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Under one roof? It's getting crowded

Posted: Tuesday, March 23, 2010

First, there were hammers banging. Then paint brushes. Then carpet. Soon, we had a new room above the garage.

And my grandmother moved in.

It was the late 1960s, I was 10 years old, and I had no idea that we were going against the grain, that the trend back then was for families to splinter, senior citizens to take better and longer care of themselves, kids to move away younger and younger.

All I knew was that our family had grown by one more member, and we now had three generations under one roof - the kids, the parents and the grandma, which made a difference in who sat where in the car, what desserts mysteriously disappeared overnight and how long you waited outside the bathroom door.

This past week, a new census report raised a lot of eyebrows. In the past decade, there has been a reshuffling of the family deck: a 30 percent rise in U.S. households with at least three generations of family members. People are moving back in. Generations are consolidating.

So I guess we were ahead of our time.

Of course, today this has more to do with money than anything else. Senior citizens have a harder time paying their bills, and their children have a harder time shelling out monthly checks for retirement or nursing homes. Kids can't find jobs, even college grads, and so they return to the house in which they grew up - or they never leave.

What it means, ultimately, is more people under one roof, with a broader span of years between them. Braces and dentures. Gray hair and dyed hair. This is lamented as a regrettable consequence of a feeble economy.

But I'm not sure it's a bad thing.

I learned a lot from having our grandmother in the house. For one thing, it beat hiring a baby-sitter we didn't like. And there was someone else to take us to school or drive us places when our folks were working. There was another family member at the school plays and another person to cry to if we were hurting.

I got to watch how my mother related to her mother, and I saw that mine wasn't the only generation that found the one before it confounding and, at times, infuriating.

I also heard way more family history than I did with just one older generation under the roof. There was no shortage of conversation. Dinners were louder and more animated.

In short, we were bigger. We had more of a sense of ourselves. My grandmother spoke about an immigrant's neighborhood, sitting on fire escapes and drinking egg creams, and my folks talked about listening to the radio during the Pearl Harbor attacks. They all spoke about relatives I'd never met and never would meet, my bloodline, my family tree.

It wasn't all "The Waltons." But I knew who I was and where I came from a lot more once my grandmother called our home her home.

There's a wonderful film called "Avalon" that follows an immigrant family in the 20th Century. At the beginning of the film, it is Thanksgiving, and a small city home is jammed with uncles, aunts, grandparents, kids.

At the end of the film, years later, it is Thanksgiving again, and a family of four sits in a suburban kitchen eating with the TV on.

Which are you?

Yes, it was cramped, sometimes annoying, and it was no fun waiting for a shower or hearing my grandmother snoring. But years later, when she finally moved out - and we joined the more conventional trend of "shrinking household" - I can tell you this: It got quieter. It was less funny. We were still a family, but we were ... smaller.

So the economy may be driving more of us under one roof, and we may whine that our independence is withering. But for centuries, kids, parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents have been sharing space, and when it stopped, we began complaining about the collapse of family values. Maybe the economy, of all things, is offering us a small fix.

Even if that favorite piece of pie is gone when you open the fridge.

• Mitch Albom is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Readers may write to him at: Detroit Free Press, 600 West Fort Street, Detroit, Mich. 48226, or via e-mail at malbomfreepress.com.



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