My grandparents were my parents. I admired their depression-era values – hard work, frugality, rugged independence – which seemed to have saved them from the reckless selfishness of my own parents. Not having any other credible model available as a child, I modelled myself after a survivor of the 1930s dustbowl, scorning handouts with a stiff, dust-crusted upper lip.
Peers noticed my anachronism, although they did not call it that. I spurned McDonald’s in favor of home cooking, even if that meant I cooked for myself. I loathed spending money, preferring the security of savings to the evanescent thrill of buying stuff. My grandparents recognized how different I was from their other grandchildren, and they showed their approval by allowing me to join confidential conversations about the sorry state of today’s youth, including my cousins.
When I turned twenty, I moved to the east coast, settling in a city 1000 times larger and three hundred years older than my hometown. I studied History and French, overindulged in my love for other men, and eventually fell in love with one.
For a while, their values seemed like quaint relics of an era before the dream of universal upward mobility clashed with the reality of precarious unemployment, nepotism, and internships. When I told them I was dropping out of law school after my first year, they seemed confused. Wasn’t I already a lawyer? Why did I even need a second degree? I had been in school for so long. My other cousin was selling used cars, making good money, and about to buy a house – what happened to the grandson who seemed so reliably like themselves?
How can you explain the life of a modern student to someone who never attended high school, for whom university could only ever be a ticket to a good paying job? I tried to explain it in a letter, breaking down in simple prose my decision to leave law school and become something else, more like myself. I described my new job in the arts – a lucrative, but contract position – and my plan to spend the next year abroad while I waited for replies from graduate schools. Reading it over, I realized it lacked the definitive end of a stable position with a pension plan, but is it my fault that such a position doesn’t even exist?
Last week I phoned to say hi. They asked me about my grades, inquired when school started, and wondered what I was doing for work. The letter I had painstakingly simplified, revealing everything except my three-year relationship (which I could never reveal), must have been lost in the mail. But, no, they had read it. “But,” my grandma said, “I didn’t get everything. I’m stupid. I’m stupid.”
I wanted to agree, but I then I remembered all the ways in which they had shaped me: the stubborn work ethic that had helped me endure abusive, careless parents, their frugality bordering on environmentalism, and the stability and wholesomeness of their home life. I carried this with me, but I couldn’t make them understand how living in the twenty-first century meant that these values met with outcomes that they cannot have imagined.
After finishing the conversation with my grandma, which ended with me agreeing to every wrong assumption I had tried to clarify in my letter, I was reminded of the Struldbrugs in Gulliver’s Travels. They wanted to live forever, but growing old, even in excellent health, meant becoming unintelligible to the young. After a certain point, all of our common references disappear, and we can’t understand each other.
I still see echoes of myself in my grandparents, but our shared values reach different conclusions. While they worry about gas prices, I ride my bike and do balcony gardening. While they want a big backyard, I seek out cafes and public parks with swimming pools. If I am going to keep my nose to the grindstone, I don’t want the goal to be security, but a deeper fulfillment.
My grandma is not stupid, and we are more similar to each other than she can know. However, she can never belong to the twenty-first century any more than I can belong to the Depression. My life has shifted from her range of apprehension, and like The Struldbrugs, I am learning to resign myself to mutual incomprehension. Only the passage of time is at fault.