When she was a sixth-grader, Jeannie Wallace made a pact with her mother and grandmother that they would always stick together, no matter what.
And they have.
The years have passed since then, about 30 of them. Husbands, houses and jobs have come and gone. But the women remain, tucked under one roof in an east-side Colorado Springs neighborhood.
They are now joined by Jeannie’s children — both daughters — to form a clan that spans four generations and 90 years. Mae Carter is 100. Her daughter Jo Anne Wallace is 79. Her daughter Jeannie is 41. And her daughters, Ashley and Caitlyn, are 13 and 10.
The unconventional family is part of a growing trend of many generations living together, as adult children take parents into their homes, or the tough economy forces families to huddle. About 15 percent of independent adults think they may return to bunking with other family members this year, said a recent survey commissioned by AARP, mostly due to loss of income or health issues.
Financial survival is part of what brings this family together, but there’s more to it than that.
They subsist on Social Security checks and a part-time job that Jo Anne holds down tending children in the nursery at their church (the girls go with their 79-year-old Grandma JoJo to help her lift the kids). Carter worked in a dress shop until she was 85, when a broken hip finally forced her to retire.
Jeannie takes the role of primary caregiver, but it’s a group effort.
“We all pitch in to take care of Nana,” she said.
Carter is a spry centenarian who flies through Beverly Lewis novels and can make some serious time when she’s using her favorite walker. She shares a bedroom with great-granddaughter Caitlyn, the roomies in side-by-side twin beds.
The two bookends of this family seem linked, Caitlyn often lying with her head in her Nana’s lap. They exemplify the special bond that can form between the very young and the very old, between a woman who remembers traveling by covered wagon and a girl who has a Wii.
As for men, they’re conflicted. Nana was married three times — she was divorced twice and outlived one husband. Grandma JoJo endured four divorces. And Jeannie was married as recently as last year, her fifth, and briefly moved the family to Las Vegas. The marriage fell apart after only three months — she blames it on his failure to understand her commitment to the women in her life — and they all moved back home to the Springs.
It seems that testosterone simply doesn’t work in this recipe.
“I think women can compromise more than a man can,” Jeannie said.
Dear old dad may have ruled the roost in his prime, but that might be why no one wants to share a roost with him now. Seventy percent of people would rather move Mom into the house than Dad, according to a recent national survey by Zoomerang.com. And daughters are more likely than sons — 80 percent to 65 percent — to want to care for their mother at home. Women are simply more likely to stick together.
“The problem is, we need a man to do things around here,” countered Grandma JoJo. “But I’m done with them, except for my sons.”
“I’m still hoping there’s someone out there,” said Jeannie.
The absence of men doesn’t mean the absence of conflict. The women fight like cats and dogs, they said, but they don’t seem to take it too seriously.
“It can be World War III in here,” Jeannie said.
“It can be about just anything,” agreed Grandma JoJo. “Sometimes it’s about nothing.”
Jeannie said the hardest thing about the arrangement is being overruled when telling the kids they can’t do something. Because then they go to grandma, and then they go to great-grandma, and somebody usually says “yes.”
Besides getting their way, the girls value living with multiple generations because of the stories they hear and the lessons they learn.
“I’ve learned to never give up,” Ashley said. “Nana teaches you to never give up.”
Carter credits her longevity to clean living and keeping busy, and she likes having the kids around to keep her going. They all go to polka dances, and often to the girls sport stacking tournaments. She clearly takes pleasure in watching the young ones flit about.
“Yeah, I don’t know what I’d do without them,” she said. “There’s always something doing and something going on. Never a dull moment.”
Grandma JoJo said her mother is usually part of what’s doing. “She loves to go. You mention going, and she wants to go.”
Jeannie said it was the same when she was a little girl.
“Nana basically raised me because Mom worked a lot,” she said. “I learned to sew from Grandma, to crochet, to respect others. She raised me and now we’re taking care of her.”
Caitlyn looked from her mom to her Nana. “It’s like you’re her daughter and her mother.”
The girl could hardly know how right she is.
—By Bill Reed The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Colo.