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Twice an Offender

by Miriam Greenwald

I collect obituaries and death notices. I hunt down the page for announcements that don't mention the deceased was a spouse or parent. These are few and far between. So are the obits of the great, the near great and the ordinary who were solo singles. Included in my collection are a woman composer, a publishing house proofreader, a screen star and a couple of judges. Of one of the judges it was mentioned that he was a confirmed bachelor who was devoted to his mother. That would make him a statistical anomaly, an outlier, as the parlance goes.

I am also an outlier. I live at home with my mother. And I am past fifty. That makes me, like the judge, twice an offender. But it does not mean I am not independent. That depends on which definition is used, the individual's or society's. A conundrum indeed.

People have always looked askance at eccentrics. But eccentrics, some studies say, live longer. Maybe they know something, since many times they are ultimately vindicated. If anything, they are the most independent people around and therefore threatening.

I guess I follow an eccentric orbit. It was, after all, either live at home or possibly fall into one flawed, loveless marriage or another and/or keep working at a job for which I was ill suited so that I could have my own place. I chose the former. Sometimes things work out in unusual ways.

Nobody, in any case, should be asked to justify a lifestyle choice. After all, married people are not asked why they went through with the wedding, nor for that matter, are those who dutifully moved away from home asked why they made the move. Whether a person remains at home or, solo or
married, in his or her own house or apartment, each is a valid choice.

However, the moment it's revealed that someone is still at home past a certain age, no matter what worthwhile things done in that life, condescension rears its ugly head, and it doesn't matter whether that person is a street sweeper or a superintendent of schools. No wonder the fact isn't publicly divulged until it pops up in an obit like a curious footnote. Except in certain cultures, living with one's parents is hardly thought a virtue.

Once, shortly before I left teaching (I taught art in an urban school district) I visited a counselor to make the transition easier (it was far easier than I thought, but that's another story). When he found out I had never married, then discovered I didn't even have my own place, he became very upset. "There's something wrong with you if you're living at home past the age of thirty!" I was thirty five at the time. Then, still indignant, he proceeded to berate me on my lack of "clear goals" and and on my obvious failure as a teacher, insisting curiously, though, that I would never be able to do anything else (I love my present job) . Keeping residence with my parents was proof positive I was emotionally stunted.

Going off to seek your fortune, if you can, of course getting married and starting your own nuclear family is the normal thing to do and also the stuff of drama. Staying put is not. The consensus is that makes for a dull, marginal existence. Not true!

The Italian painter Giorgio Morandi, who did exquisite still lifes, lived with his sisters and never moved farther than 30 miles from his birthplace. Most would find such a life unbearably stifling. But it suited him. Was he thereby diminished as a person and an artist because he never went off on his own? Some would eagerly label him neurotic or even schizoid because he didn't follow the majority. And that is not being fair.

As for the rest of us single solos at home, we don't have any drama or color in our lives? We're not desirable companions? We haven't lived? What is so galling to the conformist is we haven't lived according to the conventional script. Consider a woman who, even in these liberated times, goes straight from her parents' house to her husband's and decides not to work outside the home, thus becoming financially tethered to him. She is looked upon as more adult and responsible than a fully employed single person who is also caring for elderly parents. We also make beds, do laundry, cook, chauffeur.

Sometimes our responsibilities make it difficult for us to "get a life" . But then plenty of people are trapped in dull as dishwater marriage or they are all by themselves in apartments they can't stand and are forced to remain in jobs they despise or even hate so that they can maintain, you guessed it, their independence.

Sometimes people say they were ready to make the break. Good for them, but "ready" implies having previously been stuck at a lower level. And that often isn't true.

Living at home does not mean a life of failure. Or, for that matter, a life that's simply a footnote.

Miriam Greenwald is a member of the American Association for Single People. She lives in Pennsylvania.


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