May is Older Americans Month and an appropriate time to relate two vintage stories concerning the changing relationships between aged parents and their children. One appeared in a book written 100 years ago, the second in a movie exhibited almost 75 years ago.
In “Autobiography of an Elderly Woman” by Mary Heaton Vorse, the author described what it was like to be old and a parent a century ago. She recalled the stages of her life: the dreamy days of girlhood, the years when she was raising her young and the rewarding times when she and her children were adults together and companions.
But then something changed.
“I do not know when the change came, nor do they,” she wrote. “There was a time when I was of their generation; now I am not. I cannot put my finger on the time when old age finally claimed me. But there came a time when my children were more thoughtful of me. They didn’t come to me any more, and that the time had come when I ought to be ‘spared’ every possible worry. So there is a conspiracy of silence against me in my household.”
She described living in a different dimension. She saw and understood, but her counsel was never sought and she had no ground upon which to act. “We have learned then that we can’t help our children to lead their lives one bit better. There is not one single stone we can clear before their feet.”
Though writing in the age of the gas lamp, she understood what the latest scientific research was concluding. “Very soon your children slip from between your fingers. They develop new traits that you don’t understand and others that you understand only too well.”
Historian David Hackett Fischer described the period in which Vorse lived as a time when age was venerated in early America. But beginning in the first half of the 19th century, youth was venerated and age diminished. Women, who had once rarely lived much past their youngest child’s marriage, now lived on with no clear role.
Generally, I do not think too many of Vorse’s opinions ring true today. Our oldsters today are richer, more active and more engaged in life than those of yore. But have you noticed how respectful children were of their elderly mother?
Contrast that story with the next one 75 years later. How many of you have seen the film “Make Way for Tomorrow,” which opened in 1937? It focused on an elderly couple, Barkley and Lucy Cooper, the parents of five adult children, all of whom have left home.
Bark and Lucy were about to leave their suburban cottage, which was foreclosed during the Great Depression. Retired for several years, Bark was no longer able to meet his payments and the bank took their home.
The five children did not have the room or resources to take them both in, so the family agreed on a “temporary measure.” Lucy would live in New York with her oldest son, his wife and their teenage daughter. Bark would move to a small town 300 miles from the city with his daughter and her unemployed husband.
The solution seemed perfect to the children, but Lucy soon discovered she did not fit in with her son’s striving, middle-class family no more than the heavy old rocking chair she brought with her from home.
Bark was confined to sleep on his daughter’s undersized couch and spent his time at a country store, conversing with the proprietor. But without Lucy to manage him, he became infantile and helpless.
Finally, the children came up with excuses needed to get rid of their parents. Bark was sent to California to live with another daughter, ostensibly for health reasons and Lucy would go to an old folks’ home, where she would have “friends her own age.” Bark came to New York to catch the train west, giving him and Lucy one last day together.
The two then retraced the course of their honeymoon trip in New York 50 years earlier. When the couple entered the old hotel where they spent their wedding night, the orchestra played their song, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.”
The farewell at the station is staid. Bark and Lucy grasped hands and held back their feelings in hope of sparing each other. Bark climbed aboard the train and as it pulled away, both realized they would never see one another again.
The events leading to the couple’s pensive departure were not necessarily their children’s fault. There was no public assistance at the time and the children simply did not have the means to keep their parents together. What would you have done?
Seniors, enjoy your month of May!
Contact Alex Berger at timesledge
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