A Simple Rule To Live By

An email came my way May 8 from one of you, the readers. It began “As I was reading your last column a thought occurred to me about families. There is a recurring theme in your columns. It is closeness with family. You speak with such fondness of your mother, your sisters, even your brother-in-law.”

“Even your brother-in-law.” That comment made me smile. The writer isn’t aware that Joe and I were roommates at Georgia and that was how he met my sister, Brenda. A brother in my life was not a possibility until Joe came along. The emailer went on to write, “The thought of families not being close is so foreign to me, but I see it more and more often.”

How right she is. More and more often, distance separates families, geographically and worse, emotionally.

The world I grew up in was close and filled with family togetherness. I grew up with family nearby, and not just some family members, but both families entire, my mom’s and my dad’s. Practically all my kin lived in the same county, a small county that nonetheless seemed boundless through the eyes of a child. That childhood land, a stretch of dissimilar terrain swept across what seemed an immense country. In the north end, boulders and outcroppings shot up from a landscape that plunged to creek beds; in the southern end, shimmering ponds dotted gently rolling pastures. It was like two different lands and far apart. I’m talking about the distance from one set of grandparents to the other.

Funny thing about a child’s eyes, distances seem enormous, when in truth they’re a hop, skip, and a jump. As a boy that trip seemed like a journey to Memphis. I’ve never measured the trip but I would gauge that it’s about 28 or so miles from Danburg to Double Branches.

How I wish all my family lived within 28 miles today. What a difference that would make. No more having to plan trips; just hop in the car and visit. Lonely? Well surprise a daughter, my mom and sisters, but no, it’s a long drive and time is short.

The sad truth is the world I grew up in does not exist anymore. Families no longer live close by one another as a rule and on top of that life demands much more of people’s free time than ever. And so, my children’s lives, and perhaps yours too, are all the poorer. No regular Sunday dinners anymore, difficulties in celebrating birthdays, no dinners together just for the heck of it. To do that requires two tanks of gas and a cross-country drive. A mere 28-mile drive goes into my family round trips 15 times. It adds up to a day, eight hours of driving along an asphalt wasteland.

My daughters and I are in constant contact via email and cell phones, but it’s no substitute for living near each other. Aware of a past they never knew, I am forever holding up a measuring stick: comparing my days as a boy to my daughters’ situations. What a simpler time that was when we all lived nearby. It was a time when grandmothers measured your growth as regularly as sunrise. Stand against the door jam, and let a Phoenix Oil pencil scratch out your height. Things changed didn’t they. Now the pencil marks a path across a map. If you have grown children living within 15 minutes of you today, how fortunate you are.

There’s the mileage kind of family distance that can be overcome with effort and there’s that distance called “apathy” that turns families into something more akin to strangers. I know people who seldom visit their close relatives. In fact, they plan things so they can avoid family. In fact, they brag about how long it’s been since they last saw a brother or parent or child, and one fellow once told me, “I hope it’s that much longer until I have to see them.” Hard to believe, for me anyway.

There’s no apathy among my family members but there are miles aplenty. One daughter lives in Lawrenceville, 210 miles from Columbia, a drive of 3.5 hours, and the other lives about 208 miles away near Raleigh, a drive that’s close to four hours, due to a long stretch of backroads highway. And so I live smack dab in the middle of a desert you could call “No Daughterville.”

I grew up old school. You go spend time with your family. And so I have lived my life with a rule I never discuss but I will now. Never live more than two hours from your family roots. From my court to my mom’s driveway is 102 miles, a 100-minute drive. That childhood trip of 28 miles? Well, it seems more like a fantasy these days. Yes, how I wish all my entire family lived within 28 miles today.

I had a chance to live in Charleston once but passed up the job offer, and a firm in Chicago wanted to fly me up for an interview a while back. I declined. Move more than two hours from your family roots and in a sense lose your family.

I realize, of course, that our money-hungry, ambition-driven society scoffs at my little rule. “You have to go where opportunity is.” No, not really. Take a map and an old-fashioned compass. Place the point on your town and draw a circle equivalent to 120 miles out. Unless you live in a desert, you’re sure to find opportunity within a two-hour drive.

So, what does it mean when your family is scattered? Well, for me, it means having to pass up certain special days, and it means having to spend a lot of time traveling the American version of the autobahn, an interstate highway. Time spent driving from point A to point B holds the potential to be a vast wasteland for sure. Seems all you do is drive. You can, however, put it to good use. Being alone with your thoughts for hours and hours isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You work things out, and besides, there’s satellite radio, music, and talk radio to keep you occupied. The miles go by, time goes by, and each minute brings you closer to your destination, family.

So, what does it mean to our society with families scattered in all directions? Not much good I’m afraid. Family ties bind us into a more cohesive, cooperative society. I think of family closeness as a sort of glue. Blood is blood, and togetherness repairs many a hurt feeling and bridges many a chasm.

Members of family used to live close together for reasons of practicality; often they owned land, family land, and often they worked that land together. Then the city beckoned; folks began leaving the farm. My nuclear family still lives on family land, a rare thing today that, as the American Express ads go, is priceless. If you don’t think so, live in a good-sized city on a sliver of land where your neighbors never speak. You share a ZIP code … that’s about it.

I was young once living in a land called yesterday. Once upon a time in that land, families lived close by each other. They shared meals, good times and bad. And once upon a time, family lived, worked, and played in the same small communities. Moms stayed home with the children and raised them right. That was back in a time when no one talked much about assisted living centers. You took care of your own.

Now you get brochures from places with names like a grove of trees … “Arbor Rest” with marketing copy camouflaged as sentiment. Copy like this: “The day comes when loved ones with Alzheimer’s need a soothing, secure place like home—a place where bountiful windows nurture time and season awareness. There comes a time when innovative care makes a difference for all—the patient and the family. Call our admissions counselor.” I know of what I speak. I wrote that brochure copy.

Long-term care insurance is a hot commodity these days that reflects the fact that families scatter like a covey of quail flushing to all compass points. Moms go to work since many homes require two paychecks today. Who has time to take care of an elder? Besides, children grow up and move away to seek new opportunities. Who’ll take care of you? No worries, the assisted living centers rise to fill this vacuum. Whereas families once lived close enough to care for the old, they turn that over to places with names like trees today.

Family togetherness? Now being together means booking airline tickets for some, and most of the time making a long drive that can wear you down once you’ve done it 200 times or more. Still, the reward comes at the end of the road. Time with your loved ones.

And when you’re not with family whom can you rely on to fill all those empty days and nights?

Well let’s see … Well, I guess that leaves friends. They’re the new family in the 2000s. At least they are close by … for awhile.

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