Living in the Shadow of the American Dream

Photo by Boston Public Library on Unsplash

Christmas 1988

My mother is a nostalgic kind of person.

It’s hard for her to let go of anything she’s collected in the 26 years since I was born, including dozens of discolored old toys that hide in boxes throughout storage. Plastic bath submarines, stuffed animals that once happened to exist in the same room as me, a Darth Vader helmet that terrifies her but she clings to nonetheless. Each time I visit I encourage her to go through it all and find the things she feels a real attachment to, and each time we come across the same memorabilia, old tools that outlived their purpose but find their nook in the corner nonetheless. On a recent night, we unloaded a series of VHS tapes, dusty with colorful Polaroid print. We fed them to the player, also hungry from years of disuse.

It’s Christmas, 1988. I’ve seen the baby and childhood tapes before but even my mom pinches her face in confusion. Something before our collective memory starts? An anomalous gem.

The family gathers together in ceremony around a pair of couches and armchairs in floral yellow. A midcentury landscape hangs above. My aunt stares into the camera and squints to make sure the tape is rolling, the images and sound being pressed in real-time to a thin band of vulnerable tan film. My mother wasn’t able to make it back home this year, so this documentary was her voyeur. I doubt my aunt knew that, 30 years later, we’d sit in a similar setting and conjure these old spirits together again.

I was too young to remember these kinds of family gatherings and can only catch the memories in glimpses and feelings — my grandma’s cookies, the musk of the suburban home in Chicago (fresh with melted snow), the texture of furniture embroidery, and the sound of the piano from the family room.

Here, my grandfather is clean-shaven, a marathon shirt hanging over his tall pleated slacks. He has naturally furrowing cheeks, a long nose and a certain convincing glance, a way he surveys the gift in his hand before looking up with a numinous movie-star smile. He’s 58 here, but his voice is smooth and assured, a lifetime of business persuasion under his belt. How could anyone take the news of another company-mandated cross-country move, another job change, another product sold and not thank him for the gift of his time?

He strikes me as the kind of man who hangs on his own words, feels their weight and sheen, and shares them out of his own genuine kindness. In ten years he’ll be restricted to a wheelchair and forget his own name during a tempestuous battle with Parkinson’s and Alzheimers. As a teen, I’ll tell him to keep his hands off the table and just finish his damn Subway sandwich (to which he’ll respond, “Who asked you to be such a hard ass?”) For now, at least, he’s a character in this film, an archetype both familiar and distant.

My aunt gives directions, asking children out of the picture, describing the scene in a flat tone that asks for nuance in order to decipher the feelings. Home movie documentaries are a relatively new phenom during this taping, so maybe I’m just being overly critical. In real time my mother smiles and shakes her head when my aunt speaks. My grandmother looks tired and hard to please and says pleasantries over a long sweater dress — she’s just received a similar garment but in a warm carmine. She is quiet, accustomed, I infer, to being an auxiliary to grandpa’s wit. I have yet to see her smile through the banded static of the recording.

The cousins walk by in matching red dresses, two and five years-old. Later, my grandmother plays the piano with my grandfather hanging over her shoulder, clarinet in his hands. My aunt accompanies with a grating violin, the camera passed through the day like a plastic baton. Big glasses frame the eyes of almost everyone in the room.

Who is this family, frozen in ’80s amber?

Scholarship still questions the exact definition of the “Nuclear Family.” The origins of the term extend as far back as 1925, when it first came to mean a household including a mother, father, and children. This is in contrast to an “extended family,” which includes more far-flung relationships like aunts, cousins, and grandparents in the home. The “nuclear” refers to the core relationship of the domicile, the nucleus, the center from which life force constellates and protects.

And yet, my association has always been the term’s misconception: the Nuclear Family, a generation of families organized around a breadwinning husband, a homemaking mother and wife, and two kids destined for a college education — all during the height of the Atomic Age and the Cold War. This is an era when air raid sirens were installed on public grounds and kids ducked beneath their desk to naively weather the blast wave of a nuclear air-drop.

This is the family of the American Dream, considered the “traditional family.” Its hallmarks were the suburban icons, a Cadillac stowed shinily in the driveway, the white picket fence corralling the toddlers into a spacious green lawn. This was the image of prosperity and success. It created the self-made man and his darling family.

The videotape feels like a sliver of the era plucked from the middle of its downward trajectory, a multi-generational festival that, like future meetings, lacks me and my mother. Even though I wasn’t yet born, the decline of our nuclear family — the unexpected deaths, the splintered members, the disillusionment phase of our nuclear fallout — feels hauntingly present, like the ghost-of-future-to-come was spinning the plastic spools.

Many of us are gifted to have a large family, one which is fiercely connected, and one in which generations are bound together like pages in a history. Many of us are gifted to have two sets of grandparents. Many of us are also gifted to see and experience and speak to them when we’ve already started to make ourselves into something. Many fewer are gifted to see them gently decline and pass in peace.

Being an only child, from a single-parent household, I dream of the missed connections. My grandmother spent an agonizing and opiated stay in the hospital after a sudden hip fracture when I was in middle school. My grandfather subsequently moved from his native midwest to our small Colorado home, where we bought a hospital-grade bed and force-fed him like he was a child, and where emergencies fell on the household like intensifying iterations of the same bomb. My aunt passed in her sleep, mid-50s, and early.

What I’m left with is oral histories, fragile and instantaneous things. We have other links too, cataloged histories, the pictures and videos and mementos. But these are silent. Not in a literal way, but a more profound one. Both our spoken and recorded histories are easily lost through the right disasters. But always gone is the context, the continuation, the dimensionality that separates watching from participating.

Maybe it’s because I’m also at that age where family becomes invention rather than inheritance, and my feudal ties are few, meaning I don’t have a legacy of land or family currency to share with my eventual children. What would I tell them when we came and stood on my hometown grounds? What about the China sets, the film slides, the leather books? I think back to our cabinet, which has silver salt and pepper shakers and a matching handful of heirloom spoons. Somewhere there’s a Prussian sword. And none of it really means anything to anyone. My mother has rooms full of nicknacks, and it all feels like a language I cannot speak.

As my mother and I sit and watch the video unwind, I want to reach through the static of the tapes and ask them about their day, the latest sports results, the magazine story they read over breakfast and what stuck with them. But as the tape clicks, the memory stops. They are returned to their boxes. The photos sit framed on our shelves like old Roman statues, static, unspeaking, and mythological.

This is the charting of our “post-modern” family, and the generational disconnect of our disparate, idealized, chiefly American lives.

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

The Beginnings

I don’t believe I was ever taught the exact definition of a “traditional family.”

It’s one of those phrases that comes afterward, part of a retrospective act that adds lexicon to eras in which such things didn’t exist. From retrospectives like “MASH” and “Andy Griffith,” an onslaught of images and textbooks reaffirm the idyllic nature of midcentury America. Through these voyeurs, the traditional family was an economic and moral statement on our modern Americanness.

“Our most powerful visions of traditional families derive from images that are still delivered to our homes in countless reruns of 1950s television sitcoms,” writes Stephanie Coontz in The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. “Contrary to popular opinion, ‘Leave it to Beaver’ was not a documentary.”

But is our tape any more authentic? To begin, we have to look back.

In the 1950s the Baby Boomers arrived. Freed from the threat of world war and drowning in a thriving economy, Americans began leaving the city for the suburbs. College education, once a possibility for the select, was welcoming hundreds of thousands on the G.I. Bill. The patriotism arising from victory over the Axis Powers gave rise to a new pride, an identity that sought to define the quintessential life of a good, hardworking American. It was a striving for the definition of American in its most robust scaffolding.

My grandfather, arriving from the grided farms of Indiana, met my grandmother at state college, in Wisconsin. She came from a different background, having been handed off to her neighbors in St. Louis at the height of the Great Depression (a common practice at that time). He was a house boy for her sorority, honeyed by her parlor piano melodies. The oldest photograph I have of her is from this era, pin curls furled over a necklace of simple pearls. His corresponding portrait shows his checks smooth and plump. They both glimmer in the sepia.

My mother and I rehash these scenes over and over, on car trips and over the phone, over dinner and the family cribbage board.

“Your grandfather graduated, got married, and enlisted in the army reserves all within two weeks,” she tells me. “When they moved to Georgia — because, you know, that’s where he was stationed before he left for Korea — mom was already pregnant.”

It was 1952, and life moved quickly.

“Really, two weeks? What did he do in Korea?”

We’ve gone over some of these stories before, but the details are lost in the narrative points of interest. “Oh, he was just an MP after the real fighting was done — but you knew that already.”

But you knew that already, a common phrase from assumptive parents to forgetful children.

“He never told you about that stuff?” she asks. My grandfather died in 2011, my grandmother in 2008. My mother’s assumption is part of that longstanding practice of parents guessing their children pay attention through it all when, of course, we’re too busy worrying about the specifics of quickly passing days. We turn into our driveway and I wonder how many family histories have laid in hibernation because of our counterpart assumptions that we know everything there is to know about our own gated family.

My grandfather returned from the Korean War with trinkets gathered from his Asiatic travels. There’s a single photo I’ve seen of him standing amidst a range of dirt hills, helmet clunky and tilted on his head, his uniform wearing his thin six-foot frame. There’s legend of a box with projector slides from this era, but the only things we have left are a pair of silver Japanese salt shakers and a set of silver bamboo spoons. No context, only a manufacturer.

The America my grandfather came back to was rapidly changing, profiting on the wealth of war and enjoying its new spotlight as a superpower. Industry boomed; communities flowered. They soon relocated to Detroit, where my grandfather began his latest position: an accountant with the Ford Motor Company, his christening as a company man. With American steel in the driveway, a comfortable income and a full-time housewife at home, they completed their nuclear family with a second child — my mother.

This history is alien to me, having grown up on individual paychecks in cramped Colorado apartments. The mythos of the prosperous ’50s was as distant as my grandparents themselves. My mother draws fingers through the air, counting the Cadillacs and Mercedes and various other luxuries. This is the part of the story where she enters, as the family shuffles to Long Island, Kalamazoo, Milwaukee, and finally, Chicago, an interminable string of jobs my grandfather forced the family along as they built their American Dream in the prime cities of an American reverie.

Just a handful of years prior to my mother’s birth, William Levitt invented the suburb. “For Sale: A New life” was the slogan hammered into picket-fenced yards on the outskirts of metropolises across the United States. And indeed, this was a new way of life, a new mode of consumption for a one-time farm boy and a survivor from the St. Louis depression. For those in the New Dream, it didn’t matter what it was, how it was — just so long as it could be obtained from the latest catalog.

Everything was identical, a phenomenon eventually dubbed “tract housing.” These homes were built with the same ingredients by the same stationed workers. This made the construction of 30 homes a day not just possible, but par — Levitt’s invention was to build homes as simple, and therefore as cheaply, as possible. There was no time to focus on byproducts, and Levitt’s movement was a natural extension of another early philosophy, that of Henry Ford, who saw the reduction of complex work to be the future apex of modern capitalism.

“The average worker, I am sorry to say, wants a job in which he does not have to put forth much physical exertion,” Ford said. “Above all, he wants a job in which he does not have to think.”

Ford’s philosophy culminated in his famous assembly line, the monstrous process housed in the complex sidelining the River Rouge, which was only a short drive from my family’s eventual suburban Detroit tract 30 years later. The new “Fordism” was accompanied by its own Sociological Department, which aimed to engineer Ford’s own workers away from “sin” and toward frugal, balanced, temperate life at work and at home. Labor was no longer a station for survival but a religion prizing apathy and individual function. People wielded exciting new inventions, and mechanized themselves in the process.

The ethos of Detroit was directed by this industrial philosophy into the 1950s and ’60s. Ford motorcars became one option in the lineup of an established car culture, which was now principal in the image of American success, alongside Levitt’s four-sided homes. Labor expanded to include women (however fractional that progress was) and the promise of opportunity, especially through new access to universities, brought millions to new cities, families, and lifestyles. A new middle-class was born with the nascent mythos of the era: The American Dream.

James Truslow Adams divined the concept in the 1931 book, Epic of America:

It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position… The American dream, that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, though that has doubtlessly counted heavily. It has been much more than that. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.

Based in the belief that the multicultural plenty of the United States was available to everyone, the American Dream grew over time to encompass a lifestyle. But it’s a concept that struggles with Fordism, which also sought to improve class standing at the expense of personal freedom. Work became a means to an end, a joyless system where a profession gave you the liberty to enjoy life outside of your job. The story begins to feel familiar here.

While the American Dream aimed to open the horizons of possibility, the dominant wealthy of American cities chose to instead move to the suburbs, ditching crowded city apartments for spacious homes in secluded neighborhoods. These homes became carbon copies, as did the prominent image of a white nuclear family seen through the afternoon window. While the vehicles carried disparate, newly minted Americans, the destinations became ubiquitous. Success became standardized.

There’s a certain irony hidden there too — as America destructively fought against communism and its associated ubiquity, it simultaneously marketed its ready-made cul-de-sacs as innovative, unique, the height of capitalism’s predation. It must have been here that the machine was made, before rage was parceled out on t-shirts and group forums. It was similarly built by some and enjoyed by others, laid over the ruins of razed communities to make way for the next big thing. To be typical was to be enviable. You wanted to be like everyone else — or rather, everyone else to be like you. Especially after my grandparents’ estate sale, it was clear that this era was overcome with consumption.

What I would have loved to ask my grandfather about that.

But the epic continues: after leaving Ford for IBM, he moved the family across the country.

“We used to joke that IBM didn’t stand for International Business Machines, but for I’ve Been Moved,” my mother tells me. The company was expanding and needed its employees to hop from city to city, pushing the slow movement of new machinery that would also change our American destiny — the computer.

But after enough resettlement, my grandmother, a more passive follower in this story, said no. Their joint solution in the cold of Chicago was my grandfather would start his own franchise as a PCR — personal computer renter — with her as a second employee. He’d visit schools and potential clients, putting on a demonstration for computers he’d then lease out until new models made those obsolete. She would handle the paperwork and logistics. It was originally a two-person business, just he and my grandmother, run out of the offices and spare rooms in their spacious Chicago home.

She’d held a job before, working part-time at a department store, before she began declining call-ins because they needed her in-store far too often (they had the kids to manage, after all). This is one of the few times I hear of struggle on the superhighway of their young lives, bestowed in the form of a second mortgage, and an argument over her life outside the home.

But this too is a necessary chapter in the forging of an American Dream. Jettisoned from the dream of corporate advancement, they struck out on their own. The kids grew up, attended private and ivy universities, and began their own successful careers as a doctor and an accountant.

The Dream lived on.

Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash

The New Dream

I myself am unmarried. Even though I transferred schools and took five years to get through college, my life follows a typical trajectory. I dutifully went to church as a kid, flunked my middle-school science fair, took a picture in front of my first car. I said the pledge of allegiance through elementary school, every morning, hand over heart.

My relative success is part of America’s manifest destiny, written into the fine print of our collective dream. At times it feels pioneering, other times a return to the legend of my grandparents, a cosmic grain of sand separating our respective generations. It’s a world that continues to instill the hunger of success, with the traditional pillars of that success validating the arc of our lives.

As a kid the blitz of messaging was to graduate high school, go to college, get a job. After leaving high school and floating in limbo through the beginning years of college, I felt like I’d done everything right. I was here, I’d made it, I’d followed the script. That’s when I came to realize the tremendous effort put into getting me to college without telling me why I should even be there. It was a fact of life more than it was a series of individual choices. Another product from Ford’s assembly line.

“Selective memory is not a bad thing when it leads children to forget arguments in the back seat of the car and to look forward to their next vacation,” Coontz writes. ”But it’s a serious problem when it leads grown-ups to try to re-create a past that either never existed at all or whose seemingly attractive features were inextricably linked to injustices and restrictions on liberty that few Americans would tolerate today.”

I call up my Mom to ask her: what did you want to be when you grew up? You lived life in the window-dressing — was it all they say it was?

She wanted to be an architect. “But women weren’t architects in that time,” she tells me. “It was never even an option. I signed up for the class but they said it was off-limits for girls.”

She recounts the rebelliousness of the ’60s and ’70s, listening to Beatles records in the basement and shuttling to Baltimore to see Led Zeppelin. There were other details too, like the time a student on her campus committed suicide on the quad in protest of Vietnam.

She lived this marquee life for decades, getting married and working at a corporate headquarters in the Quad Cities, then later in Colorado. But things fall apart. The stoic life of a housewife gave way to new dreams, blossomed from new failures. True freedom became the destination, the right to make wrong decisions. She became part of the collective awakening from our shared nuclear slumber, realizing the truest pillar of the American Dream, one walked by many but recognized by few: sacrifice.

There’s no doubt that millions of people have risen to before-incomprehensive heights through their American narrative. But the story of this rise, the story of this dream, excludes those who make it possible. While proselytizing the spectrum of American success, the dream purposefully excludes the stories of those who build The Dream.

A country with the most billionaires but rampant poverty; a country that holds itself as a beacon of democratic equality while instituting racist policies over centuries; a country that dares to call itself the greatest while millions pay for a right to live. While my grandfather handled spreadsheets in his Ford office, workers labored to build the progress below him, expendable figures on a chart. The highways their exodus built are laid on the bones of its builders.

As The Dream pushes us all to envision a better life, the sobering reality is that the great many of us are not destined for greatness. Or perhaps, if you’re more optimistic, it’s that ‘greatness’ isn’t the only worthy destiny.

The great many of us will fill expiring jobs, settling into our suburban wonderlands and noticing the sameness of it all — the strip malls, the variant subdivisions, the occasional stadium. These are the tokens of our success, our concessions in order to find happiness in the expansive grayness of it all.

My grandparents, wealthy retirees, faced senescence with a series of difficult personal and financial battles as they struggled — failingly — to find nursing homes that wouldn’t bankrupt them. My mother, now faced with a series of technological leaps, has struggled to keep up with a country banking on a young workforce and neglecting its silvan workers. In retirement, the cost of living makes social security a drop in the bucket, forcing my mom to continue to work after we struggled to stay afloat for so, so long.

The American dream is fueled by the mirage and veneer of progress. Things can get better, but perhaps even worse than better is things staying the same, its own kind of American exceptionalism. The dream of my grandparent's era was the construction of this widespread sameness. Even now, gridlock is a savvy boon for millions.

In order to succeed, someone else mustn’t. How many suffered through poverty while my family enjoyed their greened Detroit residence; how many were beaten while the kids drove into Long Island; how many from the South Side were denied residence elsewhere so my family could enjoy the rolling hills of Barrington.

This suffering for greatness is a truer American Dream. Working two jobs to put me through school, eating from minimum wage, sleeping in a U-Haul while drifting for a home — this was our American Dream. My mother, more than any other outlier, is the vehicle for my success. For years, working 6–7 days on minimum wage, all so I could live life as I wanted it, as my dream asked of me. Those who live their lives, intentionally or unintentionally, in service of others. Sacrifice, then, is the pillar of today’s American awakening, as it always has been.

In the end, those who profited from The Dream have ended taken different paths to the same destination. They knew that not everyone could attain these heights, that someone had to do the dirty jobs, the inglorious things, that exclusivity was part of the package. So they convinced themselves that they worked different jobs (with the same roles); they visited different neighbors (for the same potlucks); they drove different cars (but traveled the same freeways). They all lived in their individualized sameness.

The American dream is a collective dream, a dream served up by governments, by families who’ve had it prescribed like anti-depressants, or pain killers. It’s urban planning as a trap, a road to a dead end. It’s evening PTA meetings, a reluctantly dialed call to family, years of smaller portions so the kids can eat more. We alchemize the fear of living average through sacrifice, through the birth of new potential in those we love, in giving away pieces of our hopes so they might build the futures of those who carry it on, messengers of the anomalous Dream. This is the partial synchronicity of generations, in which the young live out the older’s dreams, only to realize that dreams are made of our own transient boundaries and realities. They miss the changes to life, immutable principles made tacky, and our vision expanded.

What did my grandparents wish for me?

At the core, I wonder about the things I missed out on — the difficult questions that I put to my mom now. My Aunt loved the sitcom Frasier, and I would have loved to ask her about it after living in Seattle, or to ask her for stories she gathered as a doctor. One of the few artifacts I have from my grandmother is a high school copy of Paradise Lost with her notes scrawled in the margins. I can imagine us sitting to an afternoon cup of tea with her famous cookies, discussing the anti-heroism of Satan as he’s cast from heaven and left to build his own empire outside of paradise, outside of Eden, and outside of the ‘ideal’ way of life.

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven,” writes Milton. As a woman whose only avenue to freedom was marriage, did my grandmother see even one piece of herself in the revolutionary character of Lucifer, who chose liberation in hell over submission in heaven? Is that the story of our lives, too? My mother, cast from the Adam and Eve of our nuclear family, building her own future through the trials and tribulations of an unorthodox, non-perfect — non Nuclear-American — life?

For me, I’ve lived the life of millions, funneled through our manifold examples of high school top percenters, graduates from state universities, and budding career professionals — the average yet specific life of an American Dream that refuses to cave in on itself. Maybe it’s because of my pedigree that success feels so dull, like my progress is a restoration more than a revolution. The game has always been skewed toward my favor, yet at this juncture, it feels like a waste. All those spirits broken, just for me to be bored in my consumerism every night. There’s a valorism in suffering, one that’s enviable for even the most successful.

We’re told to do what we love, but how do we know what that is? Maybe my mother found meaning and joy through my life because it was easier to find that thing she loved, a person rather than a career. The great sacrifice of the American Dream is the liberty of those who lived for others, who cast-off the disconcerted philosophy of the Levitts and Fords and manifested a meaningful life through preservation.

Maybe the secret of the nuclear family wasn’t its ‘optimal productivity’ and goodness, but the abject hardness that willed millions into the future through the singular promise of its opportunity for others over themselves. Come to America, give yourself away for the future of others. Perhaps the true ascension was never ascension itself, the transgressing of class boundaries, the rags to riches story, the attainment of the nuclear family.

Instead, I believe The Dream is hidden in the forgotten, those who never found much improvement in their lives, but chose instead to pass opportunity onto others. Those who hoarded the hard decisions. Who recognize the miraculous in the ordinary, and see the struggle for its fullest value. This is the story of America that I’ve seen, the one I’ve had no choice to live, and the one I will preserve in the pantheon of our recorded stories.

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Alec is a journalist working in podcasting and public radio. Current interests include: parsing through old college notes and a cure-all for procrastination.

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Alec Cowan

Alec Cowan

Alec is a journalist working in podcasting and public radio. Current interests include: parsing through old college notes and a cure-all for procrastination.

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