How living so far from my roots actually makes me feel closer
It was the first day of spring and Radek’s svátek (name day) when I got the call from my mom that my 93-year-old grandmother was rapidly declining. Our family was visiting the hunting castle Křivoklát about an hour’s drive from Prague. The skies had just darkened to release a light drizzle. While Radek and the children waited out the rain in the car, Mom brought me up to date. After a year of increasing difficulties, my grandmother had now stopped eating or drinking. The hospice doctors told my family that it could be hours or a day or two.
When I heard my mom say, “I figured you wouldn’t want to come,” when I asked her about the arrangements for my grandmother’s funeral, I flinched. I knew my mother meant that since we’d been to the U.S. at Christmas and would come again in the summer, I might not want to make the long trip. But I could hear in her voice that I needed to be there. Without thinking of the logistics, I told her I’d come if she thought I could be helpful.
Back in the car, I began to imagine the logistics. There were my English classes to cancel or reschedule. There were guitar lessons, dance practices and swimming classes to coordinate, snacks to pack and homework to be monitored. There was an Easter performance at Samuel’s preschool, and a Friday night overnight at Anna Lee and Oliver’s elementary school. I wondered if Radek could handle it all. I wondered if I could handle letting him handle it.
Plus, there was the fact that in recent years I’d gotten claustrophobic several times in airplanes. Flying with the children seemed to help take my mind off my fear when the airplane doors shut. For the past ten years, there had always been at least one child in tow during my flights to and from the U.S. Now, the children didn’t understand why they couldn’t go too, especially Anna Lee. I wondered if I was brave enough to make the trip by myself. It sounded silly, even to my own ears. Worried about flying home? Most people would have been worried about flying in the opposite direction. But Radek encouraged me to go. He reminded me that I’d always said I was going home for my grandmother’s funeral. Everything that needed to be arranged would work itself out. I needed to be there.
With courage that I didn’t have, I made the necessary arrangements, kissed my children goodbye and let Radek take me in the frosty predawn hours to the Prague airport while the children slept at home. I quizzed him before leaving – did he know who had which club had that afternoon; did he remember that the preschool closed at 5 pm and Samuel didn’t like to be last; would he promise to call Anna Lee to make sure she’d made it to dance on foot? To my husband’s credit, he showed patience and restraint answering my nervous inquires.
Twenty-some hours later, my dad picked me up at the regional airport. He was wearing shorts. I knew I’d come a long way and not just because of the weather.
Back at my parents’ house, my mom, her sisters and an uncle were waiting up for me. While I munched on oatmeal chocolate-chip cookies, talk turned to food. As is customary in that part of the U.S., the food our family would eat during the next week would come from friends and neighbors – members of the First United Methodist Church my grandmother had attended for more than 60 years, her bridge group, my mother’s tennis partners and my father’s dental patients. In many cases, my grandmother had out-lived those of her generation, so it was their children who brought French silk pie, spicy pasta salad, Southern barbeque with vinegar sauce and more varieties of chicken casserole than we could eat in a week.
My mom and her sisters started a thank-you note list on a yellow legal pad. Every time I answered the doorbell, it was someone coming with a plate of raspberry brownies or several gallon containers of sweetened iced tea. There were vegetable platters to be stuffed into the refrigerator and a caramel nut cake that didn’t make it into the refrigerator before being sampled. We had food to feed an army. My grandmother would have been proud.
The army arrived in waves – Friday in time for the evening visitation at the funeral home and again Saturday morning in time for the funeral and burial. After both events, my family, and anyone else to whom my mother managed to issue an invitation, trooped back to my parents’ house to help eat the delicious food. Sixty of us gathered after the funeral for a pot-luck lunch with more variety than I’d seen at the last family reunion. Several of my mom’s friends rolled up their sleeves and manned the kitchen, refilling ice teas, warming casseroles, slicing desserts and making sure that my mother wasn’t bogged down with the details of hosting.
The other grandchildren came and went quickly, arriving in time for the evening visitation and leaving the next day after the post-funeral lunch. With small children in tow and busy day-to-day life waiting for them a car’s drive away, I understood. Still, I was sad to see them go. Missing my own family, I tried to squeeze in as much catching up with my brother and cousins as possible, riding to and from the funeral home and the church wedged in the back between car seats, trying to listen to the kids and chat with the adults at the same time. From my cousin’s eight-year-old, I heard about how mulch ruins recess. Mulch hurts when you fall on it and you can get splinters, he solemnly declared. I made a note to verify his theory with Oliver later.
Before the other grandchildren arrived, I watched the “Loving Memory” video slide show at the funeral home. There were Christmas’s from my youth, one with the whole family wearing tie-dye and another with us all in matching windbreakers. There was a picture of my grandmother’s 90th birthday celebration with eight of her nine great-grandchildren clustered around her. The last picture showed my grandmother at her kitchen table, my youngest son Samuel standing beside her in his pajamas. It was from last summer when he’d gone over with my aunt to visit right after breakfast. At that time, my grandmother still knew his name.
Growing up a half-mile from my grandparents’ house, I saw them regularly. We sat together in church, they came to watch ballet performances and soccer matches. In later years, I walked with my grandmother at the Wellness Center. A writer, she was also a loyal “Half ‘n Half” reader. She got my uncle to bookmark the link so she could access it each week on her desktop. She emailed me regularly after reading, sometimes to praise but often to point out a missing word or an ill-placed comma. When she could no longer use the computer, some of the women who looked after her read her excerpts and she remarked that the stories were fine, but did they have to be so long?
Although my children don’t have the same day-to-day relationship with their grandparents that I did with mine, in many ways, living so far from my roots has actually made me more committed to maintaining strong family ties than I might if I lived close by. Since it takes a cross-Atlantic flight for my children to get to see their grandparents, our time together is heightened with the knowledge that we need to cram as much in as possible. When in Prague, tmy parents attend sports practices, meet the children’s teachers and read bed-time stories. In between visits, we Skype on the computer, send packages and count the days. It’s not the same, but it’s the best we can do.
The few days I was home passed in a flash. All too soon, it was time to board the first of the three planes that would take me back to my family. I felt a brief moment of claustrophobia when the cabin doors shut, but the girl traveling beside me was leaving her home for the first time. Her excitement at looking out the window and seeing the mountains where she grew up disappear beneath her, reminded me how far I’d come since the first time I’d made a similar trip.
When Radek and the children met me at the airport some twenty-hours later, it was past their weeknight bedtime. They hadn’t had baths and their faces were dirty. They hugged me and kissed me and led me to our car. There was homework to do, snacks to pack and English lessons to plan.
Once again, I had flown home.