Thanksgiving is around the corner and Christmas isn’t far behind. Some of us don’t relish going home.
I never wanted to go home when I was in college. Things are different now. The trend is for your parents to best your best friends. I’ll bet most of my students can’t wait to get home.
My parents were not my friends. That’s a foreign concept to me. I have a married daughter in her 30s who says I am her best friend. I’m glad she likes me so much, but I feel squirmy. I should be elated, but something’s out of whack.
My father is 92. He is not my friend, he’s my father. My mother died three years ago at 89. She wasn’t my friend either. They moved to Greensboro when my children were in preschool to be near them, at least they said so at first. But the night before they arrived, my mother phoned me and very seriously told me to make no mistake—she and my father were not moving to Greensboro so that they would be available as babysitters whenever I needed them. They had lives of their own to lead.
I admit that I was taken aback that she called just to make that clear. But it took me only seconds to recover and answer, “Sure, Mom. I understand.”
My mother was right. She was drawing her boundaries, even though there was no reason that they were moving to Greensboro other than to be near me and the kids. They weren’t coming for the weather. They had already pre-retired to Florida. But fences make good neighbors when we’re talking about family. At least my family. Maybe not yours. Maybe you are reading this in horror.
I found myself remembering the boundaries my mother drew when my daughter recently asked me if I would take care of her child while she was at work. This was purely theoretical because I also work –in Greensboro—and she lives six hours away and there is no grandchild in sight yet. So I said, “Uhhh…”
“What do you mean, Uhhh?”
We eventually talked reasonably about it. I told her I would of course baby sit now and then. For sure if she ever felt like she was going to kill the kid.
I did not say that her question made me feel in the grip of a python. Actually, I probably felt just like my own mother felt the night before she and my father moved to Greensboro.
I am in late middle age, like my mother was when she and my father moved to here. I want to hold onto who I am for a while longer. Who I am is the person I see in the mirror, smile back at, put mascara on, and take a walk with. Early in the morning when I walk, I like the long-legged singular shadow I make on the bike trail.
I want to hold onto myself just as hard as my 92 year old father grips his own life. We go slowly as I walk beside him. He creaks along the halls of his retirement home holding onto his walker. When the elevator comes, he touches my back guiding me to enter first as if this were the 1940s.
We ride the elevator in golden silence. It’s OK not to talk if one doesn’t have anything important to say. Check back with me when I am 92, but what sounds bad is constant chatter, music coming from hidden speakers, the chimes of a cell phone going off in my pocketbook.
When I was home alone with small children it was, to put it nicely, a mixed blessing. I was truly under siege. Ears ringing when they screamed as I wiped up blood. Going for walks with little hands in mine, such talky walks. Helping with (doing) their school projects.
And now that my kids are grown up and have homes of their own, I am alone most of the day. My husband is at work while I type this. I think I will make a cup of tea. This is heaven.
Which brings me now to the real conclusion. It may seem wildly contrary to what I have just said. Cherish your visit home to your parents and your family. Love them and all their flaws and sit close to the crumbling bodies of the old ones. Talk with everyone.
Because you know what? You can walk out their door in a few days. You can be by yourself thinking about what people said, how they looked. You can feel all the things family makes you feel: a sense of belonging, joy, and yes, despair. If you can be alone in the car on the ride back to your apartment, you’ve lucked out. But if you can’t be by yourself until hours later when you finally shut the door of your own room, just breathe. You’ll get there. It’s important to find the place where you can love your family, but hold onto yourself.
Deborah Seabrooke teaches BLS 326 “Telling Stories: The Art of the Memoir” and BLS 323 “Contemporary Short Stories.” She has taught with the BLS program and the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program since 2005, and at UNCG since 1978. She earned her MFA in creative writing from UNCG in 1975.