Saturday, July 07, 2007
Even though we Americans live in housing units that emphasize the isolated nuclear family as the organizational unit of society, we have a hankering for belonging to larger groups. Many of us participate in annual family reunions where we organize ourselves for the day in the age-old manner of the great apes: the dean or grandparent, surrounded by immediate relatives and descendants, with less close relatives enjoying theselves at a small distance from the family leader. Many of us belong to organizations, such as churches, political clubs, sports clubs, the Sierra Club, the Masons, the Elks, the Oddfellows, and the like.
I'm trying to find a point in all of this musing. I think one point is that we secretly rebel against the isolated nuclear family model that our housing patterns tend to impose on us. We have not always lived in this way. When I was much younger, most of my relatives lived on farms. A man and his wife would live on and work a farm that had belonged to his or her parents. Perhaps a surviving parent would live with them. Brothers and sisters would live on other farms in the neighborhood. As time went on and I grew older, farmers acquired machinery that made their work more efficient. Large families were no longer needed to do the work. Children who weren't able to inherit or buy a farm went to work in a city, perhaps in a furniture factory in Grand Rapids, perhaps in a foundery, perhaps in an automobile plant in Lansing, Flint, or Detroit. These individuals were used to living in houses (farm houses) and tended to live in houses in the city. Cities became clusters of houses surrounding areas where people worked. Although jobs were plentiful they weren't necessarily permanent. A worker had to be ready to change jobs and move to a new location. Family ties became weak.
And so on, and on. I'm not going to try to emulate the work of the famous anthropologists. You can go to their books and read all about it. Instead, I'll make a few comments about my own situation.
My father was a child who did not inherit or buy a farm. His father had been a farmer, but had sold his farm and bought a small area, five acres, just within the village limits of Kent City in Michigan. Grandfather used some of his money to buy a franchise to sell International Harvester farm machinery to farmers in the area. When Grandfather died, my father's sister inherited some money. She and her husband bought a farm near Mesick. My father's older brother inherited the five acre spread, including a house and barn, where my grandparents had lived. My father inherited the International Harvester franchise. Grandfather died in 1925.
My father lost the franchise in the great depression of 1929-1930. He was able to keep the building. The franchisor, International Harvester, forced all its dealers to buy farm equipment at the same rate as before the depression. They couldn't sell the stuff. As a result, they enjoyed the blessings of bankruptcy while International Harvester stayed in business.
My father found work in the local farm bureau cooperative in Kent City. The cooperative provided services to farmers who grew various grain crops: oats, wheat, rye, and corn. They could have some of their grain ground to form cattle feed, chicken feed, etc. They could have some of their grain stored and later shipped. The Pere Marquette Railroad provided a siding for cars to contain the grain and for cars that contained coal. The co-op sold coal to villagers for use in their furnaces and stoves.
Finally, in 1933 my father received an appointment as Postmaster of the village.
I won't bore you with more details of my early life. I grew up having only a vague memory of what life is like on a farm. Occasionally I would spend some time on a farm, particularly my Aunt Ruth's farm near Mesick. I got a little taste of farm life, more of the pleasant part than of the hard part. Except for living in a dormitory during my stay at Michigan State College (now University) and for living in an apartment for four years in New York City, I have spent my life in a single-family house. Correction: while working in Washington, DC and while studying in graduate school, I lived in rented rooms. I have lived far from close relatives and have not attended very many family reunions. My own socializing involves people with similar political or recreational ideas: Democratic clubs, bridge clubs, etc.