By L&T Columnist Rachel Coleman
I spent five days this summer with my younger brother and his family — a shorter visit than most years, but all the more precious because of its brevity.
Since he moved to India to establish and operate a nonprofit organization, my brother gets back to the U.S. periodically to raise support. What that means in practical terms is constant travel, a different bed every night, and little sleep. Even so, he usually squeezes in time to connect with family.
This year was no different. However, all of us were. The children, four teens bookended by oldest and youngest cousins ages 11 and 20, were shocked and horrified to find our cabin did not offer wireless phone service or internet connectivity. The adults, exhausted by work and travel, had little energy to be horrified by their horror.
But our days together focused on more than technology or the lack thereof. At rest in the mountains, we had time to become reacquainted. We did so over what my oldest child described as “endless rounds of tea.” She was right: staying in three cabins clustered in a narrow valley, family members could migrate from kitchen to kitchen with ease. Whenever someone appeared, the first remark was, “I just put water on to boil. Do you want some tea?”
Actual meals punctuated the hospitality. My mother and father served breakfast each morning in their tiny cabin, so close to the creek you heard a continuous soothing rush of water when you visited. At my brother’s cabin, they served snacks 24 hours a day: crunchy seaweed wafers, fresh cherries, double-chocolate cocoa with marshmallows, party mix and popcorn. My cabin hosted dinner each night. The rice cooker burbled away on the floor in a corner while we squeezed 11 to 13 people into an 8x8 dining area. It was cozy, it was chaotic, and it was glorious.
Once we finished the washing-up, family time began, with conversation, laughter and an assortment of games. The oldest cousin read the first two chapters of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe,” the middles stayed up till 2 a.m. wheeling and dealing in “Monopoly,” and every now and then, the sound of ukelele and singing drifted from one cabin to the next. Friends from Colorado and even India made the trek to our cabins to visit, and we shared pie and conversation late into the night.
Back home in Kansas, I’ve been pleased and surprised about the potency of our five-day vacation. When time and distance separate families, we assume it will be no problem to find our way back to a sense of connectedness. Like most parts of parenting, we only think this because we don’t know any better. Maintaining closeness as life moves forward challenges the most earnest intentions. You don’t find this out until the miles and the months add up.
Sons and daughters leave for camp, for college, for new opportunities, and we wave goodbye, filled with a weird mixture of optimism and fear. They’re still our children. They’re going to find their way. They’ll come back home! When they do, we forget to reckon, they will be different people. We all will, because the only people who aren’t changing are dead.
Once the hugs and exclamations of reunion fade, every family encounters a prickly mess of unexpected, alien problems. A college student might return home vegetarian or simply scornful about the provincial limitations of the old hometown. A child might come back from camp with a cell phone full of new numbers, ready for late-night conversations that exclude family members. Or everyone might be so tired, they’re unable to explain anything at all. You never know.
During our stay in the mountains, my brother and I did manage to steal a few quiet moments for conversation to scrape past the everyday trivia and talk about what really matters to us both. We’re both neck-deep in our children’s efforts to grow into adulthood — which means we are both nearly as exhausted as we felt when our sons and daughters were toddlers who didn’t want to take naps.
Even so, I quickly settled into the comfort that comes from talking to someone who’s known you all your life, and whose life you, too, have witnessed. Those tea-soaked talks with my brother will sustain me through the rest of my household’s busy year. We will celebrate the first birthday of our first grandson, send one daughter back to college for her third year, launch a son into his senior year and the youngest daughter into her sophomore year of high school. Never mind the pursuits the adults have taken on; we’re still in charge of putting dinner on the table and gas in the fuel tank, keeping order, keeping positive, keeping the faith.
I find it impossible to picture how Christmas might unfold, or even what we’ll do on Labor Day.
I do have confidence that family ties, sometimes so difficult to recognize when life shifts into warp speed, people come and go, and daily life becomes a blur, will hold fast.
How do I know this? I know because I have a brother who’s one of my best friends in the world. Time and distance and trauma and surprises and schedules have not eroded the power and beauty of that relationship. Compared to the 43 years we have already logged as a family unit, college and high school and work and the impending adulthood of our offspring are no big deal. The important things hold up to the tumble of life just fine.