Distance. Something we used to accommodate with some ease.
Americans like to emphasize close-knit, geographically proximate families but, in fact, many of us who are white westerners or Asians are descendants of people who departed home and family thousands of miles away with no expectation of seeing then again. And those of us who are black and are descendants of slaves, forced arrivals to these shores, can add ancestral trauma to the family inheritance.
My own family seemed stable to me as I grew up, with several generations reaching back through Ohio farmland. But I went off to boarding school at the age of twelve, and then to college in New England. I didn’t give much thought to returning home for marriage or career or family. In fact, my basic plan involved an adult life far from my family of origin. My grandmothers were dear to me, but my stepmother growing up was not.
As a parent, though, I sought to create stability for my own family. We even seriously considered moving to my husband’s hometown and raising our kids amidst extended family. (I deeply regret not having followed up on that one.) We did succeed in the stability goal for awhile, but eventually all of our children spent big chunks of the summer away and time in school in Europe. I imagined that they would settle all over the world and that, with any luck, we would be required to travel to enticing locales in order to spend time with them and their families.
Then our son Josh died and the other two came home for grad school and, so it appeared, to stay. I permitted myself the fantasy of adult children and grandchildren living within walking distance, and imagined reading to grandchildren (I still have dozens of my kids’ books) and taking them to the Nature Center and running them to sports and lessons. And, as time passed and I approached retirement age, I even daydreamed of helping out on a regular basis while parents went to work or attended school.
Obviously, millions of grandparents manage long-distance relationships. I have friends with grandchildren across the country and across the ocean. I had just hoped not to be among them. I dreamed of living the life of my own Nan, able to read bedtime stories and then walk home on a summer’s evening. And, of course, I expected my son and his family to live together, not to be separated by thousands of miles.
We are lucky in some ways, of course. Technology will make the distance more palatable, and planes make rare (expensive) visits possible. But I’m finding it quite challenging to imagine my granddaughter being born in a week or so in London, rather than in the hospital down the hill in which her daddy and their twin brother made their debut. And I truly dread, on his behalf, the day when his newborn is only a few weeks old and my son will have to return to the U.S. and to the task of making a living.