What’s your family like? I asked my students, a bunch of 11-year-olds studying English in the academy where I work. Soon I’d instruct them to open their books to a text about a typical British family. But first, in what’s called a warmer, I urged them to talk about their own families and then to generalize about the typical Spanish family. “Typical” in Spanish is nearly the same, típico. To show what I expected, I talked about my family when I was growing up.
I was born in a town in Ohio where my dad worked, though neither of my parents was from there, and while I was still very small we moved to another town in another state, Missouri, where again we had no relatives. And then to another town and state. And then again. “We moved for my dad’s work,” I said. “That’s quite common.”
Both sets of grandparents lived far off, I told the kids, and although some of my friends had grandparents living in the same town, most had at least one set at some distance. It’s different here in Spain, I continued. Isn’t it? All of you live in Gijón, but were all of you born here? Were your parents?
They got the idea, and eagerly recounted their histories and those of their parents. Yes, Spanish families are different, they agreed, and then told me what I had expected to hear—that they saw cousins every week and grandparents, in Gijón or a nearby village, at least twice a month. Some saw grandparents every day after school. I sighed, thinking I was lucky if I saw my grandparents twice a year. My students lived in apartments, not houses, and did not have gardens. A pair of sisters had divorced parents. Another girl lived alone with her mother. Half were only children, half had one sibling. Half had pets, either a cat, dog, bird, or fish.
“You have a pet fish?” I wanted to explain that a fish is not a pet because you can’t hold it and hug it and curl up with it. But what do I know—if you’ve got no warm dog or cat to whisper secrets to, then maybe the searching gaze of a fish in a bowl counts as the kind of loyal understanding one has a pet for.
“No hamsters?” None.
“Do your grandparents live with you?” No, they nearly shouted.
Their parents were too young to have parents who needed caring for, but one day, I ventured, they would find the old grandparents moving in.
“How do you say residencia?” a student asked. I knew what she was talking about; they seem to be everywhere, and I said the English was nursing home or retirement home. She nodded and said, “Old people can live in—nursing homes?”
“Nicer to live with a daughter or son, though, isn’t it?” I suggested. “In a family.” But they did not agree. “No!” they declared.
I was perplexed. I have Spanish friends who after a divorce moved back home where their parents could care for the grandchild and for them, too; friends who have lived their entire married life in half of a duplex, with just a wall between them and their parents, affordable only with the combined incomes; and I know grown children still in their childhood bedroom who will one day be able to afford their own apartment with the money saved up from a dozen years of living at home as a wage-earner. Such a tangle of generations, everyone doing what they can because someone else can’t—grandparents watching babies and children watching grandparents, work done away from home by job holders and at home by the others; the old sharing the secrets of the old ways and the young sharing knowhow about newfangled gadgets. This greater family is the best thing about Spain, living among each other and with so many favors done back and forth for so long that no one knows who is indebted to whom. Why would anyone want to go live in a nursing home?
The children had an answer. The old people, they assured me, can watch what they want on TV or play Parcheesi or cards all day long with their friends. They can stay in bed as late as they please. The kids grinned at the luck of it. “No homework! No housework! They don’t even have to work like our parents, or make their beds the way we do!”
Look at you, I thought, all so certain, so sure. They were still nodding agreement with each other and grinning at me, full of confidence and energy. I grinned back, thinking I could use that confidence and energy. How fortunate they are! Their notion was different. From the envy in their voices, they clearly thought it wasn’t youth that was wasted, but age. And on such old people!
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