Family priorities of the past

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 3, 2006

Lately I’ve been thinking about families and about how different their priorities were years ago from those today.

When teaching literature, I always discuss the lives of certain authors, but my students can’t understand how people thought and reacted “in my olden days.” Often students question why some married, why some didn’t, or why some waited to marry. Perhaps the biggest generation difference which I’ve seen was the old sense of family obligations and how those related to marriage customs.

As I look into the history of my own family, I see issues which were very important then but seem to have no priority in today’s society. Maybe I’m wrong. I certainly hope that I am.

After all, remember that we are in the ME generation which, I read, began in the 1970’s. Years ago a minister said that American magazines tell the whole story. We once read LIFE (featuring all of life as we knew it), then came PEOPLE (a spotlight on certain individuals only), and now we read SELF, among others, (stressing the reader’s desires and needs to be fit, beautiful, popular, stylish).

That self-centered way of thinking was foreign to the so-called GREATEST GENERATION, the people who today are ages 80-100 plus. My mother and father fell into that generation, and they always thought about others and how their decisions and actions would affect their parents, their brothers and sisters, and their children. How and when did these priorities change? Are they gone?

When my father was eight years old, his mother died in a Richmond hospital after a long illness. She was 38. She left behind a husband and four children ages eight, six, four and two.

She had grieved to see her children in Ahoskie, and they had missed her desperately. Life in 1907 was different. There was no car, and there was no good highway to Richmond, so visits were few. Therefore, she wrote letters to her devoted husband and her little ones.

After her death my grandfather eventually married, so my father and his sisters had a mother in the home again. This marriage produced a son and two daughters. In my grandfather’s early fifties, he died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving my father a VERY young man as the head of the household. Therefore, Daddy worked and brought home his paycheck to help feed and clothe all of his younger sisters and his little brother.

Having already lost the sister closest to him in age (when both he and she were in their teens), my father knew death: his mother’s, his sister’s, and now his father’s. I’m sure that this same scenario played out in many, many families during that era.

Last month my father’s youngest sister Eloise, the only one alive today of the seven siblings, came to visit in Ahoskie and told me this story. When Eloise was little, she always eagerly awaited MY father’s return from work, and when she heard his car coming down the dirt road, she ran to greet him. He gave her a hug and always brought her a piece of hard candy. She said that she loved him dearly and that he was the only father, that she ever knew. He was HER father too.

She added that years later as a teen, she stepped into Hayes-Miller Shoe Store on Main Street where my father worked, and she overheard this conversation. A man asked my father (then in his mid thirties) when he was going to marry that pretty girl that he had been dating. My daddy replied, “Long ago I decided that I would not marry until all my sisters had graduated from high school and had made their own plans to marry. My baby sister is about to graduate.”

When the man left the store, Eloise confronted my father, urging him to go on and marry now, but he refused until he saw that she was settled. Then he left free to marry my mom.

Everything has changed, hasn’t it? What can I say? Maybe we should share family experiences with our children and grandchildren and talk about family responsibility, stressing that our loved ones may someday depend on us at times, for various reasons. Or, better yet, like my sweet daddy, we should be good examples for our families to model. We today are the only ones who can help to mold and strengthen tomorrow’s families.