In the following scenes, for instance, Tony goes through a struggle that's more common for white Americans than for many non-white ones--he tries to convince his mother to move into a nursing home.
If you thought about you mother today, on "Mother's Day," did you also think about a nursing home?
Chances are that if you're a white American, you're more likely to have had such thoughts than the sons and daughters of other racial groups.
As the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported in 2000 (and I doubt things have changed much since then), the majority of nursing home residents are women, and the nursing home population is "almost entirely white."
An especially vivid childhood memory for me took place in my nuclear family's living room. Grandma, my father's mother, was perched on the edge of the couch, smoking a cigarette. She was visiting us for a few days, spending some time away from her own, much smaller house, which was about a hundred miles away.
She'd moved into that house by herself after Grandpa died. As she talked to my parents that day, I came to understand that she wasn't getting on all that well by herself anymore. She felt lonely, and she needed help around the house sometimes.
My father had five siblings, all of whom were married with children, and I also came to understand that she'd been paying similar visits to each of them. These visits weren't going well.
"Six goddamn kids," she said at one point. She stabbed her cigarette into an ashtray and said it again. "I have six goddamn kids! And not one of them will take me in. Not one of them."
I don't remember what my parents said. I do remember that my grandmother ended up in her own apartment back in her hometown, in a building that was somehow reserved for old people. Despite her fondness for Marlboro Reds, she lived into her 80s, when she apparently died in her sleep. I imagine that if she had lived much longer, a nursing home would've been her next and final residence.
Now that I'm an adult, I know that my grandmother's grown children had a variety of reasons for not taking her in, and that some of those reasons were more than valid. But I also suspect that her children, who were fully in step with the broader, twentieth-century idolatry of the all-American "nuclear family," were enacting an especially white American tendency in their refusal of her request.
I'm having trouble finding research that explains why white Americans are more likely than others to live separately from their older parents, and to put them in nursing homes. At this point, I can only speculate. If you have any more solid explanations, please chime in.
Perhaps the children of non-white mothers resort to nursing homes less often because they know that their mothers are likely to receive worse care in them than white mothers do. Various studies show, for instance, that black and Hispanic residents are hospitalized more often than white residents, with bed sores, dehydration, poor nutrition, and other results of inattentive care.
But I think cultural and economic factors are more likely explanations for why more older white people end up in nursing homes.
Throughout most of American history, white and non-white families alike commonly lived as "extended" families, with several generations under one roof.
When the economy exploded after World War II, more people--especially white people--could afford to live in households that contained fewer people. A breadwinning father and a housekeeping mother who did almost of the childrearing became the pursued ideal, especially in the expanding, influential media of television and advertising. Grandparents were increasingly excluded from that idealized family portrait.
In addition to increased economic opportunities that benefited white people more than others, a cultural factor that I think partially accounts for the white movement away from extended family life is hyper-individualism. The post-war era's movement into Cold War competition with the Soviet Union included a heightened emphasis on that which distinguished America from its supposed national opposite.
Since Russia was figured as a totalitarian communist collective that de-emphasized the individual, America declared itself, more strongly than ever, a bastion of individual rights and freedom. As a consequence, Randian exclamations of "the virtue of selfishness" and the evils of altruistic collectivism rang especially true for many middle-class white people, who were already more inclined by their increasingly unacknowledged whiteness to see themselves in individualistic terms.
I suspect that along with these trends, older white Americans felt less willing to "lose their independence" by moving in with their children. They also may have had more "respect" than the elderly of previous generations for the individualized, seemingly autonomous lives of their children. Today, many older white people still seem more inclined to think of living with their children as "imposing a burden on them."
So, since I try to remain aware on a daily basis of my white racial training, those were some of my Mother's Day thoughts. In the future, I hope to better understand this common white tendency, that of dumping parents into nursing homes.
Is that word too severe? "Dumping?" I hope so.
But, in many cases, I suspect not.
What were your Mother's Day thoughts? Did you think about a nursing home?