Monday, January 16, 2012

Monday Reruns: The Distance from Our Corners

(original post date: January 12, 2011)

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.


Anonymous said...

Reading this for a second time I am struck anew by your ability to express yourself and while doing so, give voice to others in a similar situation. I am truly in a sandwich that threatens to become a double decker. My ageing mum, my one remaining sister who is not in the best of health beneath me and my five children and their rapidly extending families above. Now I have my late sister's son (he with Aspergers) who also needs my attention - is there room in this sandwich? Of course there will be - I just need to spread myself a little thinner...

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Lovely writing. I suppose I'm one of the slices of bread in the sandwich now. My parents are gone, so the role of top slice passed on to me some time ago. Not an entirely bad place to be, either. I haven't gotten crotchety enough to alienate my stuck-in-the-middle kids, and I enjoy the heck out of the grandkids, so not bad at all.

Tracy Jo said...

That was beautiful. I totally understand your feelings as I too...did not have kids. Wasn't really by choice but played out the way it should have. It is so hard isn't it...worrying about our parents...but I know, they would not want us not living and only taking care of them. :-)

Andrea said...

Katie, beautifully done. Thank you for bringing up the perspective of being on your own, choosing not to have kids, and facing what all that means. Before my mother moved west to be closer to me, I was worried about her all the time after my brother (her best pal) died. It's now glaringly obvious what it takes to be with an elder much of the time, advocate for one, and keep track of everything about her life.I happen to love it, but many would not, and the full expanse of everything it entails often reminds me that I might be facing a very hard (and not too far away) future. On the other hand, my life has been a grand adventure like yours, we are.

Nancy Thompson said...

That was an incredibly tender and poignant post. And no way you look 53!

Donna K. Weaver said...

What a sweet post, Katie. I agree with Nancy. No way you look 53.

It won't be long before we Boomers are the one of the slices of bread with our younger family members--whether they be children or nieces/nephews--who are worrying about us.

I guess it could be worse. We could be struggling in our old age with no one to care what happens to us.