About 120 years ago, give or take, a young man from Scotland stepped off a boat in the Boston area. He had nothing but his name to bring with him, a Stewart. He took up as an accountant, married a local girl, and had a few daughters. Then he disappeared. My great grandmother raised her three daughters alone, working as a fine clothier at a department store. They all were raised to have a skill to support themselves, as they learned early that marriages may not last.
One of his daughters was my grandmother, a fierce and proud woman who clung to the very threads of ancestry and blood and tradition she could manage. Her mother was of a good family, if not wealthy, that was part of a huge and well known family in the area, the Dana family. Famous cousins have their names embedded around the country in buildings and fortresses, as well as fine literature.
On Long Island, my other great grandfather was working hard to pull himself up by his bootstraps. Leaving school after 8th grade, he worked and toiled and got himself an education in economics. He worked his way up from boiler room to President of Long Island Savings Bank, and had gift plaques dedicated to his service to Wall Street. He has not been remembered as a kind or loving man, but photos show him celebrating the birth of his children and grandchildren that he ruled with a strong hand. He was a patriarch.
His son married my grandmother, and the two created a pleasant, middle class life for themselves in Long Island. My grandfather, always kind, took up in his father's business of banking and investing. He brought honor to the family name, and continued the tradition of making families stronger through safe investing, purchasing homes and making an inheritance for their children. They were married for 53 years, before my grandmother passed. Maybe not always happily, but always there for their children in money and deed.
It stopped on our side with our father. He grew up with the expectation that he would be even more successful than his father, and his grandfather before him. We lived in the same neighborhood, frequented the same country and beach clubs as our great grandparents did, and eventually inherited their beautiful furniture. Exquisite side cabinets and a dining room table from Chippendale, a large hand woven Persian rug, delicate porcelain from Hungary. These were the material dreams of the emerging middle class of the mid 20th century. Little did anyone realize, but the decline had already begun in the 60s and 70s. Their great grandchildren would likely be as poor as their parents were, and nobody saw it coming.
I have no use for Chippendale, although I don't stand to inherit the table. It resides with my aunt, as does the rest of the fine furniture. The bits and pieces we acquired have been sold, lost, destroyed, or given away. The nomadic life of our twenties- all three of us kids- didn't need matching side end tables with brass candelabra lamps. Each of us had to ask friends to watch over things for us, and chance it that they wouldn't be ruined or lost. But they were. Dragging around a century's worth of inherited but in need of repair furniture is an economic drag to a modern lifestyle. Besides, I wanted to make my own selections in Danish modern and Japanese.
Today I share a small apartment with my committed but unmarried partner and our 2 cats and our stuff. The living/dining room is decorated with a mix of furniture, almost none purchased new. I have a desk from my grandmother, a wooden upright writing desk. It is my last piece. John has a large dining room table, solid, oak, with enough center boards to seat 14 (as does the Chippendale) although we lack the space to seat it out past 10. We have needed to do this twice in three years. There are a few more wooden pieces he has, crafted by his great grandfather, and they in part contain and collect the memorabilia of our families gone by. I have boxes of photos of my great grandparents celebrating a comfortable life and family that will not exist in my future. John has photos of old ladies who would never see how difficult the future of their great grandchildren would be.
One hundred years ago, the future was bright for us all. Our great grandparents formed strong families, for the most part, and worked hard and were able to raise large families, accumulate wealth, and provide for the next generation. The only inheritance I ever got was my father's. He died before he could collect the money his father left him when he died earlier in the year- and he would have spent it all, as he was unemployed for years before his early death. With that, I put myself through a year of massage school (after college) and learned a whole new set of values and awarenesses that were incompatible with my upbringing and unlike anything I had experienced before. I could not turn back, there was nothing left to turn back to.
All these generations of accumulated silver and crystal, linens and vases, furniture and photos, sit stockpiled and unused. Mounds of etched trophies have become tarnished, and the "good stuff" is taken out and used because there is no future to save it for anymore. Surely, the only two great great grandchildren to come out of this family (and maybe one or two not yet born) will likely not want all this stuff. Besides, they have now 4 sets of great grandparents to inherit from, and probably won't settle down and marry for another 30 years, if at all.
Wall Street used to be the mark of respectability in the community. Always, there have been scandals with money and fraud, but for the most part, it allowed people who started with almost nothing to improve their chances through hard work, good luck, and dedication to family. The principles that were the foundation of American family life are fading fast, as the possibility of raising your children to do better than yourself in almost any area of life is quickly disappearing. I know that my forefathers would not approve of my life situation at all, and perhaps I only have myself to blame for not being wealthier. I chose personal freedom over marriage and duty, and chose ethics over greed when it came to professional tracks. Had any of the economic principles by which my grandfather emerged a well to do man been in force, I would be a much wealthier woman by now. I have not been able to ride on the coattails of anyone's success, and the bootstraps have been made in China out of cheap and disposable plastic.
This Thanksgiving, we will likely meet as a small family unit around the Chippendale, using the china and silver that have been marked by generations of teeth. My cousins, like myself, are just getting by, despite college education, uncertain of any career path that requires investing more money than a mortgage- with no certainty of getting any further ahead than their cafe job. I wonder how well any of us would have done had we chosen the more traditional and conservative route- early marriage and children, and working hard at jobs we may not love but that keep more than a rental roof over our heads. When the time comes to sort through all the furniture, photos, china and silver, I will be one of three who had more than a passing memory of the home from which they came, and the neighborhood that grew a dozen generations of a family almost gone.
I wonder, if my great grandfather were to show up to work on Wall Street today, almost 100 years later, if he would understand the plight of his descendants, and sympathize over the myths they were told that took root in his generation. He was a family man, a community man, a proud father and a dedicated servant to his profession. I doubt he would recognize what became of the world he helped build.