, I guess that is true if you don’t value standing on your own two feet and being independent.”  Billy Jean smugly summarized.

“Mother, all of us value some independence, but some of us are more interested in the stability of the family.  That is why Gram is going to be living with us as we raise Bob’s children and teach them about the traditional family.”

I can hardly wait for Christmas dinner.

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