“The best part of my life is gone, and what remains is whizzing past so quickly I feel like I'm Krazy-Glue'ed onto a mechanical bull of a time machine.” — Douglas Coupland, “The Gum Thief”
I miss being a full-time daughter.
My mom lives in Pennsylvania and before the travel restrictions, I would regularly go home to see her, my aunts and brothers, and other extended family. There’s something about going home that turns down the volume on my role as a wife and mother and turns it up on being a kid.
In the middle of a pandemic, my inner kid wants to be turned up to 11 (see 1984’s “This Is Spinal Tap”).
When I walk through the doors of my mom’s house, I flop on the couch, grab the remote and start teasing my older brother, Scott. It’s a time machine that transports me to a simpler time when I was someone else’s responsibility, free to be lazy and playful.
Last March, at the start of the pandemic, my trips back home came to a halt. When three of my aunts died in a four-month period, my Mom seemed more vulnerable than ever. Now when I walk through the door, I look for opportunities to care for her (thankfully, Scott lives with her and handles her day-to-day needs).
This time, instead of flopping on the couch, I was doing laundry and cleaning.
COVID-19 broke my time machine.
The pandemic has left me stuck in a timeline where my responsibilities are more intense than ever. After a 14-hour day of responsibilities, I long to go to my childhood home, to reminisce, to see my mom, to be a kid. But to do this now, I need to follow Pennsylvania’s designated 14-day quarantine period (or is it 10-days; it’s so hard to keep track anymore).
Something as simple as going home has been altered and confused by the pandemic. So have the rules we’re required to follow.
This Christmas, after a lot of thought and planning, Adam and I loaded the kids and dogs in the minivan to meet up with my brothers, their families and my mom. Quarantining for 14 days was a massive undertaking for all of us, but we did it. We went back to Pennsylvania and spent time together as a family.
I wish I could say it was just like I remembered, but it wasn’t. There was bitterness with the sweetness. There was sorrow with celebration. I never reached the place of feeling like the kid I was just one (very long) year ago.
It seems as though 2020 has turned me into a full-blown, no-going-back adult. The position of “the kids” has been filled by my niece, nephews and children. My generation has ascended to family leadership, and a big part of me fears this more than anything.
In order to cope, I think about my elders and how they behaved. My Dad died right before I turned 40. I was devastated, in part because his death was sudden and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. But I was mostly wrecked by the thought of not having my father anymore. I remember driving home from the hospital and telling my Aunt Karen (his sister) that I felt this way and she was able to give me some perspective.
Aunt Karen’s husband, Uncle Paul, died a few years earlier. She said, “Just because he’s dead doesn’t mean I’m not his wife anymore.”
For what it’s worth, my Aunt Karen was a bona fide hottie and had lots of gentlemen callers after Uncle Paul died. That night, Aunt Karen told me she didn’t want to date and would never have another husband. She was content, even happy, to live out her life as Paul’s wife, even if the world saw her as his widow.
And she did just that, passing away more than a decade later.
Just hours after my Dad died, Aunt Karen told me, “You can still be Jim Curry’s daughter even if he isn’t here anymore.”
This gave me a lot of comfort and when I miss my dad, I still think about this conversation. She was wise. All my elders were wise. I fear I don’t have this kind of wisdom, the kind it takes to step up and be a leader in my family. After all, the wisdom my elders developed over time featured a mix of common sense, good judgment, experience and knowledge.
This is the point at which a human adult finds perspective and the ability to give voice to that perspective.
I have done a lot in my 46 years on this Earth, but in all honesty, I’ve never really felt like a grown-up enough to have this kind of perspective. I continue to acquire skills and knowledge, but wisdom is something different, something that still feels foreign to me.
The crazy thing about life is it just keeps moving us forward, albeit by flopping us around like a non-stop mechanical bull that could care less if we’re thrown left and right, up and down. It certainly doesn’t care if we’re thrown off completely.
And, maybe this insight is my wisdom. When I look at the world, I keep trying to do better for myself and those around me. I work to understand this complex and nuanced and beautiful world. The catch is that the more I do this, the more I am humbled by the lessons I take from those wiser than me.
Maybe I’ll never feel like I’ve earned my spot as a family elder. But, to be a good daughter and wife and sister and aunt and mom, I need to keep trying to figure things out, to find perspective and wisdom. I need to keep stepping up and acting responsibly.
I’m sure Aunt Karen didn’t realize that she was dropping nuggets of wisdom on me in the car that night. She was just doing the thing she always did: taking care of me.
In the meantime, I will strive to be like Yoda (GenX’s wisest cultural figure), even if all I really want to do is use a lightsaber to cut the cheese, and use it as an opportunity to make a fart joke.
Then, maybe one day, my hard work will pay off: When my kids come to visit with their families, as they flop on my couch, I’ll know that I’m their time machine.
— Mary Beth Earnheardt is a professor in the Anderson Program in Journalism at Youngstown State University where she advises student media. You can follow her on Twitter at @mbexoxo.