Saturday, March 12, 2011

On life, and also The Wire: A two-part series

I am not a religious woman.

One of my grandfathers died last month. When my uncle Andy and aunt Priscilla flew in from Taiwan for what they hoped was a chance to say their final goodbyes but turned out to be for the funeral, they came into my grandma's living room bleary eyed, having spent 24 hours traveling. It was about 7 a.m. their time. My mom was running through who was doing what during the funeral -- "And Andy, I have you down for the eulogy!" "What the ... eulogy?" he said, sounding annoyed but more likely just exhausted. My uncle is a preacher and theologian; who else to give a eulogy. At the funeral home, I saw him scratching notes, trying to keep his eyes open.

The funeral, held in a Catholic church, had little to do with my grandfather or his life. To someone with no religious background, it was a series of rituals, songs and Bible readings that may as well have been chosen at random, with a casket sitting at the front of the room. Towards the end, my uncle approached the podium. In his eulogy, he never strayed from simple truths. In doing so, he not only imparted great meaning on what was in many ways an unremarkable middle-class life; he also gave me a whole new sense of clarity about my values and how I got this way.

My grandparents met in high school (where they were first and second in their graduating class), became a couple in college and married in 1950, when then were 23 years old. By 1960, they had six kids. My grandfather took the bus from their suburban neighborhood to the city every day. He earned a good living but they never had more than one car -- it must have seemed wasteful to them. Imagine that. He's working hard, he's earning all the money, but he's the one getting on the bus. The bus was fine for him -- more important to chip away at the mortgage and save to put six kids through school. He never thought he needed a sports car, or fancy electronics, or a membership at an expensive golf club, but he bought jewelry for my grandma and made sure my mom and her brothers and sisters had everything they needed. When I was young -- I had forgotten about this -- he visited his mother every Saturday and took care of all of her finances. He never complained about here I am doing everything for mom and what's my sister contributing and blah blah blah. He never complained at all, that I can remember. Life was good to him, but that didn't give him a sense of entitlement. He used the opportunities he had to go out and do the right thing, and do what needed to be done, every single day.

On its face, my life bears no resemblance to that of my grandparents. They had the house in the suburbs, wife at home (for 15 years anyway), dad goes to work in the city, church, carpools, first communions, family dog, red meat for dinner every night, station wagon in the driveway. I share a rented condo in an up-and-coming Brooklyn neighborhood. I'm single and childless at 31, have a lot of unconventional friends, a law degree, enough spare time to read and write. I eat tofu and date musicians and wear black and campaign for lefty causes and candidates and hang out in cool bars.

But sitting in that horrible suburban church listening to my uncle, I realized that I'm just like them, and my parents, and my dad's parents too. My peers don't understand why I've never been to Europe, why places like the Lower West Side of Buffalo and Bushwick and Bed Stuy mean so much to me, why I insisted on living in a barely furnished studio apartment with no TV and no car when I was in law school, why I keep the credit card debt in check and hang onto my savings and have never had my nails done or owned a remote control. They make fun, and they try to convince me to loosen up a little, but who do they turn to when they need someone to move their car, water their plants, feed their cat, do their taxes, give them legal advice ...

At times I get tired of being the boring, responsible one but when I need something, I get it and then some. When my grandfather died, I was in Buffalo visiting friends. The wake and funeral were in Pittsburgh two days later. I had no way to get there, nothing to wear, no idea what to do. My friends, and my sister, came through with everything -- rides to the store, use of their computers, a black dress, even a car to borrow to drive to Pittsburgh and back. Their generosity, and my uncle's words, convinced me that I'm not a loser for going to work when I don't want to and showing up to things when I don't feel like it, just because I said I would. In a world of selfishness and broken plans and competitive consumption and so much crap that nobody needs, I stand for the possibility that old-fashioned values still matter. It is my hope to work towards shedding the conformity and rigid gender roles of my middle-class suburban roots while hanging onto everything that is admirable about that legacy, and to build a life that matters.

I haven't gotten to The Wire yet. But I will.

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