There are times when you look at someone and feel the force of an inexplicable bond, your blood ‘take to them’. The contact is swift, fleeting, but your blood does indeed warm as your eyes encounter each other and the feeling is acknowledged in passing–family. Actually, I met someone like this who actually WAS a cousin of mine. This, of course, does NOT include those characters of dubious origin who desperately try to claim your attention. That’s because the word ‘family’ in my book, is far too important to spit out like used orange seeds. These days, the word can sound like a wound if the name is notorious for illegal, unwise or uncaring actions. But not all Chadees will hang – sorry – flock together surely. Family is also a joke to those children being parented by the streets, youth centres and hospital wards. Not to be forgotten are those being parented by the television while adults provide books, clothing, food and not much else.
The extended family used to provide an invaluable safety net for all the slings and arrows of life. The grandparents or other related elders would provide both supervision and advice to children and parents. People were taught to respect their elders, or their bottoms would ‘take the cake’ (I STILL don’t understand what that means. In my family, it had very painful connections to a wooden spoon or swizzle stick). Of course, the elders themselves were vigorous, active and interested in the lives of their families. In quite a few families, children may have been raised by any number of adults at any point of their lives. This was not a case of being ‘dragged up’-as against being ‘brought up’- by any means. After our mother died, my siblings and I plus cousins, at varying intervals, were under the care of grannies, tanties or cousins when our father or their parents were busy. In its best version, it was a nurturing cocoon that strengthened and emboldened as much as it secured and protected. This is not to say that there were no casualties, but all was done to ensure that the needs of the children were met. Books, toys and clothes were to be taken care of because ‘so-and-so’-cousin or neighbour even-might need them.
However, progress seems to have made victims of us all. When materialism replaced generosity and instant consumption replaced delayed gratification, the old ways were on their way out. There was no longer any need for advice because we ‘knew’ everything we needed to know. Old people knew nothing about the ‘modern’ world or lifestyle. No one looked to them for advice and the children no longer wanted to visit because there was no cable television. ‘Structural adjustment’ did not help things either as it ‘blossomed’ along with urban crime and the onset of the drug culture.
‘The Two Grandmothers’ is a story in Olive Senior’s “The Arrival of the Snake Woman”. It illustrates the predicament described above. The narrator has two grandmothers: Grandma Del, black, poor and traditional, and Towser, fair-skinned, rich, ‘swinging’ and ‘modern’. Guess which one she abandons? Right, Grandma Del and her hymns and her kerosene lamp and frilly dresses is left behind for Towser, charm school, Disneyworld and Miami. Of course, along the way the reader notes how the narrator gradually comes to despise the rural living and black people of Grandma Del’s neighborhood. Like her father – Del’s son – there is nothing there for her. But even Grandma Del does not escape Senior’s ironic scrutiny. The reader also learns that for all her support of the church and its values, Grandma Del herself was never married and suffered the chastisement of her community for having a child out of wedlock. (A word about the wedlock thing: I think we need to get some perspective here. I am not in favour of fatherless children by any means; I was raised by my own after all. )
But people need to decide what is best for the child. If the man is good lover material-or not-it doesn’t automatically follow that he will be a good parent. A dysfunctional parent-whether male or female-can only make the job harder in the long run. This is what prompted one young wife to pick up her baby and return to her parents’ home. Her husband had chased her out into the road with a knife the weekend before (No, it was NOT me!). Actions definitely speak louder than words. If the man is a REAL one and not someone borrowing the name for the sake of gender identification, there wouldn’t be any hassle about what is due to the child. I would like to think that a man would offer some support even if the child weren’t related to him, just to make sure that there was one less vagabond on the streets. I have even discovered a few-a very few.
This is not to say that the extended family is on its last legs-far from it. Instead, it has advanced in terms of meaning and function. It seems to operate most effectively in times of crisis, when the well being of one or more members of the nuclear unit is threatened. Days past his thirty-fifth birthday, my father found himself a widower with four young children, from six days to ten years old. Likewise, it is not unusual for divorced children to move in with their parents or divorced siblings with married relatives. Friends are also in the mix when it comes to surviving and overcoming life’s blows. Women have banded together, with their children, and created a new family unit. I know of at least one case where three friends have pooled their resources and bought a house together where they raise the six children they have between them. In yet another case, working grandparents still contribute to the households of their adult children who are studying abroad. Never forget the caregiver. It was one such who enabled a single parent to complete a degree(Yup, it IS me!), and another kept the child for some months while the mother studied abroad.
It’s unfair to blame men for every flaw in the family structure. The fathers who stay home to take care of their children while their wives are furthering their careers are not mentioned. They do exist, along with the men who raise their children by themselves. There are even single fathers who actually choose to play an important part in the lives of their children, even if they no longer have a relationship with their mothers. There are even men who share household and childrearing tasks equally. We don’t hear enough about them. It is equally unfair to blame all mothers for spoiling their sons or letting fathers ‘get away’ with no responsibility for childrearing. This is still very much a man’s world despite the strides being made by women in all areas. How much a female parent is able to do is dependent on her education, earning capacity and – that’s right – family structure.
How do we stop the rot? We keep on cutting it back and nurture the good stuff. There used to be a feature on one of the Sunday newspapers on families that work. There was also one on how married couples met and stayed together. We need more like these. We also need to make an issue of promoting family activities. When I was a child, there used to be a special family price at the drive-in. All those family pizza deals aren’t so bad either. Employers can offer day of afternoon care of some sort to make parenting easier on their employees and hence boost productivity. Government, of course, could do a lot by actually implementing some of the goodies put into the White Paper on Education. Of course, the first thing they’d have to do is to pay the teachers…