This article first appeared in the Island Word in summer, 2009.
Monika has returned from Germany, wondering how to answer the inevitable, “How was your vacation?” question. At least when Serena goes to visit her family, no one mistakes it for a vacation. After all, who would go to South Dakota in August to sight see? Serena dreams of road trips to Disneyland; Monika dreams of kayaking adventures on the West Coast. But both of us are spending our holiday times these years “going back” to where we came from: looking after our aging parents, reconnecting with siblings, meeting new nieces and nephews, running into high school friends.
In our early 20’s, both of us left our “homelands”, setting out to re-invent ourselves apart from the expectations, limits, and roles of our childhood families. Taking the geographical cure, we called it. With enough distance, we believed that we could become something that our families could not imagine for us. Like the three little pigs in the childhood story, and like countless twenty-somethings before us, we set out to find our own way and fortunes.
By our 30’s, we had each succeeded, more or less, in inventing our adult selves. We had careers, and each of us had grown around us families of choice that we were proud of, in a land where no one knew our childhood nicknames. We were too broke to go back to visit much; getting started in adulthood was an all-consuming business. Graduate school, daycare fees, student loans, home down-payments and mortgages made short work of the money that would have bought airplane tickets. We joked about buying stock in telephone companies. We noticed how little our parents seemed to age. From such a distance, they seemed to us to be the same folks we’d left behind; middle-aged and ‘bifocal’ed people who would someday retire but always provide a home for our high school yearbooks, adolescent poetry, photographs, childhood drawings, unfinished knitting projects, and that big box of Christmas decorations with all of the funny and all of the tragic stories attached to them.
We can no longer avoid it: we are now the ones approaching 50. Serena’s daughter is seeking the geographical cure, and our parents—those that are left—are increasingly fragile and temporary looking. It is our siblings that we turn to now out of necessity, doing our best to co-operate around care for our parents. We see that we are the reluctant but inevitable heirs to the family bonds that our parents started. We know one another’s childhood nicknames, as well as assorted other bits of embarrassing paraphernalia. We remember who was the smart one, the pretty one, the popular one, the odd one, the favorite of this teacher or that grandmother. We have a shared past, but little shared knowledge about who each other have become over the last three decades.
When Monika flies to Germany, she crosses 9 time zones, one for each 3-year period that she has been away. Time zones amplify the sense of time warp. Serena’s trips to Dakota are more North-South in orientation, but hardly less an adjustment along the time-warp factor. It is disorienting to walk the landscape of one’s adolescence from within a middle-aged body. Looking ahead, time seems to stretch in a long, forward line. But looking back, it isn’t linear at all, but spirals outward slowly outward, like a planet that is gradually leaving orbit, but which, meanwhile, keeps cycling back to the same seasons, just a little further out each time. You can feel that the past is just within reach; you can smell it in the air and hear it in people’s accents and tones of voice.
So here we are, the prodigal children, returned, with a grown-up job to do. Where once we sought to re-invent ourselves, we now try to re-connect to our original families; to establish sibling relationships among adults and to make the kinds of decisions with our parents that they might have made for us as children: when to see the doctor, where to live, how to make sure that the finances will last long enough, and whether or not they should be driving (do anyone’s parents really let the adult children make that decision for them? Is resistance to giving up the car keys universal?) And these people whom we scrapped with and loved in the raw ways of childhood are to become the adult allies or perhaps, to some degree, opponents in the transfer of power and of material goods between the generations. What a potential for more family sagas, fraught with hope and with uncertainty: Returning “home”. Us, the middle-aged generation now, after decades away.
As with any potentially perilious journey, this one requires careful planning and preparation. Since this is a journey over both physical and emotional territory, it is good to have more than one kind of travel advisor! As counselors, we have a few tips to help prepare for traveling into the territory of families that have been separated by decades.
1. If you are going to face unfinished business in person (and this is often optional), you absolutely must practice the conversations ahead of time. Practice them with your counselor, your spouse, your best friend, your dog, or your journal. Practice your family member responding with the worst possible thing, the best possible thing, and something in-between. Write letters and tear them up. Write replies to your letters, and tear them up. Practice!
2. Do not break earth-shattering news at other people’s weddings or funerals. Fiftieth Wedding Anniversaries and ninetieth birthdays, perhaps even regular family celebrations also, are bad times to announce that you are a) getting a divorce, b) marrying against your parents’ advice, or c) gay. Each occasion deserves its own day, it’s own memory. Let your big news have a special time of its own.
3. Plan for respite time. Consider booking a sightseeing trip (even South Dakota has historical museums and parks), renting a car so that you have your own “wheels”, or staying somewhere other than your sister’s hide-a-bed in the living room. Yes, it can be expensive. And some families take it as a personal affront that you would book a hotel room. But it may be a small investment for saving a) your sanity, and b) a connection that can’t withstand too much togetherness. And always pack good walking shoes!
4. Stay in touch with your adult self. Travelling with your spouse or someone else that you love, and that knows you well as an adult, can be wise. Telephone cards are inexpensive. Skype, Facetime and other web-based communication programs can be even cheaper. Photographs can still travel in your wallet. Even writing in your journal or sending letters home can be a lifeline.
5. Touch the ground often. Put your hands on dirt, walk in a forest or by water, look at the stars, watch the moon. The same earth and sky support us all; the same air and water connect us, no matter how far on earth we travel. Family ties are strong, and the storms of family conflict can be powerful indeed. But earth ties are even stronger, and weather humbles even the most dramatic of families.
No-one ever said that families were easy. Occasionally a family is so dangerous to the soul that cut-off is required. But a family cut-off is more like an amputation than an appendectomy; it’s a permanent wound with phantom pains. Fortunately, most families run the gamut from slightly loopy to moderately dysfunctional. In other words, worth hanging in for.
In a world that demands more and more the appearance of success, families are the last refuge of imperfection—ours, and everyone else’s. There is a kind of freedom in that, even though it comes at the cost of tremendous drains upon our patience. If we are up to it, most of us can go back with some grace. Provided we go well prepared for the journey.