THERE WERE no cousins at our Thanksgiving table, no aunts or uncles or grandparents either, which undoubtedly casts my family in the small minority of Americans who did not reunite with the clan for the holiday.
Where are all my cousins? Scattered to distant places. My children's distant cousins? Most of them have never met. What happened to the bonds which I inherited? Perhaps I was inattentive, perhaps we all were.
In the mythology of American families, these facts, I know, are supposed to inspire a great sadness, even guilt. But I feel neither. Indeed, I think the story of my family's scattering story is in the best tradition of the American middle class. Coming together and pulling apart, shifting its locus in random ways, establishing a new home ground in unpredictable places. Even finding new cousins.
We celebrate our family's presence is strange ways -- by the antique furniture in our living room, by quaint country expressions which endure in our urbane conversations.
My father, who is in his 80s now and still devoted to hard thinking about the world around him, wrote a brief essay recently on the occasion of his brother's 60th wedding anniversary. It described, with a characteristic absence of emotional flourish, how four children were born in smalltown Kansas around the turn of the century, married, had children, started interesting careers from chemistry to real estate and settled in places as distant and different as Cincinnati and Tulsa and Laguna Beach. All of those children prospered, survived into their 80s, staying married to the same spouses. "Choice and chance," my father concluded.
Our next generation of cousins has scattered further (and also discovered divorce), but I think the same spirit of reasonable adventure prevails. My generation went to other distant places, which in time became "home" to us and our children. Our children, I have no doubt, will scatter themselves further and discover original and interesting things to do with their lives. Some people feel the need to stay in the same place, to preserve the homeplace. Some of us need to wander.
As my father might explain it, if he were asked, America is not one or the other, not staying put or wandering. It is both. The historic migrations which we celebrate in the American past were mostly poor people searching for a better place, whether it was southern blacks headed north or Okies headed west. The continuous migration of the nonpoor is less distinct and dramatic but at least as significant. Surely, the country would be in trouble if everyone migrated in every generation. Some people fear that is already happening. But the nation would be in more trouble, I think, if everyone stayed home -- and there's absolutely no risk of that happening.
The best novelists of the 20th century have portrayed the American middle class as stultifying, even oppressive in its orthodoxy. Afraid of seeking new experiences. Resentful of people who are different. Self-righteous and hypocritical. The Babbitt's of Main Street -- that's the artistic stereotype.
But there is another tradition to the American middle class which our artists have not celebrated. Robert Coles, writing about the children of affluence, called it a sense of "entitlement." I think of it as a kind of cultural passport. There is a proud feeling generated within dynamic families of the middle class that the children can go anywhere in this diverse nation, settle in any community in any region, and feel at home. A nation with portable roots, so to speak.
A great legacy, I believe, which is not shared by most other countries and completely alters one's definition of the American middle class. The middle class, expressing its best qualities, is actually the source of variety and freedom in America, not its enemy. Indeed, Tolstoy couldn't have been more wrong about happy families. For they are each as different and interesting as unhappy ones, at least in this country.
What happens to a kid from Ohio who settles in Texas? He becomes a Texan, in time. Not a true Texan, perhaps, but close enough to feel at home. Certainly his children will be thoroughly Texan. Perhaps they will stay Texans forever and pretend that their ancestors fought at the Alamo. Or maybe they will diverge again into some new pool where custom and faith will be altered once more.
What I am trying to suggest is the extraordinary cultural tumbling which goes on, almost routinely and unnoticed, in our country, mainly through middle class families which have the means and good luck to sustain it.
Indeed, a major theme of our national life is how all of us, in small ways or grandiose ways, are becoming "new" people by borrowing (or stealing) from the cultural identity of others. Mostly, when we talk about this, it is in terms of derision: the hypocrisy of people pretending to be somehow different from their origins. We especially delight in mocking the upwardly mobile, who join the Episcopal Church and research their royal ancestry and behave like old Tories. The same process, however, works laterally and also downward. Indeed, if you look at the cultural values of middle class white youth today, it is obvious that they are borrowing heavily from the folks beneath them on the economic ladder, particularly the culture of black people. Just listen to the poor-boy lyrics of a rock 'n roll band.
In a land of good luck and prosperity, young people need to locate a worthwhile struggle for their own lives, a kind of challenge which sets them apart from their successful parents, and the cultural choices offer legitimate options. This gets played out mostly in family changes which are too subtle to be recorded in the statistical indicators of social change. I know Irish Catholics, for instance, who are more Presbyterian in their habits and values than any of the WASP families where I grew up. I hear Jewish friends complain about the bland services at synagogue as sounding too much like "church." And I know Presbyterians who long for the intellectual creativity of Jews.
So, living in strange places, surrounded by these strangers from other corners of the country, we borrow and steal from one another and, in a very loose sense, become "cousins" to one another. Whenever I hear soliloquies from Jewish friends who grew up poor in New York City on the subject of Jewish mothers, I try to tell them that the Jewish mother of their memories does not sound all that different from the Presbyterian mother of my Ohio memories. They can never quite believe that, but they accept the possibility.
Only in America, I think, could grown men argue lovingly over the differences between Jewish mothers and Presbyterian mothers. At a dinner once with friends, we fell into nostalgic conversation about our family origins. Each person had a fascinating story to tell, mostly of upward struggle, but one theme prevailed. People were bragging not so much about their own success or their parents, but about something early and fundamental in their tales. We were, all of us at the dinner table, descended from peasants. Irish peasants or French or German or Italian. We all were proud of that; we all were gratefully aware of our good luck: to be no longer peasants.
The theme was a kind of bond among us. Across the differences of religion and politics and family origins, American "cousins" can always find something that supports a kindred feeling and, for that, we should be thankful.