I have always seen families in a three tiered structure; Grandparents, parents, children. This is how my family worked growing up. We had only these three generations and activities and groupings were always divided along those lines. Kid’s tables, mommy’s day out, summers at grandpa’s, everything about my family seemed to revolve around this hierarchy. The level of respect a person automatically gained was based first upon the shelf they inhabited and second about all other aspects of character and persona. This could have been because of my child mind’s tendency towards simplification, but it seemed the natural order.
I recently lost my grandfather. Fred Morrison was a stand up, well respected, determined, well rounded man who taught his family well to love art and music and business and god and sports and travel and higher education and each other. He was 89 years old and had nothing left on his to do list as far as anyone could tell. As a testament to the respect I held for my grandfather, I said all the words by heart in his traditional Episcopalian memorial service, sang all the hymns and took communion for the first time since I refused to be confirmed and left the church at 13. If he was watching me now I know he would know I wasn’t terribly pleased with the idea, but he would have commended me doing the right thing for my family and the gathering before me.
As we left the church after the service, I walked with my mother. Her parents passed away almost exactly a year apart when I was in my early teens. I know she feels the loss every day in little ways. She points out the things she sees in the world her parents had opinions on, never forgets a birthday, and talks to her sisters much more than before their passing (at least in my childhood memory). My father’s mother also passed away when I was in my preteen phase. So that solemn walk away from the church toward the Atlantic in Narragansett, Rhode Island marked the end of a generation of my family. My mom’s Uncle Alan is still alive and doing well somewhere in Pennsylvania I believe, but my grandparent shelf was empty. So naturally, in my mind someone is going to have to fill it. But can you fill up with nothing to come below?
Narragansset, Rhode Island is a pretty beautiful place. The street we walked from the church ended at the sea wall on Ocean Street and we could see the Atlantic stretching out infinitely between the colonial homes and giant trees that lined the sidewalks. As I walked with my mom I talked about this generational shift. At first as I heard myself speaking I worried this would be one of those “millennial moments” where my selfishness becomes evident and my mother has to placate me while reminding me that this funeral is in fact “not about me.” But she was receptive to the idea. Maybe it was the distance between that day and her parents’ passings almost ten years before. She had already confronted the reality of the generational shift in her family. She had also had the feeling I was having in that moment before. When her last grandparent passed she would have had this same realization that nature abhors a vacuumm and something would need to fill this upper echelon of family structure.
With all the trappings of modernity around us and the infinite world and connectedness of internet culture, I am often struck by the immensity of the human experience. But at one point or another all those people take that walk toward the ocean with their mother. They all have the realization that their roles in life were changing without their consent, and that they cannot expect to control it. These human feelings of hierarchy and family are common to all types of familial structures I ever experienced or studied in undergrad. There is always someone at the head and you always know your position in relation to others. Every grouping and label we give ourselves is due to the human need to be part of an orderly group. Like the implicit biases everyone carries and the small talk questions people ask (where are you from? what do you do?) almost everything people perceive about each other feeds into this structure we are conditioned to build ourselves into. And so now I felt like it was not only inevitable but somehow my duty to find a place within this next tier of living in my family, to satisfy my overly anthropologized view of the world. Hey, at least I’m putting my degree to work by extrapolating vague, universalized kinship structures to hold myself to, right?
But as my generation ascends the ladder to elder we, like every generation before us, will leave our mark on the expectations that come after. Like I learned to value hard work and vocational success from grandfather, I can teach a younger generation to value self care and work life balance. The structures I know and am guided by are made of individuals, and as the individuals change so too do the lessons passed on. While this structure is always on my mind, the people in the roles are teaching me lessons learned by their application of all the lessons and experience before them on the right way to live. Trial and error are also an integral part of the human experience. The process of becoming a full person means sussing out the assumptions that brought me up and figuring out the rules of the world made by those conclusions. I don’t actually need to know the Big 5 (tennis, golf, sailing, horseback riding, and shooting, the sports I was taught as a child so I would have something to talk to my boss about) or how to water down your drink at work parties with ice so you don’t embarrass yourself, but rather I need to understand the reasons that my grandpa taught me these things. He taught me these things because he came from a humble family in Queens. He worked hard, commuted to school in Manhattan every day, eventually went to Columbia, earned a law degree and went on to tackle the world of real estate finance with gusto that has had ripples into my dad’s generation. All the while raising 6 kids with my grandma. He taught me those things because they made his life better and helped him to find his success and happiness. And of course my grandpa was a product of his era as much I am a millennial, but he was also using all of the collective knowledge of the past filtered down through his circumstance. He did things the way he did because he thought that was the best way to go about it based on who he was and what is past had taught him.
So it is not really the structure of the family I know and love that I questioned when I felt the void of my grandfather’s absence on the day of his funeral. I more question what it means to assume those roles without stepping into another person’s shoes. Being in the middle generation of my family doesn’t necessarily mean I am a parent. The circumstances dictate that. If I never have children I will still be in that generation but as another in a long line of the people who have changed what it means to be an adult. My grandfather knew what it meant to be a son and a father and a grandfather because not only history but his experience in life dictated it to him. His wisdom was built not just on the past but what he learned from it. He taught me what he knew and thought I needed. I bear that in mind as I continue to learn and grow toward what I think is right for my life. So now that he is gone I will do what is needed to honor, but also to fill the void left in the world order and keep changing what it means to climb up onto that middle shelf.