Unlike most of my peers growing up in the ‘50s, I didn’t have any extended family nearby: no grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins to celebrate holidays or share Sunday dinners with. They were all back in Philadelphia, the place my parents had boldly left in their 20’s—in 1939—for my father’s new job in Chicago.
We’d travel back usually once a year, by car, and only very occasionally would some of them come to visit us. No one had much money for anything beyond that, and, so, except for the Christmas gifts that arrived faithfully by mail each year, I had little sense of who these people were, especially the older ones.
All except one: my Great Uncle Vince, a life-long bachelor who came to live with us after his sister, my paternal grandmother, died. The two of them had shared an apartment in their later years, and, in a moment of utter sentimentality, while back in Philly for his mother’s funeral, my father sobbingly told his 70-plus-year-old uncle to come live with us in our small suburban home near Chicago, a place he’d never been.
“Us” at that time included my mother, who wasn’t consulted about this new arrangement; my teen-age brother, who ended up having to share his small bedroom with Uncle Vince; and me, clueless at 12 about how my life was about to change.
Mostly it changed because Uncle Vince, not especially able-bodied, couldn’t do much of anything but sit in the living room all day, except to regularly walk up, cane in hand, to the local bar to drink too much. (At his wake, not too many years later, our family was shocked to see how many people showed up that we didn’t recognize, bar pals all.)
As a result of this experience—and because of his innate stubbornness—my father would insist throughout the post-Uncle Vince years that he would not expect his children to take him in or to care for him as he aged.
He remarried not long after my mother’s death at 50 and lived 40 more years, pre-deceasing my stepmother at 95. And in all that time, true to his word, he never asked his kids—or hers—to do anything for him, including as he grew older.
Well, except once.
I was pretty surprised when the call came in 1999 or thereabouts. Legally blind and unable to drive, my father and stepmother had finally reconciled to moving into a retirement facility, one that offered independent living, assisted living, and nursing care. My father the pragmatist wanted all levels available when/if needed.
But when the choice of an apartment was finally made and the papers signed—at a suburban facility right across the street from their two bedroom condo—my father thought it’d be a great idea if I moved into their condo, rent-free, while they lived directly across the street. Even though it was some 25 miles from where I lived on the far north side of Chicago, a city I'd left the suburbs for in my mid-20's, and where I had long-established professional and social relationships.
I’m not sure how long that late night phone conversation went on—though some of it surely involved my attempt to understand his request. I mean, my father was pretty mentally fit, even into his 90’s. Couldn’t he see what a lunatic idea this was?
Eventually he did, though would never admit it. But what I can see—now, from this distance—is how he was unable to confront the depth of this transition, of moving from real independent living to a faux, if quite pleasant, version thereof.
More, he could not imagine actually moving, and of going through all the stuff he and my stepmother had accumulated over 30 years together, the assorted clutter jammed into every corner of every room and under every bed and stick of furniture.
He also couldn’t imagine expecting me, asking me to help him in that awesome, arduous task.
And so instead I volunteered.
For more on what our aging parents may or may not expect from their (aging) children, click here: