The American Homestead

We do not often consider the impact of dispersal - the scattering of family members about the United States countryside for work, college, retirement havens - on "family values."

At holidays we look around the family table at how few of us are left. Or we may already have moved such occasions to restaurants, acknowledging that the designated household chef may have an overextended schedule already.

Earlier this century, it was usually the father who moved ahead to the industrializing cities, or the oldest siblings who did so, to establish a beachhead so the family could follow. Before that, among European immigrants, whole families and kin would link up in a new location, much as Hispanic and Asian arrivals do now.

From an economic standpoint, itinerancy - an expectation among companies and a willingness among workers to relocate for jobs - has been an American competitive advantage. German workers, for example, resist such moves.

A predisposition to relocate, or in these times of downsizing and technological revolution the necessity to relocate, must be at the cost of the concept of homestead.

What is the locus or center of a family that lacks a concrete place to symbolize its continuity?

Once one of my sons, to explain the angst of his teen existence, surprised me by blurting out, "But you lived in the same house all your life!" That didn't really help me understand his feelings, because, indeed, I had always a point of reference, a Detroit house my parents stayed in almost to the end. Such notables as Franklin Roosevelt had their Hyde Parks, boyhood homes they returned to during full public careers to rest and to write.

Such homes of course exist not only in space but in time. My neighborhood house was handed on to a city policeman's family, much to the benefit of the neighborhood. New people take over the old spaces. What's past remains present largely in thought, which can be selective.

How does one establish a homestead today?

Empty-nesters are said to be happy to regain the bedroom space for a study, or finally to free the basement of unclaimed stuff for a large-screen entertainment room, or to cash out in favor of a warm-clime condo.

In our area here in New England, town households and company employees churn at a rate of about 10 percent a year - a turnover rate of half every five years. Landscape architects here say a house's foundation and yard plantings have a 25- or 30-year life cycle, before they become so overgrown that they have to be dug out and the site replanted. Given the turnover rate in the bedroom communities, few property owners have any idea of a time reference for planting decisions. And I imagine that even fewer have any notion of how long it's good to live in a locale so that one's kids develop a comfortable sense of where they come from.

I would still vote for moving on with the right opportunity, and so would my young adult kin, despite our vivid remembrance of a family powwow over yet another corporate request to relocate. It drew five no votes, a straight negative flush, although we ended up dispersing once more when importuned. My recent proposal that we buy a triple-decker flat near Boston, each with his own floor, has drawn no takers. In these cyber times it is getting easier to stay in touch by e-mail. Soon we will be having video family conferences.

Americans submit to economic imperatives and justify the personal cost by a faith in opportunity, individual freedom, and optimism. But how do ties bind when nobody's in sight?

Richard J. Cattani is editor at large of the Monitor.

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