Monday, February 3, 2014

Twenty-First Century Homesickness

Home for Christmas | Norman Rockwell
By Mary C. Tillotson

Christmas was crazy at my parents’ house, and I missed all of it.

We drove past my hometown (southern Michigan) to visit Luke’s parents (northern Michigan) first, and for a while, the weather was pretty crummy for driving. In northern Michigan, everything just froze, so it snowed and it was gorgeous; in southern Michigan, it was just enough warmer to do a little thawing and refreezing, resulting in an equally gorgeous ice storm that knocked everybody’s power out.

So while Luke and I went ice-skating and wandering around the gorgeous lakefront downtown in crisp winter weather, my parents hosted a houseful of four of their adult children(-in-law), and two of their toddler grandchildren with no power – which meant no heat in the single-digit temperatures, no water except what was manually hauled from the basement sump pump to flush the toilet with (not drinkable). I wasn’t there to help. We live in a day’s drive away, so between work schedules and carpooling arrangements, our travel plans were set when they were set.

From the warmth of my in-laws home, I texted with my mom to find out the situation downstate. No, the power is still out. No, they don’t know when it’ll be back on. Dad finally bought a generator. She told us she wouldn’t be hurt if we’d decided to stay north during the whole week we’d planned in Michigan, instead of coming down for a couple days on our way back south. (We found out later my brother and pregnant sister-in-law and toddler niece went back to Wisconsin earlier than planned, at my mom’s suggestion. Nobody blamed them.)

Christmas afternoon, Luke and I pulled into the driveway anyway. We called my dad to come from my maternal grandma’s house (she had power) to let us in, so we could drop our things off before meeting everyone else at Grandma’s. While we waited, we wondered why the porch lights were on – why not run more important things with the generator? When my dad arrived, he was overjoyed to learn that the power had actually come back on. Just then.

While my dad went around the house checking all the things homeowners check when the power comes back on, I looked around. The kitchen table was crammed with too many chairs, the way I like it (that means there’s a lot of us home), but covered with candles of every kind – tapers in some not-too-distant ancestor’s dusty candlesticks; a big, gauche, silver, Christmas-tree-shaped candelabra with a dozen or two fat red candles; glass jars of mismatched sizes, colors, and scents. Evidence, all of it, of a rough experience I wasn’t part of.

We had a haphazard Christmas dinner at my grandma’s – everything in my mom’s freezer was thawing, so she cooked it, and we ate chicken, pork, applesauce, blueberry pie. We tore open the remaining gifts, put my grandma’s house back in order, then drove to my parents’ house and put that back in order. The only thing left out of order was the attitude belonging to my two-year-old nephew, who had just rediscovered the word “no” and was intent on employing it as often as possible.

Grandpa is better at waltzing than I am.
My paternal grandpa and his son (my uncle) came to visit the next day, and I wanted to cry when they walked in the door. My grandpa is a little bit like my toddler nieces and nephew: when you see him every week, you don’t notice that he’s getting any older, but if you go seven months without seeing him like I did, it’s startling. I cried for a long time that night, after everyone else had fallen asleep, because we live a whole day’s drive away, and what if, what if...

I thought back to my grandma’s (his wife’s) death and funeral when I was in high school. Between college and still-at-home, all the grandkids lived pretty close. I remember our conversation over dinner that evening when we all got together. But if something happened now? I would have no one to hug but my husband, who doesn’t know my grandpa like I do. I’d have no one to share decades of memories with except over the lifeless phone. I couldn’t be a part of that family dinner.

I don’t even have to think that far ahead, though. Neither my grandpa (because of his age) nor my uncle (because of a disability) is able to live on his own anymore, so my parents have found new communities for them. The details fell into place right before Christmas, and the moving happened right after Christmas. Cleaning, packing, sorting – I wasn’t there to help.

I also wasn’t there in the weeks before when my parents were looking for homes and not getting called back by irresponsible caseworkers. I couldn’t cook a dinner that would free up some of their time and energy, couldn’t be there except on the useless phone. The distance makes even a quick weekend visit all but impossible.

I’ve written before about how frustrated I am with our generation’s inability to stay put. I hate moving around, but even more I hate being far away from my family and my roots. I was fortunate to marry a man whose family is only a few hours from mine, and it’s possible that we could end up living less than two hours from both sets of parents. But we’re not there now, and when things are tough, I feel helpless. When will we get there? What will happen before then? What if we don’t move back? Who will take care of my parents when they’re old?

My mom observed that we millennials tend to look for the perfect job, then move for it – we don’t want to have an okay job back home. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do – if you grew up in Wisconsin and marry someone from Montana, it’s just not possible to live near both sets of parents. And sometimes you apply for dozens of jobs and only get one offer; having a job at all has to take priority. That’s pretty much why we’re in Virginia. Other factors, too, like proximity to a good church and a safe community, are important.

But it seems like overall our generation is willing to sacrifice closeness to family in favor of a better job, and I wonder if we should reconsider whether that’s really the way it has to be. Maybe we should consider sacrificing the best job offer in favor of a decent job that’s close to family.

Or maybe I’m hypersensitive. Maybe I just have a bullheaded streak of loyalty, and it just happens that I’m a Michigander feeling exiled in Virginia. (Am I selfishly bitter?)

I don’t know. As Joy has said, there isn’t perfect place to live in this world. She’s right about everything she wrote in that article. She also seems to be more accepting of it than I am, but maybe it’s because she’s bought a house, which I would imagine requires working through all the emotions I’m struggling with now. I’m still renting and not seeing an end to it any time soon.

Mackinac Bridge
My family and Luke’s family have been in Michigan for generations. We didn’t meet till college, but we have childhood memories in all the same places – Mackinac Island, the Mackinac Bridge, Tahquamenon Falls, the Great Lakes, Pictured Rocks. My siblings went to high school cross country camp in his hometown. My memories of my childhood drives to northern Michigan are full of my parents’ stories about their childhood drives to northern Michigan. Luke and I married in Michigan, as did all our parents and grandparents. Something seems right about going back there, the same thing that feels really really wrong about living in Virginia. I want to pass on to our kids (if God so blesses us) what my parents passed on to us, and what their parents passed on to them.

When I weave in the whole ancestry thing, and the part about the land, it suddenly seems very noble to be homesick this way. But maybe I spent too much time in college reading great literature and attending poetry nights. Maybe it is selfish to want all this. That’s a millennial thing, too, right? To feel entitled and narcissistic and everything. But I don’t think that’s actually what I’m feeling.

I can hear the objections coming: “Yes, this is all tough, but remember, your faith is most important, and you can pass that on to your kids anywhere.” That’s true, but it’s hardly consoling. My faith is more important than my parents and grandparents, but it doesn’t follow that my parents and grandparents, or the places of my childhood, are not important.

I don’t know what the answer is. All I know is I want to be home, and I want to be there to help.

EDIT: It turns out that one set of Luke’s grandparents didn’t actually marry in Michigan. They were both from Michigan, but eloped in Texas and spent a couple years there while Luke’s grandfather was in the Air Force -- “then moved back [to Michigan] as soon as he got out,” my mother-in-law tells me. My mental note to check with her on this ahead of time must have gotten lost somewhere. My mistake.


  1. Do now - do NOW - what you'll wish you had done when your moment comes to die. St. Angela Merici

    I don't know what the answer is, either. I raised my kids to be independent and competent and self-reliant - and they are. However, I miss them terribly because they are all so far away. I'm trying to quit complaining about it and pray more, which may be more effective.

    1. Thanks, Mom. I would hug you right now if we weren't so far apart.

  2. just got around to reading some of your blogs. like this as I felt bad about not being there to help Joshua and Mary Jo who were not only without power @ their house but were maintaining a wood burning stove in the basement @ our house to prevent pipes from freezing while we enjoyed 80 degree weather in sunny California with my brother. He had to haul the wood from the back of our property and then take it into the basement and put it into the stove. as no one was there he did not have be concerned with h20 and sump pumps. they live in Mott park so have running h2o, also gas stove, but no lights or heat. they used some of the wood to maintain their fireplace. and he kept the drives shoveled @ both houses while working close to 40 hr. yes a very different Christmas for Genesee county.

    1. Hi, "Anonymous," I had to ask my mom who you were but I found out soon enough! Glad you've found our blog!


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