August 10, 2011
As a fully assimilated first generation American, I am emotionally connected to my immigrated parents’ first cultures. It is part of my sentimentality and love for my parents. As a child of immigrants, I sometimes feel that I am peering at the heart of American society partially as an “outsider.”
A similar phenomenon holds for me when I look on the “inside” of large families. I am a child of a nuclear family. A nuclear family is made up of a set of parents and one or two children. In our case, we were like an island, without relatives in the same state or even country.
There were two of us children, our parents, their very few adult friends, and no relatives whatsoever. All the close relatives were in Russia, dead. My mother and father came to this country at ages 19 and 21 respectively. My brother is five years older than I and was too far removed to be involved with me. So, I was somewhat like an only child.
Our small household was not noisy. In fact, with two working parents and two latchkey children, the home was almost silent. Even gloomy, until my parents appeared at dinnertime. It was a safe comfortable household and neighborhood. My brother and I learned to be alone, and to be comfortable with our own company. In that respect, we had the same temperament.
When I look at families with large numbers of children and lots of relatives circling around, I feel that I am peering in from the outside of society.
I wrote a novel, inspired by my parents’ lives in America. They worked very hard outside the home, and I thought their lives were deprived of a certain American way of life, that they were always outsiders. But one day when I was about forty years old, I happened to ask my mother, “Did you have pets in your childhood home?”
She answered, “Yes. We liked the dogs.”
We? And they had dogs, like other families. We did not have pets. Again, We? Suddenly a big, robust, noisy family life opened up like the curtains of a play. My mother rarely spoke of her siblings or her family life. No wonder, when World War I came and then the Russian Revolution. Nevertheless, there was an earlier time for them all. There were eight children. Perhaps my mother was looking at us, her offspring, as being deprived. Now I was the outsider, and my mother was on the inside.
My brother and I, in our adulthood compared notes one day. Neither one of us had any concept of what an aunt or uncle or cousin was. It took marriage and children before we understood anything. To this day, it is completely out of the question for us to address someone in a letter as Cousin—. It is too foreign because it came too late.
I wonder about the experience of other children of nuclear families.