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In college, I used to run across a whole body of knowledge about “continuity and change” in this field or that. It was a favorite of historians. So prevalent was it that you couldn’t even really joke about it. Someone would be certain that “Continuity and Change In the Coloration of Gumballs 1950-1975” was a real scholarly work. To this day I’m not sure it isn’t.
What that has to do with anything is this. Our families have elders who keep the traditions and set the tone for family activities, especially around holidays and special occasions. Those of us with parents still living still may look to them. Those of us whose parents have passed get to take on this role, in a world that keeps changing.
So it’s starting to be left to us to set the tone, lead by example, and show the way. Look out world!
Century of big changes
Our environment has changed hugely since we were little. If you grew up in the suburbs, you were among the first people to do so. Few people were more dependent on cars than your family. You might have known the neighbors better than your parents did, by knowing their kids.
Some places in the suburbs had neighborhood associations with real power that told you what you could do with holiday decorations. They had the presence of garbage cans regulated to a few hours on pickup day. In some suburbs you had to join a club to be able to buy into the neighborhood. It was a way to keep the place segregated in some locales.
Even in cities, things were different. The mailman knew the kids. Milk, dairy products, even eggs came to the house on the milkman’s truck. The vegetable man showed up weekly to sell fresh produce. You could phone in a grocery order. Fresh cuts of meat came in white paper wrappings. The delivery man brought the food to the house. You could even run a tab.
A simpler time in some ways
To make a phone call you had to dial. People had fewer credit cards. Folks of all ages went to religious services habitually, not just for big holidays and not just the elderly. Families ate together at least once a day. The family dog had friends in the neighborhood, as did the family cat. They went out unsupervised and hung out with their kind for a while most days.
Kids in town could get around on buses as well as on foot, not as dependent on parents as the suburbanites. All of us who roller-skated, rode bikes without brakes and played frisbee in the street did it without protective gear. We kissed our mothers goodbye when we walked off to school. Our holidays, though a Big Deal, were not as elaborate as they can be now.
Back up a generation
If you remember your Dick and Jane, you remember the old grandparents on the farm that the family used to go see. Those grandparents were more likely to have grown up around extended family than we were. They also looked really old, because our grandparents also looked pretty old. Certainly they looked older at our age than we do.
But the grandparents expected that their parents’ generation would care of their grandparents when they got too old to work. That’s because there didn’t used to be Social Security. Some of us have family memory of that in the expectation that a daughter will take Grandma in when she can no longer live independently. And this was not difficult to set up because daughter dear wasn’t a continent away. She was more likely within a few miles, an empty-nester and probably at home all day.
If you grew up in rural areas, that wouldn’t seem so strange because rural areas and their customs often change more slowly than in cities and suburbs. Small towns and rural areas have their own challenges, and people tend to watch out for each other and stick together. And, yes, mind one another’s business too. Where I live, the newcomers are ones that haven’t been in the area the required three generations. Locals says they can’t know you till your family has been around that long. Thirty years might as well be thirty days.
Our society changed
Now we all live in a very different world, united by electronic messages of the New Normal. Family dinner and talk about school gave way to soccer-moms keeping intricate schedules to get each child to some enriching activity. Adults know more people where they work than where they live. Cats can’t go outdoors, and dogs don’t run free with their friends. They go to day care or a dog park. Everyone seems afraid of failing or getting sued.
And yet there’s continuity
No matter where, how, or when we grew up, though, certain things came down through our family. Things like identity, which is made up of a lot of pieces. Our names, our religious background, how much school we endured before quitting, what kind of work we chose to do, how many kids to have. In my family, folksongs, idioms and word games got handed down with the other stuff.
When it comes to holidays, traditions like certain foods from our ethnic roots become important. Some people eat black-eyed peas at New Year’s for luck. Our “range wars” broke out at Easter, when my mother wanted lamb but my father opted for beef or ham. Why? His people had been cattlemen and he didn’t want “wool between the teeth.” So we alternated. One year we had lamb with mint jelly and all that. Every year after it was beef or ham.
When my mother passed away, her parents saw to it that we got to know our distant cousins, who always lived in the Midwest. We were Easterners; the grandparents were near Washington, DC and we saw them at least annually. So they would get us kids for a couple of weeks in the summer and one of those weeks was spent in a rented house near camping for my aunt, uncle and cousins. We swam, ate, played cards, fished and generally had a good time. We’re all still in touch, long since the grandparents have passed.
Combining continuity and change
So now, as elder members of our family, it’s up to us to model traditions that are still relevant, while adjusting to the New Normal. Today your daughter is probably working to put her kids through college, finish off a mortgage or start saving for her own retirement. Taking you in isn’t likely to be possible for her, or, perhaps, attractive to you. It’s up to you to provide for when you can’t live independently any more. Your family will find other ways to lend support when you need it.
You may find that your family is secularizing. Christmas may not be the religious holiday it was years ago. You may find new religions marrying into the family, some with different holidays. In my family we had a Jewish stepmother for a while. We worked on blending Chanukah with a Protestant Christmas It was still a time to celebrate family togetherness, ethnic heritage and customs, and fun.
Nowadays people adopt various diets for their health or for other reasons. Getting a traditional Thanksgiving feast for a family is expensive and more work than most people have time for any more. Enter the potluck. I’ve learned that vegans can make delicious dishes to share. Being careful of allergies can spark creativity in the kitchen. The family can find some new holiday favorites that way. If the important thing is getting family together to share experiences, it’s an option.
And there you have examples of continuity and change working together. Use them to support your family so they do well even as the world changes.
What do you want to see continue in your family? What challenges come from changes?