Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
Leafing through the Mother’s Day Facebook posts (I love seeing photos of everyone’s mom!) I was struck by how many families are geographically separated from one another. This is a modern phenomenon, and particularly American. Until recently family members lived in close proximity, usually in the same town or neighboring towns, not infrequently in the same house. But as travel became easier, and opportunities more global, the multi-city, even the multi-country family has become a norm. But how does this attenuation of the bonds of family and community impact us over time?
Many of our European friends still live in the same town, often the same house, that their families have lived in for generations. Over time these homes accrete a patina created by the family lives and tastes which have thrived within it. This ancestor bought paintings, that one’s wife brought furniture which had belonged to HER family. The parents were friends with the parents of their friends, likewise the grandparents. The dwelling itself symbolized this long thread of connectedness stretching back two, four, eight, ten generations.
For the modern American family there is no such thread. With each generation we become increasingly nomadic, less anchored to either a place or a history. More and more of us live far from family, in lodgings which we strive to imbue with a sense of a permanent anchor to disguise their likely temporary nature. Corporate employers move people around like chess pieces, often creating a life both exciting and rootless for their employees. In the real estate brokerage business we see this clearly: tenures in the apartments and houses we sell average between five and seven years.
I am unusual in that I am the sixth generation of my family to live in New York City. I was born here, and so were my children. One of them, after wandering around the globe for ten years, now seems back more or less for good; the other moved west, likely to never return permanently to these shores. One reason we keep our big apartment is so they can visit any time.
With all this mobility, we agents never really know in advance the timelines to which our clients will adhere. And plans change. A number of people to whom we sell property never move in, while for others a five–year plan turns into a twenty five–year plan. Part of our mission is to divine the intentionality in these decisions: why buy it and then decide you don’t want it? How do we do better for you the next time? Or alternatively, if you’re moving after years of living in increasingly constrained space, how can we help you separate from its familiarity to place your family in more comfortable circumstances? Are you determined to stay in the same neighborhood, or do you want to try something new? Do you want to be close to your mother or your sister, so they can walk over and visit every day or two? Maybe your physical surroundings just don’t matter that much to you and it’s all about convenience?
In my home we live surrounded by artifacts: my mother-in-law’s prints, my great grandmother’s dining room table, my parents’ silver coffee service. For me they help to provide a sense of continuity – where I came from and how that past resonates down into the present. And that is so much of what we do in our job. We look to understand how our client will use her environment, what the container of her home must offer in order to hold her most gently and securely in its embrace. In our fast-paced globally inflected world, helping to create a sense of belonging, of rootedness, is one of the most important things we agents do.