Family Mecca

Dreaming of a compound for us, and future generations

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Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

I have a dream. It’s been steeping for quite a while. I think the idea was hatched, or at least strengthened, one Fourth of July holiday three or four years ago.

My son and I went to the parade and picnic in Piedmont, a small, wealthy community tucked within the boundaries of Oakland.

We spread our blanket beneath the benevolent branches of an ancient oak. Nearby a large, mixed-race group with multiple baskets laden with fragrant picnic food and wine kindly offered us pieces of tender jerk chicken, squares of ambrosiac black cake, and cups of wine.

The group was mostly from Jamaica and Nigeria. We spoke about their journeys to the U.S. and were fortunate to hear some of their tales.

They told us they did something typical in immigrant communities like theirs: They came one-by-one, established themselves, then reached back for the one next in line.

They told us they act as the bank for the next family member or friend to arrive. As soon as they have their basic needs met, they begin putting money away for the next person.

And this wasn’t just a little cache of cash. Dave, the devilishly handsome member of the group, told us that they lived together with several to a room, bunk-house style, until they had amassed enough money to buy a house for the person who came first. Once that person had their house, they all put money into the pot for the next person’s house, and so on. Not one of them used a bank or credit of any kind. The family was the bank. The community was the bank.

I told my friend Michael about this. He’d lived in China for more than a decade. He said, “Yes, that’s how the Chinese do it too. The family is the bank.”

This intrigued me greatly.

How could I be the bank? How could we make the family the bank?

I’d gotten burned more than once — by student loans, by a bad mortgage, by an unfair and sudden increase in property taxes when my ex and I separated, and certainly numerous times by the IRS.

I wanted to keep as much of our money for ourselves as possible. I learned the hard way, with shock and astonishment, that the U.S. Government will take as much of our money as it can, that it’s up to each of us to protect ourselves from that unprincipled and aggressive grab.

I liked very much the idea of being the bank.

I also learned from our new friends that often these houses were together, two houses on one lot, or on the same block or neighborhood. It afforded protection, but not just protection — also coziness. It’s a warm feeling knowing your closest friends and family are physically close, watching out for you and your kids.

It’s what community is supposed to be.

With the pandemic, the crime rate in Oakland, where I live, has sky-rocketed. On a quick search, I learn that in the last three weeks, there have been 19 incidences of armed robberies and carjackings by youths aged 11–16. Not all armed robberies and car-jackings , mind you — just those performed by this age group.

Homicides are also up.

I confess it makes me a little nervous.

I tell my kids, be more careful right now. “When entering your apartment, watch your back,” I tell my son who is house-sitting near Lake Merritt downtown. To my daughter who made a quick trip to Goodwill for a gift this evening, after dark, I said, “Be careful. If someone approaches your window at a red light, look both ways and drive through the red light.”

I’ve been fantasizing for months or maybe years about buying a property in Italy when I retire, that is, when I leave the corporate world.

Why Italy? Well, it’s Italy. The land of la dolce vita.

Also: Because its population is growing old and not enough Italians are having babies, Italy is contending with the peculiar and distressing problem of a good portion of its beauty and history being washed away, like so much beach sand in a storm.

Hilltop towns, dozens of them, possibly hundreds of them, are bereft of denizens — denizens they need to live in and care for the oldest houses, the stone streets, the ancient restaurants and bars and churches. Towns are literally melting away over time.

This is why town after town is offering $1 houses for sale.

Some of these edifices are large farmhouses and villas. Even estates. Estates with delicately frescoed walls and ceilings.

For a fourth of what it costs to buy a modest two-bedroom home in Oakland, you can get a villa in the Italian countryside a couple of hours from Rome. A villa three or four times as big as said house in Oakland, with four or five bedrooms, and land. Land that has growing upon it row after row of ancient olive trees, poetic and white and gnarled, with silvery leaves, heavy with plump black olives. These estates even earn an annual income from said heavy, oil-filled olives.

The clincher? The four of use — yes, even B., the ex who lives with me — all have EU passports. B., Bo, and Nina have Italian passports through B.’s dad, who is from Poianella, a village outside of Vicenza in the Veneto region, not far from Venice. I have an Irish passport from my Irish grandparents.

I often ponder, Why are we here still, when all four of us have EU passports?

Yet, here we are.

But, that is the subject of another article.

The compound. The villa. The estate.

What is it about? What is it about for me? It’s not just that I want to keep my kids close for selfish reasons, because I don’t want to live alone (although I don’t want to live alone; I never want to live alone). Rather, I believe that kids and parents, all family members, are happier when they remain close. I believe humans are pack animals and do better in groups.

I also think the strange decades we are coming out of, when independence and intense individualism were vaunted, are petering out, and quickly.

I don’t think it worked, the “nuclear family.” Abandoning our elders to “homes” and cutting ties to extended family, farming our babies out to daycare centers so we could all work till we dropped, these are not just problematic, but barbaric, practices.

We need one another.

I hate that I put my father in a home.

I want that the system change and make it possible once again for family to care for one another, without fear, guilt, anxiety, or breaking the bank.

I want a simpler life. I want a big, pretty house with land and ancient olive trees, something that will give my children a toehold in Europe, should they desire or need it.

The future has never been clear. Every generation has doubts and fears.

Every generation has its traumas: disease, war, famine, disaster.

But, global warming, paired with an exploding global population, promises to be a major cataclysm that takes place so quickly, the earth, and the earth’s populations, can’t adapt quickly enough. What will happen if systems begin breaking down?

Life is going to get harder in the coming decades. The balance of power is changing rapidly. The earth’s climate is no longer stable, predictable, or benevolent.

Families will need to stay together, draw their boundaries, and care for one another. Communities will need to draw closer and become more self-sufficient.

We’ve been lonely. We’ve been distracted. We’ve been focused on the wrong things. Capitalism is drawing its last gasps. The planet is groaning. Things are changing, must change.

In the mean time, we have our lives to live. The idea of leaving a house with land in Italy to my kids and grandkids appeals to me on a number of levels. It’s a legacy I can strive for and dream I while away hours pursuing. It’s pure escapism, of course, and I may find myself a very lonely, displaced American in the Molise. But, then again, it just may be crazy and romantic enough to work.

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