The Picture of An Old Lady

“Do you see my babies?” she asked.

It happened again: I visited with another nonagenarian, and found almost the exact same circumstances as last time, this time without the added agony of trying to sell a house in a depressed housing market. Otherwise, to the question: “And where are your children, that they may take care of you?” the answer came, “I have not heard from them in 46 years.” Loneliness again.

The last time I told the story, I told it in the form of a parable, trying to lighten the burden; this time, not. It’s a plea: for the love of everything virtuous, either have children yourself, or failing that, buy them.

We do not criticize, but we are instructed: the Depression era produced a class of people (not the whole generation, but a subset of people within it) who knew only work and saving. The work took them away from child-rearing, which is shorthand for civilization-making, which includes care for the elderly. The government, in their childhood, promised to take care of them, just so long as they promised to work hard and save money. It was a covenant, a treaty between two unequal parties, the one everlasting and potent, the other quite mortal and limited in power. And they did: they worked hard and saved money. And the government did: it took care of them with financial payouts.

I think they are surprised that they are lonely. The stories are endless narrations of work, work, and savings, followed by a nod of assent, as though some hidden authority had just shouted in excited affirmation, “Good work, Maude!” Present company excluded, this present evil generation is hence summarily judged. The doctors know nothing, the politicians know nothing, cleaning ladies know nothing, pastors know nothing, social workers know nothing, drivers know nothing. I cannot know for sure, but I think this round of summary condemnation is fear talking, some sort of stored-away childhood doubt percolating forth, namely (if I may be so bold to put a name to it) the government didn’t deliver what it promised.

What did it promise? Externally it promised financial subsidy. What were the internals? What did the vassals hear? Did they hear that the government would love them? And what was the price for government love?

There is an economics lesson, here, and I think last time I was too clever by half, disguising it too well in the local economy of Lockport, New York. A family structure is an economic structure: there are numerous exchanges occurring constantly, mostly in the emotional world, but also in the material world. The fewer the traders (no children or friends), or the less the trading (make Jack a dull boy), the less economic activity there can be, emotional and material. When the government or any other sprawling, everlasting institutional entity (e.g., the manufacturing plant) and a vassal make a covenant with each other to fulfill the economic structure of a family, then an entire marketplace has been eradicated, not the most insignificant quarter of which is love for neighbor.

Who is your first neighbor? The person you wake up nearest. Who are your alpha neighbors, those who are immediately next to nearest and dearest? Beta? Gamma? Do you have a neighbor network within which to exchange love and all its accoutrements?

“Do you see my babies?” she asked, pointing to two framed 8 x 10 portraits. They were lovely babies, smiling, adorable; nieces, I assumed. “I cut those out of magazines,” she continued. “They were so adorable, I couldn’t resist. Who knows? I could be a grandmother five times over, and a great-grandmother, but I’ll probably never know.” And she became silent, listening for that hidden authority to shout affirmation.

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2 thoughts on “The Picture of An Old Lady

  1. Where are you finding these highly atypical people, who DID HAVE CHILDREN but managed to alienate them so thoroughly that the kids not only don’t take care of them but stopped communicating with them decades ago? The post-Depression work ethic had nothing to do with government policy, and the postwar culture in which these people probably raised their kids was extremely child-oriented. I get that it’s risky not to have a bunch of kids–I have none–but I don’t get who these stories are about.

    1. David Duke

      I’m finding them in nursing homes, senior living centers, and alone in their apartments and homes all over the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario and Niagara, Erie, and Chautauqua Counties in Western New York. Perhaps they are atypical, since I have only my own sample size to go by, but my training to work with them comes from family systems theory.

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