Nuclear family breakdown

Our streets are quiet, houses hiding their sequestered stories. Single joggers, without running mates, claim the middle of the road. There are no real church services or huddlings at the local brew-pub. My classrooms are locked and dark, a packet of Lysol wipes left abandoned from the sudden exit a month ago.

This looks like a parody of what American life did to us in its heyday. We are each alone, or stuck in our nuclear family units. The victory and wealth that followed World War II, as David Brooks wrote about it in the Atlantic last month, brought to an end the 10,000-year reign of the Extended Family. We didn’t need to keep our children living with us when they grew up, or to keep our parents around when they retired. Ambition and the interstate scattered us far and wide. Now, with the coronavirus forcing us to practice social distancing and sheltering in place, it looks like a mockery of independence and individualism. We’re isolated – for the common good.

But the magic of digital technology is calling us to reconnect with the extended family. Thanks to Zoom, we become live video images reconnecting around our kitchen tables and on porches,Cumming clan Screen Shot 2020-03-31 at 4.16.52 PM brothers and sisters together, the generations reunited. (Even in the severely locked down nursing-care facilities, we send digital greetings or talk through the “window” of the internet). It seems a natural response to this natural disaster.

I have been Zooming almost daily with my older brother in Nashville, my younger brother in Black Mountain, N.C., and our sister in Decatur. Their children, in other places as far away as Oregon, sometimes join us. We talk about anything, or nothing much, but always enjoying this time together. And we talk about that. “This is so great,” we say, loving each other as perfectly as ever, it seems.

We’ve come around, past the grief and turmoil of our mother dying three and a half years ago at 90. And there’s a recent grief. We extend the powerful intimacy we had around the ICU bed of Bryan’s wife Holly at the end of February, when she passed away with a pneumonia that was not Covid-19 but taught us the very medical support that would soon be needed for thousands more across the land. Bryan is alone now but not lonely, it seems, as he is creatively putting together the beautiful images and songs that Holly left us. She smiles radiantly for us in so many photographs that he loads onto his social media platforms, technical wonders that are mere maps of the real relationships he has with us and Holly’s kinfolk, with his fellow musicians and with his house-church family.

We three brothers and sister share what we know or don’t know about Covid-19, stories from the news or from the view we have where we are, in four contiguous Southern states. We become our own little news program, producers and reporters broadcasting to themselves. Walter recommends good movies. Bryan teaches me the guitar licks that begin “I’ve Just Seen a Face.” Anne tells about how happy the horses seem as she tends them out at Little Creek Farm, the location of the therapeutic riding program she started there. The program is in hiatus, the horses needing only daily feeding and maintenance. “They are so happy they don’t have to work.”

Screen Shot 2020-04-18 at 1.42.31 PMYesterday, the three of us in this house Zoomed with our son Daniel in Austin and our son William on his farm in Fancy Gap, Va. It was a first Zoom for William, Alyssa and little Avis, the nearly 2-year-old darling star of Alyssa’s Facebook art-photography. We are a family again, and what an amazing threesome – Dan, Will and Sarah Rose. They are so different from one another and yet so bonded together. I loved hearing Daniel and William talk about their work – Daniel is making plastic ventilator masks with a 3-D printer for what sounds like a start-up business, and William showed us his invented “woodstones” cut with his electric miter saw, another possible start-up. It feels like the old form of extended family – where work too was connected with the home and farm and we were all there across the generations.





About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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