GAYLE: Mindy Fried, your new book Caring for Red tells a story of you and your sister taking care of your 97-old father in the last year of his life in an assisted living facility. Before we talk about your experience caring for your dad, Manny, tell me a little about him. Who was this colorful character? After all, he earned the nickname “Red.” Sounds fiery to me!
MINDY: My father was a person with many lives. As a young man, he was a labor organizer for the United Electrical Workers union where he organized factory workers. That was when industrial labor was still predominantly based in the US, and not in third world countries where labor is cheaper. At some point, he joined the Communist Party. I’m not sure how active he was or for how long, but certainly at that time, being considered a “Communist” was tantamount to being a terrorist in our current political climate. In1954, when I was around 4 years old, he was subpoenaed to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a very traumatic experience for him, and for my whole family. He was “blacklisted”, meaning that when he applied for jobs, he was turned away. Eventually, he was hired by a Canadian company where he sold life insurance for around 15 years. That’s the kind of work he did through much of my childhood. But he was also writing plays based on his experience as a labor organizer, and he returned to the theatre as an actor, something he had done years before. When I was a teenager in the 1960s, he was subpoenaed by HUAC again. That was tough, but times had changed quite a bit and the ramifications weren’t quite as dire as they were the first time around. He ended up going back to school when he was in his 50s. Really impressive, since he had only one year of college under his belt. He went straight from finishing an undergraduate degree to working on a Ph.D. in English. His final career was as an English professor at SUNY Buffalo State College. You might say that nothing kept this guy down. He was a great role model in that sense.
GAYLE: How did your family survive the impact of the McCarthy period?
MINDY: I grew up with two people who were angry with each other often, but it was quiet anger. That was hard. I was lucky to have a best friend who moved in down the street from me when I was 5 years old, and her family basically adopted me. She liked my house because it was quiet, and I liked hers because it was lively and warm and loving. She became my “non-bio” sister, as we say; we’re still close today. Her parents became surrogate parents, and I am ever-grateful for that. They were just very attentive; my parents were often distracted. It was great to have another family a few doors down the street. That was one way I coped. But as a family, we also believed that my father made the right choices, in how he challenged HUAC, and continued to stand up for his beliefs. Having a sense of doing the right thing goes a long way.
GAYLE: Another name associated with Manny Fried, is “Morrie.” Six years before your father died, he played the character MORRIE in a play called Tuesdays with Morrie. As the story goes, a University graduate visits his former mentor, a sociologist who is slowly dying of a progressive disease. You write that your father inhabited that role fully, and that it helped to bring you closer together. Tell me why.
Well first of all, it was a big deal to play Morrie, not only because it was a great opportunity for my father, but also because he got to perform at the Studio Arena Theater, which had blacklisted him for many years. For me, the other exciting thing about him getting this role was that Morrie was a sociologist in my own department at Brandeis University. I knew Morrie, and the moment that my dad got the part, I saw it as an opportunity for the two of us to connect around his preparation and performance. I introduced him to Gordie Fellman, one of Morrie’s closest friends and colleagues from Brandeis. And I introduced him to a couple of Buddhists and sociologists who called themselves “Monday’s with Morrie”, as opposed to Tuesdays with Morrie (upon which the book and play were based). We also watched the Frontline TV series that Ted Koppel produced about Morrie, where Koppel interviewed him over the period of time as he was dying of ALS. When my dad came to visit me, he would have these meetings, and he would run his lines with me, and he would practice a grapevine dance from the play in my narrow hallway. It was just this really sweet thing that we connected around, and then obviously I always went to see him when he acted, so it was great to see him in the play, and he really did a beautiful job. People are always kind of amazed when they see old people function in any way, but seeing him excel at inhabiting this character – I think it was a really powerful experience for the audience and he pulled it off; he did a great job.
GAYLE: In your book, you describe a father who was loving – someone you felt deeply close with – but also a man who was full of himself. Did you feel resentment about taking care of him in this last year of his life?
MINDY: Well I think that this a really important question because as adult children, many of us have mixed feelings about our parents. The answer is “no”, I didn’t resent him. But it took me many years to understand him, to find equal footing with him, to find my voice with him, since he was a forceful speaker, sometimes controlling, and sometimes discounting of opinions that differed from his. He once told me that if I wasn’t sure about something, just guess, and that 99% of the time I’d be right. I was in my 30s when he gave me this advice, and by then I had his “number” and realized that this was sort of ridiculous. But he actually believed he was right most of the time! That said, I had deep respect for him and for his values and choices in life. He centered my world, for many years. In “exchange theory”, as it applies to families and relationships, the notion is that parents care for their children in one period of time, and later in life, when elder parents need support, children care for their parents. When it came time to care for my father, I did it with all my heart.
GAYLE: How did the father-daughter relationship change as Manny aged?
MINDY: My father and I were very close. Like most people, he was a flawed human being. He made serious choices in his life that impacted our family. But I had a deep respect for him, and we had a lot in common politically. For me, being part of the Women’s Movement in the 70s helped me better understand that despite being a good guy who was committed to social justice, he was pretty “old school”. I got frustrated with what a poor listener he was, and how I often had to fight for “air time” in conversations with him. But I did learn how to argue and debate because of him. I believe he felt I could be anyone or anything I wanted to be. And while he wasn’t comfortable “having or expressing feelings”, he was emotionally raw much of his life. That was one effect of McCarthyism on his life, and I understood that about him. Over the years, I understood enough of who he was to accept his shortcomings and his vulnerabilities and to just kind of let it go and say, “ok, here’s this person in the last bit of his life,” and to really be as fully present for him without losing myself.
GAYLE: You chronicle in your book many attempts, successful and unsuccessful, to find a place for your father to live that would meet his growing care needs AND offer the kind of life that fulfilled him. This was not easy, and sometimes your father was less than helpful. Tell me what worked, and what didn’t?
MINDY: I think one thing that worked was that I put myself in his shoes. For example, when we went and visited this super groovy retirement community that was connected to a college and he said to me, “there is absolutely no way I am going to move in there”. I imagined myself living with people that we met with, and I thought “I couldn’t do that either, this would be kind of horrible”. Not that they were bad people; it just felt foreign. These weren’t people he would choose to be friends with. I think that probably the most important thing as somebody gets older is to respect where they’re coming from. And I think it’s important to start thinking about these issues early on because you know, if you are trying to make a decision when it’s dire, the whole process of decision making is much more rife with emotion. I believe that talking about these things before you are in a crisis really makes a huge difference. And that helped us a lot.
GAYLE: Your father lived in Assisted Living for the final year of his life. Am I correct?
MINDY: Even though the book uses a one-year time frame, it was actually a year and a half that my sister and I cared for our father. It worked really well, until it didn’t. We learned what assisted living was able to provide for him as well as its limitations. Ultimately, in the last few months, he needed round the clock care. But he was able to live and die in his small apartment in assisted living. As an ethnography, Caring for Redprovides a real sense of life in assisted living, the norms and values that drive human interaction, the hierarchy of staff, and the structures that define the experience within this institutional form of care that aims to provide a home-like environment.
GAYLE: Can you describe what Assisted Living is?
MINDY: Well, people think of it as kind of a hybrid health and home service, but in fact it’s really just more home than health oriented. It’s a place to live; there are regular meals; there often are activities; and staff provide services to residents – up to a point. Some assisted living facilities have medical staff; others don’t. We chose a place that had some nursing care, including medical people who delivered medications, and there was actually a doctor, a geriatrician, who came by once a week. But we had to pay for medical care because it was beyond the basic services offered. We ended up supplementing even more services in order to avoid having to send him to a nursing home. But that’s a longer story…
GAYLE: You were also a long-distance caregiver. How did you manage your father’s care from afar?
MINDY: I was lucky that I had a sister to do this with, so between the two of us we shared the caregiving work. We visited every weekend; we talked on the phone all the time; and we were on the phone constantly with caregivers, as well as his friends to help arrange his social life.
GAYLE: What do you hope for your book? How do you hope people will be affected by reading it?
MINDY: I guess if nothing else, I’d like it to contribute to a more open conversation about the trials and tribulations of caregiving work. While Caring for Red includes references to scholarly work on caregiving, I will be lucky if people feel more of a heart connection to the issues, particularly those people who are caring for an elder parent. We all have a range of feelings towards the people who cared for us when we were young. It’s important to recognize that there are a lot of people who love their parents; there are some people who hate their parents; and there are some people who have mixed feelings about their parents. Taking care of them in those final throes of life is jarring; AND it’s an opportunity to reconcile unresolved feelings; it’s an opportunity to treat elder parents with dignity and to make that last piece of life worth living. It’s also something that we’re all going to face at some point so I think that how we care for our parents is also a role model for how the younger people around us can – and hopefully will – care for us.
There’s no ultimate how-to book on caring for our parents. We all learn by what we see around us. So I’d like a dialogue to be stimulated about these issues. Because it’s very hard work – unpaid caregiving labor – and people don’t talk about this shit because it’s like, ‘oh it’s too depressing’, but hey, it’s life! We’re all going to die, you know, and somebody’s hopefully going to take care of us, so let’s think about how we want that to look within families and within society.
I also hope that academics will use this book in classes on aging, on death and dying, and on anything related to the life course. Moreover, Caring for Red is an ethnography, “set” in assisted living, so I hope it will be used in methods classes. And finally, for those who take interest in the history of facism and particularly, in the McCarthy era, the book presents quite a story, which I believe we must not lose.
GAYLE: Thank you, Mindy Fried. The deeply moving and insightful memoir – “Caring for Red”- is available for pre-order on Amazon.com.
For the past six years, sometime in early fall, I don an apron, which I place on top of a (borrowed) flowery shirt-waist dress, tie my hair in a bun, and call myself “Betty”. That’s Betty, as in Mrs. Crocker, the mythical 50s mom who graced the boxes of many a cake mix. A woman – or at least the character of a woman – who is the opposite of the mother I grew up with, who hated being a “housewife” and hated being in the kitchen. But I digress. Betty invites neighbors to an “apple bake-off”, a contest in which everyone “competes” to have their “entry” judged as the best baked apple treat. (Spoiler: In case you didn’t know, there never was a real Betty Crocker.)
Here’s a little backdrop: I live on a street with many traditions. My neighbors have been putting on a Halloween extravaganza for many years that attracts a thousand children and their parents – yes, 1,000, I kid you not – which involves gory surgical skits with manic doctors and bloody body parts, lots of chocolate and a “honk” band that marches up and down the street playing New Orleans jazz. We have block parties in the fall and pot lucks throughout the year, and we even occasionally sojourn out of the neighborhood to go apple picking or to visit a museum together, caravanning with a string of cars if necessary. So it is in keeping with the (very) social world of my street that Betty decided to make a visit.
After the first successful year, Betty decided to come back the next year and the next, and the bake-off officially became a new tradition. I guess that is how traditions are created.
If the bake-off were in rural Tennessee or even Western Massachusetts, it would not be such an anomaly. But it turns out that the real-life country is not required for a group of friends to compete with one another to see who can make the most delicious baked apple treat. In fact, bringing the country to the city may be part of the appeal. We can “do” country in the city, but then we pop on the subway to see a play downtown. The competitive spirit in the bake-off kinda comes with the territory, but in our bake-off, the competition comes with a fair amount of tongue-and-cheek. Although each year, I have noticed that a lot of people seem to up their game, and that benefits everyone’s palate.
To determine the winners, an “elite panel” of young people (i.e. awesome kids) sit in judgment, evaluating each entry with a tough set of criteria that appears to be borrowed from TV cooking shows. The truth is that this discerning band of judges is ruthless. So we decided to narrow the possible score they can dole out, from a 1-10 scale to a 7-10 scale. Yes, 7 is now the lowest number an entry can receive. But they take it very seriously, to be lauded; they do a great job; and everyone has fun. The bottom line is that no one loses too badly, and pretty much everyone is a winner, or as a native Bostonian would say, a “winnah”. This year’s 1st place winner received a cheesy, but effective, trophy. But everyone who bakes gets either a 1st or 2nd place ribbon.
In the widely popularized pop-novel, “Bowling Alone”, Robert Putnam argues that the fabric of our social connections has dissipated, leaving us alone and isolated from one another. When the book came out in 1990, a number of critics said that just because people aren’t bowling together, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t finding other ways to come together. Civic activities have continued to flourish in other forms, they argued, from youth soccer leagues to book clubs to going to church or mosque or synagogue. Nonetheless, people are working longer hours, either in salaried jobs that have a “longer hours” culture, or by juggling more than one job in order to feed the family. Putnam says that these longer hours pull people away from their communities, and he’s probably right.
Technology and social media are now being deemed as the culprits, stealing time from in-person communication. In fact, ironically, there are even blogs and YouTube videos lamenting how people spend too much time on their computers.
A lot of people, myself included, believe that people are still hungry to feel a “sense of community”. According to one extensive study published in the American Sociological Review (McPherson, Smith-Lovi and Brashears, 2006), there has been a huge drop in the size of our social networks. As a result of having smaller social networks, we have lost “discussion partners” or people with whom we can share confidences, either within and/or outside of our families. Moreover, given the implicit and explicit racial and class divides in our society, the potential for broadening our social networks beyond people who look like us is stymied.
Which brings me back to Betty, and a lot of other community-building events located in my neighborhood, and I’m sure many others around the country. For example, we have a very cool event in the ‘hood called JP Reads, which is “a community-wide literary celebration” where people read and discuss the same book, and get to meet the author (http://www.jpreads.org/).
And there’s Wake Up the Earth, a local festival in May that begins with several parades coming from a number of locations in the neighborhood and ultimately merging together on an expanse of greenery next to a subway stop, where live and local entertainment erupts.
And then there’s the ever-magical Lantern Parade, which was happening when my 23-year-old daughter was a kid, where young and old walk around the local Jamaica Pond at sunset carrying decorated lanterns with candles inside that reflect off the water.
Or most recently, a new tradition, the Jamaica Plain Porchfest (www.jpporchfest.org), where musicians play a wide variety of musical styles on porches all over the neighbhorhood. (Full disclosure: I’m one of the organizers of this last event, along with my buddy, Marie.)
I’m wondering about your communities. Do you feel a “sense of community”? Is your community “place-based” or is it virtual or both? Is your community defined by work or family or a particular interest, or all of the above? If you don’t feel a sense of community, do you want to? And if you do, do you have any good ideas? I’d really love to hear…
Meanwhile, here are some photos from this year’s Bake-Off! And the winner is…
Photo credit for the Bake-off pictures: Joni Lohr Photo credit for JP Porchfest pic: Sam Sacks
1. to withdraw, or go away or apart, to a place of privacy, shelter, or seclusion: “He retired to his study”. 2. to fall back or retreat in an orderly fashion and according to plan, as from battle, an untenable position, danger, etc. 3. to withdraw or remove oneself: “After announcing the guests, the butler retired”. 4. to withdraw from office, business, or active life, usually because of age: to retire at the age of sixty. 5. retirement or withdrawal, as from worldly matters or the company of others.
One of my friends is passionate about Latin America and travels widely, monitoring elections and writing for an international journal. Her life-long “career” as an energy consultant is gradually shifting to her passionate “avocation”.
A family member who is a therapist decided to significantly pull back on her work hours, but then it didn’t “feel right”. Instead of leaving her practice, she decided to slow down the process, and continues to see clients. She is working fewer hours, spends more time with her children and grandchildren, and has increased her volunteer work.
Another friend had a decades-long successful career as a librarian. As her retirement approached, she was uncertain about what would come next, but stayed open to possibilities. She now works as a volunteer in a number of non-profit organizations, travels, reads, and has time to hang out with friends and former colleagues.
And me? I don’t plan to retire for a long time. First off, even though I’m technically approaching the typical “retirement age”, I like to work because I’d like to think that I’m contributing to making the world a slightly better place, at least in the small piece of the universe I inhabit. Maybe more basic is the fact that, like many people, I can’t afford to retire!
When it comes to major life changes, I like to be fully informed, so I decided to study “retirement narratives”. It’s an informal study that is personally driven by my desire to remain engaged in and satisfied with life when I stop working for pay someday (who knows which day). My study is a pre-emptive strike against loneliness and a concern that as I age, I will be on the periphery, no longer a contributor to the world, no longer a player in daily life…I know this can happen because I’ve seen it happen, and I bet you have too. My observations and intuition have been confirmed by reading a ton of books about aging, in preparation for an aging course I taught at Brandeis University, as well as following the substantial media coverage of issues of aging. My feeling was that my informal study would provide me with an opportunity to better understand this life changing event from a sociological perspective.
My role model for retirement was my father, who didn’t stop working in his job as an English professor until he was around 95 years old. I used to think that his formula – essentially, to never stop working – was how I wanted to live my life. I, too, imagined that I would basically work full-time until I dropped. But now I’m re-thinking my plans. And that’s where my research comes in. My study basically consists of informal “interviews” with friends who are reducing their paid work hours, as well as informal “chats” with acquaintances I run into in random places, like CVS, walking around Jamaica Pond, and on the street. For the people I know and with whom I have regular contact, I plan to follow them over a long period of time, meaning that I want to see what they do and how they adjust for as long as I know them, which could be until I or they die. With these friends, I hear the intimate details of their decision-making. Some of them had full-time jobs in organizations or institutions that provide incentives to retire, and some worried that they might lose their jobs past a certain age. Others work more autonomously as therapists or consultants. I want to understand how these friends feel about their paid job as they consider “winding down”: What do they consider will supplant the intense time and commitment they have made to this work? Do they have fears about retirement? Do they have passions they plan to pursue, and plans in place? Do they view retirement as an abyss or a welcome opportunity, neither or both? What will the transition period away from paid work be like? Do they just stop working for pay one day, or do they gradually decrease their hours, and increase the time they spend doing unpaid work or having fun! (imagine that!) How happy are they after retirement, which may include how active they are and how social they are? And lest we forget, how does their health – or the health of their partner – factor into the equation?
The research questions I employ with my “almost, kinda” friends have a one-two punch. We start by asking one another a few basic questions: “How are you?”, is the starter. Can’t get more basic than that! And then a probing question: “And what have you been up to?” Now this question also seems pretty basic but the reply reveals a lot through their words as well as their body language. If/when they say they’re retired – or just that they left their job of many years – my panoply of probes is unleashed and I ask, “Is it a good thing?” This is a general yes-no question, followed up by “How do you fill your days?” That’s the meat of what I’m looking for.
My informal study has no real parameters. My “sample” is fairly random; it’s not designed with any demographic in mind; I’ll talk to anyone. I’m not keeping track of how many people I’m interviewing, and I’m cool with going with the flow of the conversation, wherever it leads. I’m not discovering anything new, in a broader sense. There’s plenty of literature that argues for continued engagement in life, as one ages. Instead, my study is about getting at the particulars. What do people do as they’re considering retirement? Do they consciously prepare? Once they retire, what are they doing and how do they feel about it?
The issue of retirement has become even more salient because we are living longer. For example, in 2000, the life expectancy in the U.S. for women was 77.6, and for men it was 74.3. In 2010, those numbers had jumped to 79 and 76 respectively. It’s important to note that there is also a racial disparity, as reflected in 2010 figures, with white women projected to live until they are 81.3, and African-American women projected to live until they are 78. For men, the comparison between white and African-American men is 76.5 to 71.8, respectively.
Despite these gender and race disparities, an increase in longevity has resulted in a larger gap in time between official retirement and the point where people stop working for pay altogether. Dr. Mo Wang from the University of Maryland calls this period “post-retirement”, a time when people may choose self-employment, part-time work or temporary jobs. Dr. Jacquelyn B. James, from Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging and Work (http://www.bc.edu/research/agingandwork/) calls this “transition” period “the “crown of life”, which implies that it is a special time, perhaps less fraught with the demands of one’s “regular” job which may have consumed years or decades of their lives. According to Wang’s research, “retirees who transition from full-time work into a temporary or part-time job experience fewer major diseases and are able to function better day-to-day than people who stop working altogether.”
At the same time, other research doesn’t focus on the impact of paid work; rather, it notes that as people age, those who stay engaged in life, both socially and intellectually, will fare much better than those who retreat, regardless if they are working for pay or doing something else like volunteering, doing unpaid caregiving work, or just about any activity that engages them.
In my effort to amass retirement narratives, I welcome you to tell me yours! It would be great to hear about your journey, whether you’re in the thinking stage or you have started instituting changes in your paid work schedule, or you have left a paid job and are in a next chapter of your life!
Also, just for fun, check out this video of a policy debate between Republican Paul Ryan who wants to increase the retirement age, claiming that the Social Security fund is depleted, and Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who strongly disagrees: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DIrltAkTf38
The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.
It is nearly one year ago that my father passed away. On that day, the headline of the Buffalo News proclaimed, “He was a man with a purpose”, with a smaller headline saying “Manny Fried, a guiding presence to area’s actors, writers and social activists, dies at 97.”
Anyone who observed my father as he surpassed the 80-year-old mark, then the 90-year-old mark, and eventually the 97-year-old mark wondered what kept him “so young”. At age 80, he was still jogging. At 90, he was still acting, writing and going to political meetings. And at 95, he performed a one-man autobiographical show, sitting on stage at a reputable Buffalo, New York theater, telling stories about his life with passion and vigor, for over a month of weekend performances. As heirs to 50% of our father’s genes, my sister and I hope that we can only be so lucky! The other side of the family is gifted with tons of creativity, but unfortunately rifled with bi-polar disease and plenty of medical problems. The former we welcome; the latter, we rationalize were the result of poor “lifestyle choices”.
What is it that keeps people ticking for a long time? My father claimed it was a function of good genes from his hearty immigrant parents who lived until they were nearly 100. That, coupled with eating judiciously (he had a sign on his fridge that said “EAT LESS”!), consistent exercise, and staying involved intellectually… He had a rough life trajectory, but developed a resilience he absorbed from his father, who told him, “When you fall down, you get up.” In the 1940s and ’50s, as a labor organizer for the radical Electrical Workers union, he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Rather than “taking the 5th”, and saying that he refused to speak on the grounds that anything he said could be used against him, he refused to respond to the Committee’s questions, challenging the right of the Committee to exist. He was unable to find work in the U.S., and ultimately worked for a Canadian company, and also wrote plays about his life experience.
As I move closer to what we define as “young old age” in our society, I am recognizing the elements of my father’s life that continued to fuel his sense of purpose. In fact, just about everything he did mirrors much of the research on aging and longevity as a combination of genetics and lifestyle choices. According to some twin studies, around 20-30% of an individual’s lifespan is related to genes, and the rest is due to individual behaviors and environmental factors which can be modified. Other studies demonstrate that some people have fewer choices than others, particularly given the greater environmental pollution in poorer neighborhoods, and differential access to quality health care for poor people and people of color.
Dan Buettner, in his Blue Zone project, traveled around the world looking for key areas that foster centenarians, people who lived to be 100 or more. He wanted to know what factors contributed to a long life.
Beuttner and his team spent seven years studying four “Blue Zones” where they met people who were aging in an extraordinary way. They interviewed dozens of centenarians, worked with local medical experts, and studied local cultures and lifestyles. Buettner said that each Blue Zone revealed its own recipe for longevity, but many of the fundamental ingredients were the same. Ultimately, he identified nine common lessons of living longer, which he felt were deeply embedded in the cultures they studied.
He found that the Italian island of Sardinia has the highest number of male centenarians in the world; Okinawa, Japan has the longest disability-free life expectancy; and in Loma Linda, Calif., a community of Seventh Day Adventists has a life expectancy that’s around ten years more than that of other Americans. What contributes to these long-living elders? Buettner says that first off, they eat a healthy diet and they get “natural” exercise, where physical activity – like walking around the community or climbing up and down hills – is a natural part of their daily lives.
They remain socially engaged in their communities, whether it be in a village or with a group of strong friends and family in which they are valued. And these centenarians continue to find meaning or purpose in their lives. Buettner describes 104-year-old Giovanni Sannai of Sardinia, saying,
“He was out chopping wood at 9 in the morning…He started his day with a glass of wine and there was a steady parade of people coming by to ask his advice. That’s one of the characteristics of the Sardinian Blue Zone — the older you get, the more celebrated you are.”
For those of us who don’t live on an island, or in a culture that reveres old age, how will we shape our lives moving forward, to maximize healthy aging? It is not “natural” for older people to disengage with their lives; in fact, contemporary aging research provides evidence of the importance of being involved in activities that inspire interest or passion, whether it be with one’s family and friends, in volunteering to help others, or in any endeavor that creates a sense of purpose and brings older people in contact with others.
Clearly, one of the hardest things about growing older is loss – loss of friends and partners whom we outlive. In observing my father, I saw that when many of his contemporaries had passed away, he continued to be surrounded by younger people of all ages who were both inspired by him, and revered him as the “elder” in Buffalo’s labor movement and theater community. I believe that this buffered the pain of overwhelming loss, and provided a critical community of friends and colleagues who sustained him for many years.
How can we create a sense of community – through family and friends, or a social or political group, or an artistic endeavor – that engages us, provides support when needed, and challenges us intellectually?
Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.
Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.
I was always taught to respect my elders and I’ve now reached the age when I don’t have anybody to respect.
Joan and Warren lived next door. They were in the first-floor apartment of a modest, fading yellow, two-family house. Father and daughter, they had been living in that apartment for some 15 years. Before that, they lived in an apartment down the street, but the landlord raised the rent far beyond their means, and gave them no option but to move out. At the time, the neighbors were outraged. In their neighborhood, they said, people stayed forever, so the idea that a landlord could throw out one of their own was antithetical to “how things were done around here.” Shunning the landlord, the neighbors banded together and found them another apartment right down the street. When Joan and Warren moved into the faded yellow two-family, they pledged never to move again. People lived their whole lives in this neighborhood. Why shouldn’t they?
Despite an age gap of 30 years, many people mistook Joan and Warren for husband and wife. Maybe it was how they related to one another; maybe it was how they finished each other’s sentences, or made similar sarcastic jokes with a twinkle in their eyes. Joan and Warren even looked alike. Not just a little alike, but a lot alike, with but a few distinctions. Warren was large and tall to Joan’s short and stout. Joan hid her plump body in old wool, Catholic-plaid smocks, and comfortable old sweaters that united any division between breasts and belly. Warren wore flannel shirts and baggy pants, held up by a worn leather belt that had an extra six inches hanging off the buckle. Both of them had chins that receded into their necks, doubling and tripling in folds of skin. But Joan’s chin was framed by curly, blond waves and Warren always covered his head with a railroad hat he constantly readjusted.
On the weekdays, Joan left early for her teaching job at a local parochial school, but after work and on the weekends, she devoted herself to her father. Despite her easy-going personality, Joan didn’t seem to have many friends. In fact, Warren – her father – appeared to be her only friend. Since Warren’s knees “went” on him years ago, as he told me, he wasn’t able to walk very well, so he rarely left the house. Despite his maladies and the relative sameness of his days, Warren managed to maintain a chipper demeanor, sitting on the front porch in good weather and watching the world go by. He was limited by his health, and rarely had visitors, but he always seemed upbeat.
According to Harvard University-based psychiatrist George Vaillant, who studied the lives of 824 men and women over a 30-year period, “objective good physical health (is) less important to successful aging than subjective good health.” In other words, older people continue to function pretty well, as long as they don’t feel sick, and while we didn’t know much about Warren’s health, he certainly did not project the image of a sick man.
My daughter once interviewed Warren for an elementary school project, one of those-talk-to-someone-who-lived-through-the-war assignments. When we rang their doorbell, we could hear Warren shuffling slowly to open the door, accompanied by the thump-thump of his cane. Opening the door with a welcoming smile, we could see that he was tickled we were there. And as we entered their cluttered, old-fashioned apartment, we were struck by the sweet smell of Joan’s homemade brownies she had baked for this special occasion. As my daughter nervously prepared to ask her questions, Warren said self-deprecatingly, “What do I have to say?”, with the emphasis on the word, “I”. And then he launched into stories of his past.
After the interview, I didn’t see Joan and Warren for a few weeks. Joan’s schedule was hectic, she told me one day, when we ran into her. The end-of-the-year school party was coming up, and her kids were “goin’ nuts,” she said. And then she chuckled, letting us know that she actually liked the chaos of her kids going nuts. She also told me, almost in passing, that her landlady, who had been in a nursing homes for many years, had just died. This meant that the owner’s family would have to decide what to do with their house. It had never occurred to me that Joan and Warren might face another change…
But pretty soon the activity around the house picked up, as estranged family members began to lay claim on items they had inherited. Hungrily, they dragged out furniture, appliances, aged stereo equipment and pottery, hauling them into station wagons and SUVs. They also discovered that what used to be a working-class neighborhood many years ago had become a gentrified, sought-after neighborhood; and what had been an inexpensive house many years ago had soared in value. Rumors began to fly about what the family would do with the house. Would they sell it? Would one or some of them move in? And what would happen with Joan and Warren?
Finally, the house went on the market, and for two weeks, hoards of buyers came and went, gliding with ease through the upper two floors of this simple home, its rooms clean and ready for the next owner. They seemed to save their perusal of the first floor until last, more daintily tiptoeing through Joan and Warren’s apartment, which was cluttered with memorabilia, dusty with age and daily living.
When they reached the living room, there sat Warren, firmly planted in front of his television set, refusing to move to make it easier for real estate brokers to “show” the house. He was a part of the house, almost seemed like he came with it, one might say. So why should he move, just so some rich people could sashay through the house, looking at its “potential”. As the days progressed and no one had ostensibly made an offer on the house, there was rumor that maybe the market had slowed down. But after a couple of weeks, the house sold at a good profit.
Joan and Warren hoped that the new owners wouldn’t raise the rent, but they were getting nervous. When I saw Joan the next day, her eyes were red and her face bloated. “What will happen now?”, I asked. She shrugged, looking embarrassed. “I’m not sure, but the new people seem pretty nice,” she replied. Maybe they would stay, I thought, feeling more hopeful for them. I wished her “the best of luck,” then felt the emptiness of those words. Shortly after we spoke, Joan got into her car and drove off to work.
When she drove back into her driveway later that day, her car was filled with empty boxes, in anticipation of the inevitable move. She slowed her car down for a group of kids playing soccer in the street, and waved first at them and then at the parents who were monitoring them. Slipping into her house, she self-consciously avoided conversation, but the parents on the street were painfully aware of her presence and concerned about both her and her father. Another parent and I started talking about helping her find a new home, but our conversation was interrupted by a piercing scream, coming from inside their home.
Somehow at first, the kids didn’t hear it. In the midst of their game, maybe it seemed like just another loud sound. I ran to Joan and Warren’s front door, which was ajar, and let myself into the apartment. And there, on the floor, was Warren, lying motionless, with Joan lying on top of him, sobbing…
The next few hours, we all learned that Warren had died of a heart attack. The younger kids were initially oblivious, but the older ones, particularly my daughter and her best friend, began to cry. The cries became wails that were deep and loud and persisted for about an hour, capturing a raw grief that many of the adults shared but couldn’t express so freely. As the ambulance came and took Warren away, the younger ones were shuffled back to their homes, perhaps to protect them from that visual impression, and certainly to respect Joan in that painful moment.
Would it be too simple to say that gentrification killed Warren? It would be hard to make the causal connection, but perhaps there is a correlation, as Warren was forced to experience the stress of losing his home, again. Ironically, Warren was right when he claimed that this was going to be his last home. Ultimately, the power of the market won, as the highest bidder got the house, and with it, the legal right to determine whether or not to raise the rent, or for that matter, to take over the whole house. That evening, my daughter remembered that she had the tape from her interview with Warren, and asked if she could give it to Joan. “Sure,” I said, “but let’s wait a little while.”
My father just died. My 98-year-old, fearless, outspoken father – who was devoted to fighting for the rights of workers – just died. He hung on for over a year, despite major organ failure, with incredible determination and will. Just the way he lived. Even towards the end, despite the challenges and limitations to his body and mind, he was energized by the protests in Wisconsin, as state workers – police, firefighters, nurses and more – fight to maintain their right to bargain collectively.
In the 40s and 50s, my father was unafraid to speak up for working-class people who toiled in factories. This was his organizing base, and as a child of the 50s, it seemed very foreign to me in my middle-class world. I was schooled by the antiwar movement, the women’s movement and gay/lesbian rights movement, all a far cry from the world of factory workers who made auto or typewriter parts.
Manny speaking before House Un-American Activities Committee 1964
But I absorbed my father’s social justice values, even though I felt very separate from the people he was organizing. It was hard for me to imagine the unfortunate plight of the factory worker, but over the years, I began to understand the need to fight against inequities around workers’ wages and working conditions. And once I was in the work world, I learned first-hand what it meant to be caught in a stratified social structure that appropriated varying amounts of power to its employees. In fact, a string of lousy work experiences was one thing that inspired me to study workplaces once I became a sociologist. I discovered first-hand that worker control is the key to job satisfaction, and many people don’t have enough of it…
I was once on a plane with a factory owner, and over the course of our flight, discovered that this guy’s plant – Remington Rand – was one that my father had organized. Listening to him talk about how he decided to move the company abroad, and how he couldn’t understand why his workers weren’t willing to move with him, I realized how out of touch he was with the reality of his workers. I knew more about him than he could have possibly known. My father had led the workers employed by that man in a successful strike against the company, and the workers forced the company to back down on cutting wages and benefits. I decided not to share this information, but found great satisfaction in knowing…
At my father’s funeral this past Sunday, I told the congregation that if he were still alive and well, he’d be in Wisconsin. This was his fight, something to which he dedicated his life, through his organizing work, and then later through plays he wrote about worker-management struggles. The nature of the “working class” is different today, as factory work has moved to locations with cheaper labor. Wisconsin workers represent the “new” working-class, whose self-identification is folded into our broadly defined middle-class. They are service and professional workers who provide the critical supports to our society – regulating safety, putting out fires, teaching our children, maintaining our sewage systems, and caring for the sick.
There are far too few heroes these days, people who are willing to stand up against adversity to speak their piece and demand justice. My father chose to do just this. It wasn’t always easy to have a father who prioritized the outside world over his family. In fact, I learned early on that if I wanted to be close to him, I had to speak his language. I tried very hard – sometimes too hard – back then. And the older and more knowledgeable I became, the more I realized where we differed. But at the very base, I valued his commitment to a set of ideals, even when they created adversity for him and for us. He always hoped that we would see he made the right choices. And in the end, as a daughter to a loving father who became more emotionally generous with age, I feel that he did.
Manny receives Joe Hill Award from AFL-CIO Labor Heritage Foundation