Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Distance from Our Corners

When I was a kid, our family had a summer vacation ritual that entailed a very long drive with a rich, two-week reward at the other end. Packed and ready to go on an early June morning, we’d put the suitcases in the back of the station wagon and then take our places.

Dad would be the first driver, while Mom sat on the passenger’s side of what were not yet bucket seats.

In the back, I would take my place on the right, while Martha would sit on the left.

That’s how it always was. Me on the right. Martha on the left. Not an indication of political leanings or which side of our brains we favored. Simply a routine that would remain unbroken for all of our lives in the backseat.

And then we would head north from Virginia on the pre-interstate roads. Occasionally, Martha or I would climb into the front seat to rest her head on Mom’s lap (unless she was driving, of course). There were no laws back then that would have earned us a ticket for this climbing-over-the-seats routine, and for many of those years driving up to Cape Cod, I believe there were not even seatbelts.

But we always made it just fine.

The first leg of the trip was the longest – about nine or so hours to get to our grandparents’ house in Connecticut. And because it was such a long stretch, it was not without its moments that would test our mother’s nerves.

When Martha and I – understandably tired from the unending asphalt; undoubtedly bored with playing Auto Bingo – got feisty with each other in the backseat, Mom would turn around, and say, in no uncertain terms, “Get in your corners!”

And so we did.

And I’m guessing that, at that point, we got a little quiet.

(Which is exactly what Mom wanted – and needed.)

… A few decades later and 20 years ago, I moved to Los Angeles. And 10 years after that, my sister moved from Virginia to the UK. When Martha moved, Dad was still alive, and although he quickly became frail, Mom still had him for company. They would remain in the Shenandoah Valley, where my sister and I were raised, and long distance telephone calls would keep all of us in touch.

“Boy,” I said to Martha, during one of those calls – at a time when my Los Angeles hours and her England hours allowed for a lively conversation, “we sure did get in our corners, huh?”

She laughed, as did Mom, when I shared the observation with her later that week.

But these days, our geographic distance does not feel laughable. Dad died in late March of 2008, and although Martha and her best-ever husband made an unselfish and valiant effort before Christmas that year to bridge the proximity gap, their move “across the pond” and their plans for establishing a life near Mom did not pan out. The economy bit their butts, and they ultimately discovered how difficult it is – particularly in a small town – for “older people” to find work. They moved back to the UK this past November.

In the meantime, I’ve remained in L.A., where I have established a life for 20 years. Where my address is the one I’ve held the longest in my 53 years on the planet.

And so Martha and I – two members of what literature now calls the “sandwich generation” – are back in our corners.

My sister is a “true” sandwich in that she has a generation on either side. Mom, in Virginia (and the memory of Dad), represent the bottom slice of bread, while Martha’s daughter, granddaughter, and son-in-law comprise her top slice.

As for me, I guess you’d have to describe me as more of an “open-faced sandwich.” Yes, Mom’s there (and the memory of Dad), providing me with that slice that anchors my ingredients, but above that – or rather, creating a bookend to that generation – there is nothing.

It’s interesting, the press that the current sandwich generation gets. So much of the news is about the combating needs on either end. How aging parents and growing children create a tug-of-war, causing “us” Baby Boomers to feel pulled in two directions at once.

For those whose sandwich is closed, I am not without empathy. I get it that you are answering to two distinctly different age groups, and you are concerned about them both. But, I’d like to shine the light on us open-faced sandwiches for a moment. Because, while the demands on us – as children of aging parents – may not be as complex, they still are emotional.

My decision not to have children was not conscious, but I believe it was smart. I believe it suits me to not be a mother. I’m not sure I could have pulled off the discipline it would have required to discipline others. And if I had, I would have lost a big part of myself in the bargain.

But I also am realizing now, as I witness my mother’s aging, the emptiness that will be my legacy. The emptiness of no family nearby.

And so these days, my empathy extends more to my mother than to my sister or to other members of the “sandwich generation.” I feel for my Mom, alone in Virginia. I feel for her, so far from the corners that Martha and I now occupy. If any of the three of us had some bank to spare, we could make some adjustments to this scenario, but… money isn’t our strong suit.

Mom and Dad did not raise us to pursue the almighty dollar. Rather, they raised us to follow our hearts and have faith in our paths.

It is for that reason that Martha shares a house in rural Scotland with her best-ever husband and two generations below her. It also is for that reason that I maintain a one-bedroom apartment in a decidedly urban area of sprawling Los Angeles.

We are in our corners.

We are…a sandwich-and-a-half of Baby Boomer daughters wishing the best for their Mom.


OJ Gonzalez-Cazares said...

this was simply lovely Katie... my heart was touched by your words. We have to follow our destiny, that's for sure, but how difficult it is to see what is left behind in that process, uh?

Jacqueline Howett said...

Enjoyed the read. I have always been so tied up in my art and writings. I wished before my Mum died, I had taken her out to dinner more. Went shopping more and bought her more clothes. Took her to get proper reading glasses. Its the small stuff I think about now.

Deb Shucka said...

What a poignant and beautifully written post. Sad and full of love all at the same time. All choices come at a cost, but it doesn't mean the choices were wrong. Hugs.

Linda Medrano said...

Katie, what a lovely post. I really do understand how difficult it can be with older parents. My mother passed away 5 years ago, and I constantly wish I had been able to live closer to her and do more for her. I did what I could, but somehow it never feels like it's enough. I'm sure your Mom knows she is loved and that is the most important thing.

Lynn said...

"Open face sandwich" it. I'm at the bottom of the Baby Boomer generation but still feeling squished. My father just passed away in August and I live near my mother, so she really depends on me now. And my bottom layer is a special needs child. Squish. I love our generation though...wouldn't change a thing.

Jayne Martin said...

My mom died when I was 23 and I have no children either, but I do have a lovely God-daughter and her four-year-old son that I wish lived closer. What a beautiful piece, Katie.

Sioux Roslawski said...

Katie--If you are an open-face sandwich, perhaps you have some gravy ladled on top? Think of the "gravy" in your life... Your friends, your art, the place that you've carved for yourself.

This was a very moving post. I am going to give you some "props" on my blog.

Linda O'Connell said...

I just signed on as a follower and must say, your post is beautiful, very touching. It took me back to the days of GET ON YOUR OWN SIDE. (please sign on)

Donna B said...

Katie, I really like your writing. I can so relate. Although we do not live in such far corners as your sister and Mom, I live further than I feel comfortable from my two daughters, and the rest of my family.

I am signing up too...

Joann Mannix said...

Oh Katie, this was so poignant and just absolutely lovely.

It's a different stage all right, being the middle of the sandwich. My husband and I are experiencing it for the first time with both sides. My mom is alone and quite dependent on us and his parents are actually living temporarily with us while his mom goes through some procedures at the top notch medical facility near our home. We also have 3 teenage daughters. I pray every day for patience and the ability to be the person I need to be for all of these people in my life.

Your memories of the car ride brought me back to those days in our yellow station wagon. We did not have the luxury of corners though. With 7 of us children, we had to manage with "Stop touching me and you're on my side!" Now? We would give anything to be able to snuggle up and be on each other's side instead of scattered across the states.

Beautiful post.

irishoma said...

Hi Katie,
What a lovely post with tender sentiments. I discovered your blog through Sioux and am now a follower.
I'm sure your mom is proud of you and your sister.
Donna V.

Anonymous said...

What a thought provoking post Katie - delightful idea of corners in the car. Alas, I recall just being squashed in the middle permanently – cars only had room for three children in the back in the days of my childhood and a fourth sat on mum’s lap in the front. (Highly dangerous eh?). Our own five had the luxury of an eight-seater so at least two got a corner.

It is hard living any distance from an elderly parent but I must say I am more patient with my mother than either of my sisters appear to be who live nearer. Perhaps distance does help sometimes! :-)

Joey @ Big Teeth and Clouds said...

My sister and I always sat in the same seats in our parents car. We never spoke while driving. These weren't rules, just the way we did things.

I think watching our parents age is the toughest thing we have to do as humans. Not having kids doesn't make that any easier.

Kristy said...

I am hoping to have my mom live near us soon. I hate being far from her. My brother and I were just talking the other day about how we would lay in the back window of our chevy impala while riding around. No seat belts. My mom was probably smoking in the car. And, we were getting some nice unprotected sun exposure as well.

cj Schlottman said...

Katie, As usual you have produced a beautifully crafted post, so thought provoking and such conduit for my own memories of car trips as a child.

I had three brothers, and one of us got to sit up front. There was only mother, as you know. I got the front because I got carsick in the back, and my brothers bitched about it until mother said those dreaded words, "Don't make me stop this car!" It was not uncommon for one of the boys to crawl into the back of the wagon and curl up for a nap.

As to the Sandwich Generation, I was born at the apex of the Baby Boom, and I ended up caring for mother for 10 years while dealing with a mentally ill son. It was not easy.

I only have one brother left, and he lives 120 miles away, so we see each other fairly often. You are a courageous woman, and I think you are in the right place, but I wish you could be closer to your family.


Anonymous said...

So thoughtful, Katie. I can relate to much of what you say, especially the part about growing old with no family nearby.
Your family sounds like there was and is a lot of love to go around. Your mom is lucky to have you and your sister, wherever you choose to live.

Tammy said...

Very moving post. I enjoyed it!

cheekymama said...

This was a lovely post that really hit home. Having already lost my dad, and living in a different country from my mother (and other siblings) I do feel that tug on a constant basis. Home is where my husband and my children are here in the UK and yet.... I miss home. Happy SITS day, happy to have found you.

from Babes about Town

Anonymous said...

My own family is spread out, but I'm so appreciative that technology makes it easier to shorten those distances.

Happy SITS day!

Marie said...

Wow, beautifully said...I loved every word. :)

Kimberly said...

Such a well-articulated description of the dynamics of families scattered to the four winds...and pointing out that the reality that the distance doesn't mean that we don't care.

Stopped by from SITS today. Enjoy your day!

Tonya said...

I love it! It makes me think about my own choices in life and coming to peace with what I have decided. Have a fabulous day!

Marilenn @ StudioAlcantara.Com said...

Stopping by from SITS!

Sometimes I do wonder if the world is too big, thankful we have technology to help us stay in touch.

momof2 said...

We have been really dealing with that with my dh parents. His father died last year at 93 and him mother is in and out of the hospital constantly in her mid 80's. My parents are young (for our day!) My Father just turned 70 and my mother is in her early 60's.

Also, my dh and I do have kids, but started late in life ... so they are very little - definitely a challenge on both ends!