I recently visited my wife’s family in Mexico.
“You’ll stay with us,” they said.
“Which of you?” I asked.
“All of us,” they said.
At first, I thought this was a language barrier thing, the way these particular relatives say, “I love you too much” (translation: “so much”), or the way they pronounce “Meetch.”
But as it turned out, when they said “all of us” they actually meant “all of us.”
They live in the middle of Mexico City.
In a family compound.
I had never experienced this before. Four families. Four houses. Two attached on one side, two on the other, joined by walls and sharing a common inner courtyard with a lawn and tables and a swing set for the kids. Because you only can access this common area through the backs of the houses, there is no reason to lock the back doors.
So they are always open.
The result is amazing. Each family has its own unique living space, totally different decor, room sizes and layout, but you only have to walk 40 feet from the sister’s place to the mother’s place to the brother’s place, etc.
It’s an island of family. The movement between relatives is seamless. The aunt’s kids are in the uncle’s kitchen, the uncle’s kids in the grandmother’s living room, the grandmother is visiting her son-in-law, the sound of music and laughter mixing is in the middle.
It’s such a loving, embracing environment, that inevitably, I wondered, “Why don’t we live this way in the States?”
And then I remembered.
We used to.
My grandparents always spoke of sharing the same house with my aunts, uncles and cousins. Most immigrant families doubled and tripled up. When the 1930 census data became available several years ago, people were surprised to see how many of their older relatives actually were located at the same address.
Of course, this was largely economics. Not too many people back then could afford their own place. It was smarter to pool resources.
But not all of it was money. Some of it was simply a desire to be close to family. My parents spent the first six years of their marriage living with my grandmother and uncle. That’s why it took them so long to have kids, they would joke.
But it was how things were done. And there is something to be said about multi-generational living. Maybe not when it comes to sharing a bathroom. But in a lot of other ways.
I watched my wife’s Mexican cousins walking arm-in-arm in the courtyard, the aunts and uncles feeding the kids regardless of who belonged to whom. Someone always had a spread of food out. No one worried about making time for family — because there was always time.
As I age, that sentence seems precious.
According to the 2010 census, 4.4 percent of American households are multi-generational. That’s up from 3.7 percent 10 years earlier, or about 1 million households.
I’m guessing it is because of the economic downturn, foreclosures pushing families under one roof. But it’ll be interesting to see once we get used to having grandmas and grandpas and cousins and in-laws around, how fast people will want to disengage.
To me, the Mexican model I witnessed was enviable. To have your family just across the way, but still be able to come home to your own place? To never have to hear that sentence, “Gee, I wish we could be there, but airfare is so expensive” or “We hate to leave, but if we don’t go now, the traffic will be awful.”
We’ve spent decades squeezing more and more in, while squeezing our family out. We want all our needs served in one hand — phone, read, watch TV, surf the web — yet we settle for family being all over the globe.
I remember my mother encouraging her children to travel, see the world, don’t stay in our little town. But once we were older, living half a world away, she lamented, “I wish I hadn’t been so smart. Then I would see you more often.”
She would have loved the Mexican model. Keep your family close. Make an island out of them. “Stay with all of us.”
What a concept, huh?
Mitch Albom is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Readers may write to him at: Detroit Free Press, 600 W. Fort St., Detroit, Mich. 48226, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.