Cultural education of aging rebels

April 06, 1999|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Have you seen the generation gap lately? Something has happened to that geological chasm at the heart of our national theme park. There are suddenly more people trying to build bridges.

Was it only 30 years ago when daughters decided to break from the Feminine Mystique of their moms? Only two decades ago when sons who learned to express their feelings turned their backs on fathers who couldn't or wouldn't?

Now when we look at the edge of the gap, we see those once-rebellious sons and daughters reconnecting with elderly parents. We see middle-age women who have become the working daughters of ailing elders. We see middle-age men struggling to understand and care for those more silent mothers and fathers.

Last year the quintessential baby boomer, Steven Spielberg, led many a prodigal son home across that gap. He created "Private Ryan" as if to tell his father's generation, "We finally get it." Then Tom Brokaw dubbed his parents' cohort "The Greatest Generation," as if to say, "We finally appreciate it."

Now Alix Kates Shulman, who bolted for female independence in her 1970s novel, "Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen" writes a memoir about coming home to take care of her dying parents. She became "A Good Enough Daughter."

And Mary Pipher, who turned her cultural sights onto adolescent girls in "Reviving Ophelia," now focuses on the "old-old." She describes people who live in "Another Country."

What has happened to the gap? As the huge baby-boom generation passes through the turnstile of 50, we are looking backward as well as forward -- to our parents.

Middle-age boomers have all those intimations of mortality that come with Advil and annual exams. Those who were sure we would raise our own children differently and perfectly are humbler in front of our parents. One family in four is already caring for an elderly relative.

We are not only more tolerant and more curious. We have begun to look around us and look ahead with the growing suspicion that the cultural imperative of our youth -- to break away, to be independent and autonomous adults -- is a cultural failure.

As a young woman, Ms. Shulman tells us, she too followed the command: "Leave Thy Father and Thy Mother." Over four decades and three marriages, the central theme of all her work was "to overcome dependency."

But when her parents' lurched from one health crisis to another, Ms. Shulman learned "it was one thing to free yourself of dependence on others but quite another to find others dependent on you."

Ms. Pipher, a cultural switchboard operator who hears the voices of both the middle-aged and the old-old, worries that we have "no language for acknowledging interdependency." Indeed she writes, "We want relationships that have no strings attached, instead of understanding, as one lady told me, `honey, life ain't nothing but strings.' "

On a book tour stop, Ms. Pipher talks about what the older generation still has to teach our own. "Baby boomers as a generation haven't experienced that much hardship," she says of her postwar peers. "Most of us didn't go hungry as children. Most of us didn't see siblings die of cholera or dysentery or polio. And for many of us our parents' aging and death is the first hard patch. This may be our last chance to really become grown-ups."

This doesn't happen with just a movie and a book or two. It's hard to maintain family ties over distant and busy lives. There are built-in mis-communications that Ms. Pipher describes well between the World War II parents and boomer children, especially in the way they handle emotions: the older generation "denying," the younger generation "whining."

Moreover, finding our "powerful" parents leaning on us somehow always comes as a terrible surprise. But as Ms. Pipher writes, "At some point getting old is like that game in which you fall back and trust that others will catch you. That game goes better if the person falling is relaxed and if the person doing the catching is strong and loving."

Many of us in the land of the middle-aged are finally learning this -- just as we finish teaching our own children to stand on their own two independent feet.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.