The PBS stations air music-based fundraising programs periodically, and I usually take a look. It's sad to see how old those Motown solo acts and groups are, but it's good to see a few survivors still performing at all. Andrea Bocelli's recent concert on location in Portofino, however, was a perfect illustration of the idea that the purpose of art is to elevate the spirit. But clicking on the doo-wop program the other night (there's one every year, but the audience for it must be tiny by now), what I saw instead looked like a documentary about the tight cohesion of Italian families in the New York/New Jersey area in the 1940s - 60s. Economic reasons for that existed, of couse; people did not have cars or enough income in a high cost of living area to explore very far, but the socialization extensively and exclusively among themselves was primarly cultural.
Old black-and-white pictures and home movies were narrated by adults who were children back then, and while nostalgia has developed, they knew they had had no choice about things at the time and were mighty tired of enduring aunts and uncles droning on Sunday after Sunday, usually over the exact same meal. Without education or travel, people tend to grow up into conservative and somewhat neurotic adults who change little after age twenty; their now adult children probably had more opportunites and even in their school years yearned for some sort of intellectual stimulation and variety. Coming from the Old World, which was organized to benefit the traditional power elites and no one else, the first-generation immigrant Americans knew only that extended family relationships could provide some security in the world.
Families scatter into smaller atomic units now, often over great distances. The result is more autonomy and choice, but relationship skills must be redeveloped to make things work. When we moved here in 1979, we were both far from family and friends and found it was fun to create our own way of bonding. It started with chickens.
Just before landing here, we were married in Nancy's brother Tom's -- and wife Cherry's -- front yard on a typically hot and humid August day. Things got a little crazy pretty early on as a small group of escaped pigs steathily crept around the garage with the intention of wrecking the garden. Cherry spotted them from the kitchen window and flew out, armed with some utensil, and chased them out to the road (from then on, we haven't taken much too seriously). But the animals which made the biggest impression on us were the motley crew of chickens with their fascinating behaviors. We learned they'll eat anything, quickly and with gusto, as Tommy gave them weeds pulled up from the other side of their fencing, some watermelon rinds, and even a small snake. Nothing left but contented clucks. That meeting with live poultry started a thirty-year collection of private jokes: the chicken thing culminated with a fat stuffed Rhode Island Red made of spotted fabric presented to Nancy upon becoming a mother. It's still here, noticeably aged, but part of the family. We've got a hundred others, some as silly as shouting "bonus room!" when that phrase is uttered on TV's "House Hunters." Life's easier to deal with if you find most everything funny.
And there's that balance between "being your own bunny"* -- that is, being and enjoying what you like and what you are -- and adapting to and enjoying what your partner or family member likes to do. I told N. early on I really didn't enjoy sandy beaches and cats made me sneeze. I soon realized I was indeed going to be driving her to a beach whenever possible, and a cat or two in the home wasn't negotiable either. Guess what. I learned to love the shore and wouldn't be without our feline buddies. On the other hand, I'm never going to eat celery, which she insists is a perfectly good, even lovely, food. Good fences we can live with have gates exactly where you need them.
And what is that special quality that old friends have? It's made of the same sort of give and take, with one other factor that applies to other relationships too. You might not agree, but I think it's the attraction of someone you admire for their intelligence and talents, can learn from and share with, and over the years discover new things about. Most people from work, school or casual association just don't have that effervesence; the few whom you do find in a lifetime you want to keep, but loosely. Chickens and old fogeys might like a small defined coop to live in, but three-dimensional people will grow and will still surprise you.
*We always said of our first, very sure of herself, pet rabbit, "she's definitely her own bunny!"