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I was trying to come up with a good intro for Judith Barrow’s incredible generational family series about the Howarth clan. The problem, I realized, is that I have a genetic deficiency when it comes to comprehending multiple successive generations of a family.
It’s my family’s fault. I remember one of my sisters looking at the proofs for our family holiday photos—two parents surrounded by their ten children—and musing, “Rabbits. I just keep thinking about rabbits…” It wasn’t just us either: each of my parents came with similar double-digit siblings, most of whom also overachieved when it came to numbers of progeny. When I tried to do a family tree to mark their 50th wedding anniversary, I only got as far as my parents’ generation and their offspring. Then I had to stop because our “tree” looked more like invasive ground cover, or maybe kudzu on steroids. 
Growing up out in California, I never really mastered the names of the hundred or so first cousins in my generation. So the closest I came to a family saga occurred when I went back Chicago—where both parents grew up—to attend the University of Chicago. And we have my grandmother—or at least her funeral—to thank for it.


[EXCERPT from Life Begins When The Kids Leave Home And The Dog Dies]

It was a swell funeral that brought us together. I was in college in Chicago when my mother told me one of my cousins had taken up residence in the Home For Unwed Nurses next to the university’s hospital. Naturally, I avoided her.

It wasn’t just that I had plenty of spare cousins. (Although my first-generation immigrant forebears had followed the commandment to “Be fruitful and multiply” so enthusiastically that a relative with fewer than six kids was considered practically childless. There may have been novenas.)

It wasn’t just that she came from an upscale suburb. (Although I was sure the girls there ironed their designer jeans and shaved their legs daily. Even in winter.)

It wasn’t just that she moved to my neighborhood. (Although voluntarily moving to Hyde Park on the South Side of Chicago seemed to me like voluntarily hitting yourself over the head. The best thing you can say about it is how good it feels when you stop. The worst thing is after a while, your head is a real mess.) I couldn’t figure out why anybody would choose Hyde Park (often described as “The circle of hell Dante forgot to mention”) when they could go someplace more pleasant, like a war zone.

[NOTE: another blast from the past -- adapted from my column that originally ran in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette in 1991.] View of downtown Chicago from Hyde Park. Yup... this is pretty much the way I remember it. [Image credit: trbimg.com] http://www.trbimg.com/img-53017182/turbine/winter-weather-climate-change-20140216-001/1024/1024x650

Hell does freeze over. View of downtown Chicago from Hyde Park. Yup… this is pretty much the way I remember my years on Chicago’s South Side…  [Image credit: trbimg.com]

As the logo on my old college t-shirt proclaimed, our campus was “Where Fun Goes To Die“. (My roommate’s shirt went old school with, “Ubi iucunditas moritur“, while my husband always preferred, “That’s all well and good in practice…but how does it work in theory?“)

Okay. The real reason I was avoiding her? She was beautiful. Her whole family was beautiful. As for my own family, Sister #6 nailed it. “Out of all ten of us, I’m the best looking one and I’m only cute.”

Luckily, glamour was not a prerequisite to a successful social life in Hyde Park. This was only partly because there was no social life in Hyde Park. Did you ever wonder what became of that grade-grubbing, geeky nerd in your high-school class? Well, they say home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in. Hyde Park took us in.

We called it “The Life of the Mind”. But let’s face it—the mind doesn’t throw nearly as good a party as the body, especially those parts of the body that make 99% of college kids’ social decisions. In other college towns during my university years, kids with normal social lives were out getting arrest records. We were out getting mugged. My only brush with the law came the night I was walking home late from Jimmy’s, Hyde Park’s sole college bar. A squad car pulled up next to me. Over the loudspeaker boomed the Mephistophelian voice of another of my cousins: “BARB, DOES YOUR MOTHER KNOW YOU’RE OUT AT THIS HOUR?”

Jimmy Wilson in Jimmy's

Jimmy Wilson in Jimmy’s, the only actual college bar serving the U of C’s alcohol-consumption needs.

Really? Your college bar didn't included reference materials? That you actually used? Regularly?

Really? Your college bar didn’t included the complete works of Shakespeare and the Encyclopedia Britannica? That you actually used? Regularly? What did you do in that bar?

Apparently, Jimmy's was actually named "The Woodlawn Tap". Who knew?

Apparently, Jimmy’s was actually named “The Woodlawn Tap”. Who knew?









So naturally, when I heard that Miss America in a nurse’s cap had moved to the neighborhood, I greeted the news with the enthusiasm usually reserved for active plague carriers. She was no more anxious to meet me. The first person she saw when she got to Hyde Park was standing in the middle of the street having a heated argument (which he appeared to be losing) with himself about a dog. In Hyde Park, talking to yourself–and answering–is not uncommon. It might mean you are a Nobel Prize-winning scientist. It might mean you are a rubber-room refugee. Sadly, it often might mean both.

Soon after this, she met some people who beat her with pointed sticks for refusing their request that she hand over her bike. What really bothered her was the universal Hyde Park response that this was her fault for not having cash for the muggers. The first thing Hyde Park residents learned was to always carry an extra ten dollars for the mugger. (I did hear of a case where an impoverished graduate student’s mugger agreed to take a check…)

She was also disconcerted by the main topic of conversation at social gatherings. Roaches. You could guess one’s academic discipline from their preferred methods of roach removal. These ranged from the hard scientists employing biological warfare/chemical agents/engines of destruction, to the philosophers who questioned the roaches’ reality.

Parentally-enforced friending in a pre-facebook world.

Parent-enforced friending in a pre-facebook world. [image credit: memecenter.com]

But after about six months of increasing maternal pressure on both sides, we finally agreed to meet for dinner. Each of us brought along a friend whose sole function was to rescue us from potentially flagging conversation with a reminder about the three term papers/nursing shifts due in the morning. Don’t judge. Escape was hard in those prehistoric days BC (before cellphones).

To The Hub, our worry about finding conversational common ground is the funniest part of the story. When you come from large families like both mine and my cousin’s, you learn to talk early and often, and to follow at least three simultaneous conversations. He thinks if Eve had been in our family, we would never have left the Garden of Eden because the snake wouldn’t have gotten a word in edgewise.

And, in fact, the wing-friends listened in horrified silence as we got on the subject of my grandmother’s swell funeral.

Did you know about the Great-Uncle who was too cheap to rent a hotel room, so he slept in grandma’s bed?”

How about the one who snuck out of the funeral early so she could put her name on Grandma’s things that she wanted?”

Can you believe how smashed those cousins got at the restaurant after?”

And who were those two swabbing each other’s tonsils out in the hall?”

Too bad Grandma missed it–she would have had a ball.”

We got through the entire evening without ever mentioning roaches. I forgave her for being beautiful; she forgave me for being a Hyde Parker. I taught her my method for roach removal; she taught me how to apply eye-liner. We ended up sharing an apartment until she got married.

And we owe it all to Grandma’s swell funeral.

Well, that’s probably as close as I’ll ever get to a generational saga. (Okay, technically, I never stepped outside my own generation. Sometimes we just have to go with quantity over quality…

I know, I know... but a picture of a funeral was just not nearly as cute...

I know, I know… but a picture of a funeral was just not nearly as cute…

But someone who held out for quality in her stories about several generations of a family is Judith Barrow, author of the generational saga of the Howarth family. Please come back for my next post for my review of her stunning series.