One year for Christmas, my aunt and uncle constructed a homemade, Grisanti-themed version of the party game Apples to Apples called, charmingly, Olives to Olives. The nouns were a dizzying collection of inside jokes from the generation above me. My cousins and brothers and I recognized a few of the references, but spent most of the night asking the grown-ups to explain what they were laughing about.
A highlight of the game was the story of RB. RB’s story goes like this:
When my father and his six siblings were children, they had a pet rabbit named RB (short for Rab-Bit). RB was an adequate pet – not as lovable as a dog, but more exciting than a hamster or a goldfish. One day, RB went missing. (Before you hear the rest of this story, keep in mind that my paternal grandparents lived through the Great Depression. This should clue you in to what comes next.)
The night of RB’s disappearance, my grandfather, Ferd, made dinner.
“What is it?” asked the kids.
“Cacciatore,” replied Ferd.
Cacciatore means hunter and refers to a rustic cooking style involving braised meat, tomatoes, onions, wine, and spices. Pollo alla cacciatora was a common menu item in my grandparents’ kitchen.
“Chicken cacciatore?” probed the kids.
“Cacciatore,” Ferd snapped back.
Now everyone at the table knew exactly where their pet had gone.
Poor RB. He had died in vain. The kids refused to eat, forcing my grandparents to labor through the extra servings.
Since coming back to Louisville, I’ve noticed that all the kids I grew up with have turned into adults. I’m fairly certain this process has been gradual, but it feels sudden, like a summer shower. I step outside and the ground is wet. Did it just rain? How did I miss it? Wasn’t I looking out the window just a second ago?
I’m the oldest cousin on both my mother’s and my father’s sides. I had never thought much of this fact – a fluke of birth order, nothing more. Lately, though, I’m starting to feel the weight of this uniquely melancholy position. I recall when my parents dropped me off at college. As we hugged goodbye, my mom choked up and I, 18 and embarrassed, shooed her out the door. Now, 11 years later, at every family party I am my teary mother. I’ll look around at the grown-up versions of my brothers and cousins and think, “All of these people have…lives – real, independent lives. They have routines and relationships and habits and hobbies and regrets.” On bad days, my wistfulness threatens to morph into self-loathing. I wonder, “Oh no, has everyone passed me on the road to adulthood? Am I the weird, artsy cousin who can’t get her life together?”
Since the recession started, the media has been going crazy over millennials and how we live our lives. We’re too selfish to get married, too lazy to get jobs. We love technology and eschew human connection. We’re overeducated and entitled and a bunch of overgrown children. I’m less interested in taking down these arguments (which, for the record, are facile, reductive, and display a willful ignorance of the economy) and more interested in shifting the conversation entirely. Let’s redefine the signifiers of adulthood. Being an adult is not tantamount to buying a house or planning a wedding. It shouldn’t be a measure of how much money we have, but rather of how compassionate we are. I realize the Pollyanna-ness of that statement, but hear me out. Sustained compassion is not easy. It takes time and energy. It takes work.
A few weeks ago, my boyfriend Steve and I went to see my youngest brother’s new place. We got the tour. We saw the upstairs office and the yard. It really is a lovely home. What struck me the most, though, was not the wall hangings or the number of bedrooms. What struck me was the hospitality. Steve and I hadn’t had lunch yet, so my brother cranked up the grill and made us hamburgers and brats. The meal was unplanned. We were hungry, so my brother fed us. Over lunch, we told stories about growing up. I had the realization that this is what being grown-up feels like. It is the practice of nourishing each other – with food, with friendship, with stories.
In 20 years, I’d like to make an updated version of the Grisanti family party game – Olives to Olives: Millennial Edition. I can imagine my generation of cousins, middle-aged versions of our young adult selves. We’re probably laughing. We’re probably arguing politics. We’re probably embarrassing our kids.
I wonder what our rabbit story will be. I wonder how we will remember ourselves.
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