There’s just the slightest breeze in the early morning air today and a mobile that hangs on the porch turns slowly. It’s made of driftwood and seashells, rocks and feathers collected over several days on the beach many years ago. Perhaps to others it looks like a piece of art that only a mother could love. But when I stare at it long enough, I can see my kids when they were small, gleefully running free on a vast expanse of beach on a rugged coastline, gathering the treasures we later strung into this hanging artifact.
In those days we used to try to get away together to a cozy house on a lake at the coast as often as we could. That is to say, we didn’t actually do it all that often, but when we did it was like a big comma in the sentence of our life — at least for broad swaths of hours spent canoeing, or beachcombing, or staring out the window through binoculars in the early morning with a hot, steamy beverage in hand.
As the kids got older and their schedules began to be compressed like ours, it became even harder to make the time to get out of town. On top of adult work and travel schedules there were soccer games that couldn’t be missed, a best friend’s birthday party, homework….they all kept us tethered to home. Yet when we did manage to align and make the Herculean effort to get out of town, we never regretted making those new memories.
We stored those memories up in our family bank, and we drew upon its goodness in times when we needed it — when one of us was struggling with disappointment, confusion or a broken heart, we were connected. In many ways, it felt like that bank was bottomless, and as time moved on we would still have these periodic escapes to keep putting in our deposits.
When we would sit down for a family dinner, we would tell and tell again the same stories; of the time the kids were in a canoe alone together for the first time and it took about 2.2 seconds before they were screaming as the first fish they’d ever caught was flopping furiously on the bottom of the boat; climbing to the top of the sand dunes and rolling all the way to the bottom, exfoliating every inch of skin that was exposed or not; and how the house didn’t have any TV reception but it did have an old VCR – and only one movie, a terrifying one about goblins they still have nightmares about. These things are stored in the memory bank of our family, and they are ours alone.
Being together when you are home and in the routine of your daily lives is different than the routine of being away together where the days might be interrupted by a conference call or two, but there is still always time to fly a kite or to collect driftwood on the beach to later burn and roast marshmallows over.
These days the kids are young adults and we are all in the same place at the same time, but not really together. None of us would have chosen to be together for this long uninterrupted spell, yet, like so many others, here we are. And now that it’s relatively safe again to get away to a house on a lake at the coast or go camping or backpacking – activities where you can safely sequester together – these things we used to enjoy so much, we can’t seem to muster what it takes to want to do them together.
Maybe we’re tired of each other, but more likely I think we’re tired of the ceiling on our choices – where going back to school in the fall seems unlikely, at least in the way that we used to know it, and the possibilities of work beyond layoffs is testing the limits of our imagination. Why would the kids want to come and be with us when that’s pretty much all they’ve been over the last four months and, to be real, it hasn’t been all that much fun?
I think underneath all this each one of us wants to put some more goodness back in our bank account, but the sense of finding joy is not only elusive, it seems to unleash a torrent of other conflicting emotions. The moments we do connect these days, over a shared meal or laughing at the ridiculous antics of our dogs, are brief. Each of us is carrying heavy buckets full of fear for our well-being and the health of those close to us, the dwindling reserves in our literal bank accounts, the divisiveness of the upcoming election, and the sense of knowing that some of the places we might choose to get away to are places where people who don’t look like us might not feel safe.
When I was a kid, I attended a summer camp for a number of years but as I got older I thought I was too cool for it. I had what might have been the biggest argument of my life with my Mom about it and she just did not back down. It could have turned out differently but I look back at that time at that camp I didn’t want to go to as one of the best summers of my childhood. I like to think it was just luck, but more likely my mother already knew what I could not see.
So perhaps it’s time to be the heavy-handed parent to our almost-adult children and force some family fun. This is not about nostalgia so much as a parents’ longing to see some unencumbered joy on the faces of their kids. We know that getting away and filling that bank account fortifies us for what lies ahead – that balance is getting precariously low, and it looks like the coming days are going to call for it more than ever.