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.