Distance Versus Gravity in a Close-Knit, Far-Flung Family

Russell Frank
By Russell Frank March 15, 2010 18:29

Russell Frank

It was my dad on the line, obviously distraught. He thought Mom might be having a stroke. I asked if he had called Simone, the woman from the elder-care service we had contracted with last year. He hadn’t thought of Simone. He thought of me.

I told him I’d get there as soon as I could – in 12 hours. The problem: I live in a small town in Pennsylvania. My parents live in Florida. Getting there entails a two-hour drive and two flights, plus hurry-up-and-wait time in the airports.

My sisters might have been able to get there a little faster, but they don’t exactly live around the block either. One lives in Colorado, the other in Texas. None of us were thinking about a day like this when we spread out across the continent in the 1970s.

* * *

Here is what my world map looked like when I was a child: We lived on Long Island, just over the New York City line. One set of aunts, uncles and cousins lived a few blocks away. Two other sets lived in the Bronx. Grandma lived in Brooklyn. In other words, just about my entire extended family lived within an hour’s drive (depending on the traffic).

We saw our fellow suburbanite relatives all the time. We usually saw the Bronx relatives on holidays and special occasions.

And then, in the ‘70s, with New York crumbling in the rearview mirror, we left – not together, but separately, bound for wherever opportunities drew us or the wind blew us. When I lived in Southern California, my parents lived in Colorado. When I lived in Northern California, my parents lived in Southern California. One sister settled in Denver, but the other bounced from Colorado to Wyoming to Houston to Dallas.

At one point, my parents considered leaving pricey San Diego to join me in Sonora, but I didn’t think my moving days were over. They decamped for Florida instead. Wise move: I soon left California for a job in Pennsylvania.

It sounds like we must have been trying to get away from each other and stay away from each other, but that is not it at all. We are far-flung, but close-knit. My parents set the tone: They have been happily married for a mind-boggling 68 years. My memories of our household are mostly warm and fond.

So why did we disperse the way we did? A partial explanation is that the world had shrunk. When we were growing up, most New Yorkers vacationed in the Catskill Mountains, a few hours north of the city. The lucky few flew to Disneyland, Las Vegas, Florida or Hawaii. Then the interstate highway system was built and air travel became more affordable. The jet-setters had to make room on the plane for a huge wave of middle-class travelers. My sister studied in Spain. During college, I drove out west with friends, camping along the way. After college, I backpacked around Europe.

My family was among those who felt that we could go anywhere, that we could live anywhere. And if we wound up in different towns or time zones – no biggie, we could hop on a plane or jump in the car and come visit. The world was one big neighborhood.

Of course, there were a lot more nonstop flights in those days. And no airport security. And cheap gasoline.

But cheap and easy travel alone cannot explain my family’s wanderings. Plenty of other families we knew back in New York stayed put. I was judgmental about it: We were the worldly, adventurous ones. They were provincial, tradition-bound.

* * *

It was only when I became a parent that I began to appreciate the advantages of families staying in tight little clusters. I envied friends who could regularly count on their folks to take care of the kids, and not just because it was free and trustworthy babysitting. I thought it would be nice for our kids to spend time with their grandparents, nice for our parents to spend time with their grandkids.

Then air travel got less convenient and, for me, with my own family of five, less affordable. Over the years, members of my original immediate family have seen each other about as often as we saw the extended family when we were kids – once or twice a year, usually to celebrate a birthday or a birth, a wedding or a wedding anniversary.

These reunions are delightful affairs. When we say goodbye at the end of a long weekend together someone always wishes we could see each other more often. Everyone else agrees.

In the past year, though, we began to see the more painful consequences of not having made living near family a priority. Dad turned 91, Mom, 87. They needed help. The elder-care service has worked well. Simone cleans, repairs, chats. My parents are crazy about her. But now that there’s a crisis – Mom’s supposed stroke quickly led to a cancer diagnosis – they need us and we’re not there. We’re not anywhere near.

The decisions my sisters and I made before we had kids and when Mom and Dad were in the prime of life seem shortsighted now. Where are the teleporters we were promised by the futurists of the past?

Former Sonoran Russell Frank teaches journalism at Penn State University.

Russell Frank
By Russell Frank March 15, 2010 18:29
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