You could become your grandparent.


Grandmother Helveston with our family in 1949.

Growing up I spent lots of time in a multi-generational household. Both of my grandmothers were widowed, one in her late thirties and the other near 50. My paternal grandfather died in 1909 when my dad was nine and my maternal grandfather died in 1934, the year I was born. Neither grandmother remarried. Each had a long widowhood and eventually both spent their 70s and beyond living with children. My mother had five siblings, one a girl. Dad had four with one sister. Both of my parents were the youngest in their family. In earlier times, children were relied on for support by aging parents who considered their children as old age insurance. With eleven children between them this seemed to have worked for my grandmothers.

Prior to approximately 1960, retirement communities as we know them today did not exist, and as for those available the cost could be prohibitive. Life was not easy for widows left with no pension in the era before social security and widely available self-funded retirement programs. Relegating their mother to a public assistance “home” would be considered a dereliction of duty by my parents. The solution in our family was for the grandmother to live with a child. The only questions were which one and for how long?

Grandmother Fay in 1952 with the family on the day of my high school graduation.

My maternal grandmother divided her time between living with my aunt’s family in Cleveland, where my grandmother had lived, and with our family in Detroit. She spent no extended time with any of her three sons. I remember “Grandma” Fay being with us at least half the time for more than 10 years until I left home for college. She was a devout Catholic and converted a bedroom into a virtual shrine. Our house had only two regular bedrooms which meant my three brothers and I had to sleep in a large room partitioned off in the basement. Our home had only one bathroom! Somehow, we all got along.

I am sure grandmother saw and heard a lot that she might not approve of, but I never once heard her offer a suggestion or make a comment that would stir controversy. I went to bingo with her riding a city bus to St. John the Berchman Church. She played 10 cards skillfully, but I do not remember her winning anything. Dad, who said he went to the “big church”, drove her to St. Matthew every Sunday. When our mother developed ulcers, and later colon cancer Grandmother moved to Cleveland to live the rest of her days with my aunt.

My paternal grandmother lived with us for shorter periods. Most of her time was spent living on a farm with Aunt Louise, her only daughter. Aunt Louise and Uncle Greenie had no children and Grandma was a help to them. She was an accomplished quilter and often plied us with stories about reconstruction after the Civil War. She was born in the southeast part of Georgia just as the civil war ended in an area devastated by Sherman’s march.

Now with a surge of retirement communities built or planned, social security benefits and dedicated retirement savings plans, many seniors are choosing to live in communities with other seniors. The location is likely to be influenced by weather, income, and being near children.

As a widower spending extended periods with my daughters while we all cope with the dangers of COVID-19, I am seeing myself as my “grandmother”. Relying on lessons I learned from these exceptional ladies I am doing my best to be “generationally appropriate”; aka, don’t dwell on how “we” did things in the old days. We are in a new ball game and everyone has the right to manage his or her own generation. Roll with the punches and pull your weight if you can. If nothing else, don’t be a pain and don’t take yourself too seriously. Remember you have lived your life. Make room for ideas and aspirations of your children and grandchildren, the two other generations you are living with.

By Savvy Senior

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2 thoughts on “What Goes Around Comes Around

  1. Having a grandparent living in your home was the usual arrangement when I was young. After my maternal grandmother died my grandfather lived with us for a part of each year. He divided his tim between our home and two of my aunts . I loved listening to his stories about his early life . I believe children are missing a wonderful
    opportunity to learn about their
    genealogy and also compassion.

  2. It was the other way around for me. My mother divorced my father when I was 2 years old.. We went back to her childhood home. It gave us a home while at the same time solving a dilemma for my Granddad. Mother looked after her ailing mother during her final illness and managed the house for him. This mutually beneficial arrangement continued long after my Grandmother died. Multi-generational families were the norm in the 1930s.

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