by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
October 7, 2004
THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG-DISTANCE DAUGHTER
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- It's funny how quaint it seems now, the idea of retiring to Florida (or even having enough money to retire at all). But thirty years ago it was the dream of millions of hard-working Americans, many of whom actually pulled up their northern roots and moved south.
That particular American dream had dangerous underpinnings for the American family. It was one of the reasons that extended families disappeared, shrunk down to middle-aged couples separated from their own parents as well as their children, cousins and, eventually, their grandchildren. It became a world of families joined only by airline tickets and the slender thread of land-line phones.
Thirty years ago, my parents retired to a part of Ft. Lauderdale where there was nothing but scrub trees, narrow roads, cow pastures and new developments. Now there isn't a bit of open space left. The malls are huge. Roads packed with new cars run four lanes in each direction. New towns spring up all the time.
My mother, now 87, has had a wonderful life there. She is widely admired for the Broadway-style musical comedies she puts on in her condo. She has a full social life. She even remarried after my father died. She is still vital and healthy. But since my stepfather died two months ago, she feels a kind of deep loneliness that friendship alone cannot alleviate. She has no close family left except me, and I live in Vermont.
Her generation is now paying a very high price for cutting the cords of family. In her world, visits from children are treated like visits from royalty - or saints. The sentence, "My daughter wants me to come north and stay with her for the holidays," has more status than a 4-carat square-cut diamond ring. "My children don't visit me anymore," is the saddest sentence in the world.
When someone sells their home and returns "up north," it means they can no longer live alone or advocate for themselves with the medical establishment. They need to be near a family member who will take on that responsibility, and thus they are on the certain path to deterioration and death. Seen in this light, returning north is something to be avoided.
This makes for a curious tension. My mother and I want - and need - to be near each other. But she wants me to move to Florida, while I want her to move to Vermont.
A number of people my age - generally but not exclusively women - move to Florida to live with their aging parents. These are people who have never married, or are divorced and at loose ends, or who were downsized or are in some other financial difficulty. They are people to whom life in a Florida retirement community makes some kind of sense. My mother's condo even has a "50s-60s" club now.
For those of us who are leading complicated, demanding and rewarding lives up north, however, Florida is not a desirable option.
Mom has been depressed since my stepfather died, so last week I went down to keep her company. She has a beautiful house with plenty of space for me, and I've been visiting there so long that I'm now a part of the community. Last week, during auditions for the new show, for example, several people suggested I try out - they thought I would be good at lip synching Sophie Tucker's "Red Hot Mama."
I know it meant a lot to my mother to have me there. And living with her felt natural - so natural, in fact, that I forgot all about my life in Vermont. I forgot about my husband's kisses and the Red Sox and the clear, crisp light of autumn, and the ever-changing beauty of Spaulding Hill Road. It all faded away as if it had never existed.
While I was there, I helped Mom clear away some of the detritus of 30 years of pack-ratting. We tucked away photos of long-gone relatives. We donated sacks of paperback novels and hardcover books to the condo library. We cleared out multiple decks of cards, loads of antique electronic equipment, old magazines, bags of costume jewelry, yellowing pads of paper and broken watches. We made a great team.
Our parting was literally wrenching. I felt as if I was being torn away from my full, rich life. And I felt incredibly guilty about leaving my mother alone.
My first night back home, I barely knew where I was. I missed my mother. Green palms had morphed into flaming maples, but my head was in two places at the same time and my heart didn't know where to land.
At some cost to herself, my mother finally set me free. "Enjoy your wonderful husband," she said generously over the phone the next day. "Enjoy your beautiful house and your beautiful cat."
I'm beginning to understand why most marriage vows include the phrase, "And forsaking all others." It is not only about fidelity. It is also about transferring your emotions from your parents to your spouse, when the ties that bind you to your parents seem to be made of iron and rubber at the same time.
There is no solution to this problem; it is the price my mother and I are paying today for that long-ago lure of a happy, sun-drenched retirement. For now, we'll cobble together a life of daily phone calls. In emergencies, I'm just a plane ride away. And I'm guessing that she'll accept my invitation to visit Vermont for the holidays.< Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.