Friday, November 29, 1996
Traditional family hovers around table

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Thursday was national stuffing day. So, in the true spirit of Thanksgiving, I tried to stuff myself with family memories.

Fat chance. I don't have a family. The federal government has told me so.

Bean counters in Washington, D.C., have used our tax dollars to thoroughly research the subject. And, this is what they have come up with:

''Our notion of the Ozzie and Harriet family, or the Norman Rockwell family, is really something in our imagination - and maybe never existed.''

So said Ken Bryson. He's a Census Bureau demographer. It's a sophisticated title for someone who counts heads.

Mr. Bryson has compiled scads of statistics on families. That's how he became the author of a new government report with the catchy, must-read title of ''Household and Family Characteristics.''

The report discovered that the Ozzie and Harriet family - two parents and their kids under one roof - lives in just 25.5 percent of America's households.

That's down from 40.3 percent in 1970. A shocking decline.

But here's the real shocker. Even in 1950, less than half of all American houses - 43 percent - were the kind of place where Norman Rockwell would be able to paint a family portrait and call it ''Home Sweet Home.''

These figures set Mr. Bryson's tongue to wagging. On Tuesday, he declared that the traditional family - the one baby boomers saw on Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It To Beaver - is a myth. In the demographer's words, it ''maybe never existed.''

Funny, I could have sworn I belonged to one of those families. We lived in a modest house on a quiet street in the suburbs. Trees shaded the front yard, and a big patch of grass - which I did my best to avoid cutting - grew non-stop in back.

The house came with two parents, a conventional, matched set of one mom and one dad. There was just enough room for one sister, one dog, one rabbit and unlimited helpings of love.

At least, I thought this was where I was lucky enough to grow up. But now, the government says think again.

Valued family

My dad had a name for Mr. Bryson and his fellow statisticians. He called them ''highly educated idiots.''

I often heard him say that from a prone position. He was on his back a lot. Under a car. Changing the oil. Under the sink. Unclogging the drain. Under a bike. Fixing a broken chain.

No wonder he usually snored through the 11 o'clock news. He was exhausted after getting up at 5:30 a.m., putting in eight hours at work and then coming home to work a second shift on projects designed to save money so his kids could do what he never did - go to college.

While he was on his back, I remember my mom being on her feet. Ironing clothes. Raking leaves. Scrubbing walls. Washing dishes. Preparing a meal with so much love and care that all of the kings and queens in all the world would give their fortunes for just one bite.

Little did my mom and dad know that they didn't have to do this. Their family didn't exist.

Now and forever

Now I don't know what kind of family Mr. Bryson comes from. But for his sake, I hope it's like the one I saw and remembered yesterday.

As I sat in the dining room, I inhaled the scents of Thanksgiving. Sage and onions in the stuffing. The big bird browning in the oven. The bubbling pots of vegetables on the stove.

From my place, I could look up and down the table and see the faces that were there and the ones that were only memories. The spirits of my dad and my grandparents mingled with the clatter of plates. They eavesdropped on the small talk of hungry people gathered to dig into turkey and cranberry sauce.

Have some more mashed potatoes. You've lost weight! How's school? Pass the green beans, please. What's work like? Save some room for pumpkin pie. It's so good to see everyone.

As I listened to the table-top chatter, I felt sorry for the poor fool in Washington. What a treat it would have been for him to have Thanksgiving dinner with people who ''maybe never existed.''

They're not Ozzie and Harriet. Or a painting by Norman Rockwell. They're family. As long as someone remembers, they'll always exist.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.

Published Nov. 29, 1996