A Gap-and-a-Half by
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(184 Stories)

Prompted By Mind the Gap

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I celebrate my niece Elizabeth’s relationship with her grandmother, my mother. Elizabeth also has a close relationship with her parents, my brother Allan and sister-in-law Oly, without a hint of a generation gap. In my heart I am envious because I did not have that comfortable relationship with my parents, having grown up at the height of the generation gap era, with additional family dynamics complicating matters.

My parents seemed stuck in attitudes about half a generation earlier than my friends' parents, hence in my household there was a gap-and-a-half.

Why the huge difference between Elizabeth’s and my experiences? Some of this can be attributed to the profound social changes happening in the 1960s. In addition, Allan and Elizabeth have more easy-going temperaments than my mother and I, which helps, and Oly is all about nurturing. Given our different temperaments, my mother and I would have clashed at any time in history, but the era exacerbated the conflicts over clothing, lifestyles, you name it. Disagreements broke out on a daily basis, it seemed.

During my teens, when I got to know my friends’ parents, I was puzzled by their relative liberalism compared to my family in dealing with their kids. There was still a generation gap, but not the same level of rigidity. For me, no candy and soda in the house (I am grateful now for that), no eating with adults until the age of 7, no sleepovers at other girls’ homes (I never could understand that), no wearing stockings until I was 15, no dating until I was almost 18, and then only Jewish boys, which meant no dating at all. Any of this cause social problems? Too bad. All this American teenage stuff was narishkeit (foolishness) anyway and didn’t matter, according to my parents.

The trouble seemed to worsen as I reached young adulthood. At that point I began to realize, when I compared my parents to my friends’ parents, that my parents were more like my friends’ grandparents. My parents seemed stuck in attitudes about half a generation earlier than my friends’ parents, hence in my household there was a gap-and-a-half.

The History

My grandparents came from Eastern Europe, and while they were very loving and supportive of me, they brought their attitudes from the old country. My parents married young and weren’t exposed to other environments, and I believe they bought into an older generation’s ideas without thinking too much about them.

The gap became its widest once I graduated from college and began to make my own way. My parents came to pick me up to take me to their home, even though I had told them that I’d found an apartment with a roommate. I had won a scholarship that covered my tuition for a graduate program at Berkeley, but my parents told me I could live at their home “for free” as long as I followed their rules. After all, it was not appropriate for a single woman to live independently from her parents.

Instead I went to the apartment, started a part-time job, went to graduate school, and got very hungry at the end of each month. When I decided the graduate program wasn’t for me and intended to drop it for a full-time job in advertising, my parents begged me to come home and continue, because academia was a good career for a woman, and advertising was not. Our relationship was troubled and rocky for almost the next 10 years, leading to periods when we hardly communicated at all. I found these breaks necessary but hard, and thinking back, I missed having a support system.

Closing the Gap

One event finally upended the status quo: Allan’s elopement. He had his minor breaks with my parents, but not at the same level as mine. He fell in love with Oly, who is from Peru and not Jewish, and at the time was afraid that if he revealed this to my parents, they would become so incensed that they would talk him out of marrying her, and he would regret it forever. When my parents found out, they were upset that he’d married Oly, but absolutely flabbergasted about the reason the couple had eloped. Were they really that unsupportive as parents?

I stepped in and told my parents that we perceived their opinions as pronouncements, their style was authoritarian, and they didn’t permit any discussion. I said I would welcome Oly to the family even if they didn’t. To their credit, my parents did a lot of soul searching and began to understand how the generation gap they had exacerbated had alienated their children. They still had their opinions and differences with us but became a lot more tolerant as they aged.

By the time Elizabeth was born in 1990, the generation gap was less intense. Allan and Oly did not want Elizabeth to go through what we had, and they made a real effort to give guidance balanced with flexibility and empathy. Their actions paid off. Elizabeth had a happy, if not perfect, childhood, and is a delightful adult. While I am envious, I am also very glad for this family, and grateful that at least one kid didn’t have to grow up with a generation gap.

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.


Characterizations: moving, well written

Comments

  1. Thanks Mare for sharing your story and brava to you for standing up to your parents’ authoritative rule.

    As a parent myself, now of an adult child, I’m still often at a loss trying to understand him and we often end up arguing. Once at a human potential workshop I attended the leader encouraged us to forgive our parents – Parents, she told us, do the best they can. That may sound simplistic but it helped many of us put some of our demons to rest.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    Your description of your “old world” parents inflexibility is very interesting, Mare. They really were Old World and old school and made unreasonable demands of you, but that was what they knew. My mother and I tousled a bit over my clothing when I was in high school, but I didn’t wear anything outrageous. I never got my ears pierced because she wouldn’t allow it. She didn’t know about sexual liberation at Brandeis (though my father did) because I was far away and didn’t discuss it with her. I did fight with my parents over dating non-Jewish boys, but I did it anyway. I promised to marry a Jewish man (though my husband is so non-observant that it almost didn’t matter).

    I am happy to hear that you stood up for your brother’s decision to marry Oly, and ran interference for them with your parents and they were capable of change by that point in their lives. Also very happy to hear that Elizabeth turned out well and is great blessing in your life, without that generation gap.

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Betsy, in my mid 20s my parents moved back east for 18 months, and with that distance came a better understanding, along with some development of strength on my part while having compassion for where they came from.

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    I could really relate to your story, Marian. It’s interesting that my parents became much more understanding of their grandchildren’s generation. In fact, I remember my mother excitedly telling me one of her grandchildren had moved in with her boyfriend. Where was that mother when I needed her?

    • Marian says:

      Laurie, it’s almost creepy how similar our experience was. My mother was thrilled when my niece moved in with her boyfriend, now husband. Unimaginable when I was that age.

  4. John Shutkin says:

    Very interesting observations, Marian. And, as usual, quite perceptive. By coincidence, one of the classmates I just bumped into at our class reunion was also the produce of very strict, authoritarian European parents (I learned this through someone else.) When my wife asked me if her parents were pleased that she had gotten into Radcliffe (and later both Harvard Med and Harvard Law), I replied, “I doubt they were pleased. They simply had epected it of their daughter.” I’m afraid that might sound depressingly familiar to you.

    • Marian says:

      You got it, John. Long into my adult years my mother explained that not only were achievements expected, but they could not be praised because this would attract bad luck, rather like the evil eye. Although she didn’t believe it intellectually, it got baked in to attitudes.

  5. Dave Ventre says:

    I’ve always considered myself very fortunate that my parents were far more progressive than they had any right to be, considering their backgrounds and upbringings. THEIR peers and elders…sheesh, I heard things that would have fit right in at gatherings of the KKK or John Birch Society.

    There must be a recessive iconoclast gene….

    • Marian says:

      Interesting, Dave. Considering how authoritarian my parents were, they were surprisingly liberal politically, my mother in particular due to her working class background. Why this didn’t translate to family dynamics I don’t understand.

  6. Khati Hendry says:

    You tell this story so clearly and well.. I can relate to much of what you experienced, although it was tempered by less of a shadow of the Old Country. Getting distance and perspective, sticking up for your decisions and independence, and finding some rapprochement all sound so familiar. There may have been angst at the time, but healing and learning is part of a life well-lived.

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Khati. I think I and others were better off having to go through this “gap” relatively early and gain our independence at a much younger age than the current generation. My niece, who is in her early 30s, is having some issues that I had in my early 20s. Sometimes earlier is better and then you have more time to heal.

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