We safely navigated our way back to North Dakota today via a 6:15 AM flight that started out of Philly. I can attest that an evening that ends at 11:30 and a next morning that starts at 2:30 makes for a fairly incoherent me. But there is little that strong coffee cannot cure in the short term. Our little collective managed to get through decent-sized crowds to get on our flight and into Minneapolis in time for our flight home. The good news about such early morning travel is you arrive at your destination early. The bad news is the price is paid either in time stolen from your pre-destination location or bags under your eyes. We chose the bags. We know that it may be awhile until we will have the opportunity to visit again.
As a wrap up for the Jersey/DC adventure I offer a few truisms that I recognized while spending time with Mike’s family.
1. Every family has its own rhythms.
Mike’s mom, who is in her 70s, is a machine. She is constantly on the move baking, cooking, cleaning, and meeting everyone’s needs. I was exhausted just watching all she did on a day-to-day basis. But she is reticent to allow others do any of the household chores – even when her guests are her family members that were raised in the house – she is the consummate caretaker. I honestly do not know how she does it. I wonder how she was at age 40 or 50 or 60 if this is how she is now as she is slowing down into retirement. It makes me think that I need to take more vitamins and up my game.
Mike’s dad, who is also in his 70s, made breakfast daily for the whole clan – typically on a rolling basis (and by that I mean – as they rolled out of bed he made them whatever they wanted – pancakes, eggs, bacon, toast, etc.). It was like being at a restaurant. I worried aloud while there that Mike and Cheyenne would get used to this treatment and expect it at home (not likely to happen, as a short order cook I am not).
Mike’s dad has that same energy level and get-up-and-go as his wife of 50 years. Now mind you, they both have had physical struggles over the past decade – injuries, surgeries, etc. – but they still are amazingly active despite it all. I want to be just like them when I grow up. Heck, I’ll take their energy levels right now – they really do illustrate that 70 is the new 50.
On the days when they had not only our invasion of five, but also Mike’s younger sister, her husband, and their three school-age children I thought his parents should be nominated for some special recognition – be it sainthood, parents of the year, or a Presidenial fitness award. It was truly amazing to me how much they did for all of us while we were there. I am not even going to get into all the preparation that went into our visit on their front as I may just need to take a nap right now thinking about it.
I worried that our visit was a strain on them, but Mike assured me that this is who they are and what they do. Indeed, the whole core family – Mike’s parents, his sister, and him – have a rhythm of sort. It is a rhythm that was honed over decades that now is second nature to them. This is interesting to observe as a newcomer to this unit. It reminded me of the days when my mom was alive and the rhythm our family had – a rhythm not unlike Mike’s family rhythm. It was oddly comforting to experience Mike’s family from that perspective and I was gratified that Cheyenne had an opportunity to experience it as she never experienced that with my paternal grandparents or my mom. She adored Mike’s family – she would happily visit them again tomorrow. It made me a bit sad that we didn’t live closer to them so that we could visit more often.
2. There is comfort in family stories, norms, traditions.
I cannot begin to do justice to the family stories, norms, and traditions that are interwoven throughout Mike’s family’s history; suffice to say, these things are at the core of this family’s identity and to hear them and understand them is to know and understand his family. In all families there are such stories, norms, and traditions but in living them they become normalized and part of the family’s culture and standard operating procedure. It is like watching a sitcom faithfully from season one to its final episode – you know the lineage of all the jokes, reactions, and subtext – you are on the inside track. From the outside coming into this family unit you have to pay attention to grasp all the ins-and-outs of it all, but I found that the more I knew and understood, the more I felt a part of the family unit. I also think that knowing and understanding these things gives greater depth to your own appreciation of the family member you are with (in my case, that is Mike). Seeing a person in their natural element – with their parents, sister, and extended family – adds a level of depth that one cannot fully appreciate without experiencing it firsthand.
Of course, it really helps when you love your partner’s family and want to become a part of those stories, norms, and traditions. As a woman who has spent time with a few different family units over the decades, I can say unequivocally that there is no other family unit that I have more enjoyed or wanted to be a part of than this one. It really helps that Mike’s family has so readily accepted and integrated not only me, but also my family members into their ranks.
I must say, when Mike’s parents took us to their favorite local restaurant for dinner one evening and their favorite local deli for lunch the following day, I felt like I was transported back more than four decades to the days when we would visit my grandparents and extended family in New York and Florida. Families that stay in one area and develop long histories and deep loyalties with local businesses have a certain feel to them that I cannot describe adequately but have had the privilege to experience. There is a sense of connectivity and lineage that is uniquely heartwarming and increases the pleasure of whatever experience you are having with them. As I said, I cannot describe it adequately, but if you have experienced it yourself you know what I mean.
3. Short visits are both good and bad.
Short visits of a week or so are both good and bad because there is so much anticipation and weight placed on them that the time takes on a morphed quality of being incredibly slow in some moments and incredibly fast in the cumulative. Relaxed days filled with conversations allow for family time that is akin to a weekly family gathering – filled with food, laughter, stories, kids’ giggles, and casual goodbyes. There is a sense at the outset that one has the luxury to meander through these days with no pressure. Alas, at about the time when these vacations reach their final couple of days, a sense of urgency creeps in and the time seems to go too quickly.
Yet, these visits while always seeming too short in the end, are so labor intensive for the hosts that they really must be kept to a reasonable number of days. When the amount of work involved with out-of-town guests is coupled with the anticipation of seeing family that one has not seen for awhile it can be very overwhelming. It feels like you need to cram in a great deal into a short period to make up for time apart which adds to the pressure of any given visit. Such is the nature of these types of vacations, they are both invigorating and exhausting. You want to take in as much as you possibly can to carry you until you can see them again, but in the end we realize we only have right here and right now. The memories stored do not make the next extended absence any easier to bear.
So as I said at the outset, we chose the bags. It was with a bit of melancholy that we left Mike’s family, but that is the nature of such things. We had a lovely time with them and we look forward to visiting them again. In the meantime, we will all hold on to the memories we made this past week.
Day one thousand four hundred and eighty-seven of the new forty – obla di obla da