No Time to Mourn

September 08, 1995|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- It is rush hour when I pull up to my mother's apartment. I am still speeding internally through the after-work time zone. The momentum of the day is pushing me forward long after its engine has turned off.

Tonight however there is a job to be done, items on a list to be crossed off, a mission to be accomplished. My mother is moving, downsizing from one apartment to another, and we have all pledged to help.

My assigned task is to begin to triage the stuff of her life. To pare down and sort out which items from the past will go with her to the future. So I arrive from the office with my mind on efficiency and my eye on my watch.

Together we go through the rooms. This coat hasn't been worn in years. There is no room in the new apartment for this table. Surely, this skirt is out of style. Maybe the kids would want these dishes. Nobody uses ashtrays anymore. This lamp has got to go.

It takes a half hour of such speeding before I notice that my mother is in a different lane, traveling at a different pace altogether. While I am urging decisions, she is telling life stories. While I am trying to finish this job and get on to the next at home, she is considering this moment in her life.

She wants to talk about the friend who gave her this scarf, about the thousand family dinners around that dining-room table, about the day she bought the lamp. She wants to say goodbye to these pieces of her past, one by one, before she lets them go.

Finally seeing this, I shift gears. I slow down and sit down. And doing so, I realize how easy it is to speed through important moments without even noticing.

I have a friend whose mother says with good humor that our whole generation should wear T-shirts that read, ''Gotta Go.'' We are forever in a rush. We do drive-by visits.

They call us the sandwich generation because so many of us are caught between parents and children, work and home. But maybe we're named after the one item on the menu made to be taken on the run.

It's not just the tasks of life that we rush through. Not just the cleaning, the shopping, the commuting, the everyday maintenance. We also manage emotions with one foot on the running board. We even short-cut the experiences of life.

This summer, a teacher I know told me a family story so over-the-top that it might have been penned by John Irving. Heading for the car one morning, her family discovered that their cat had been crushed by the automatic garage door.

As horrible as this was, what lingered in her mind months later was the aftermath.

In their morning frenzy, they barely had time to bury the cat and less time to cry before the three of them, deeply shaken, had to race off to their jobs and classes.

We asked each other what it meant that so many people didn't have time to mourn, to feel these moments in their lives. For some reason, it made me think of Carly Simon's ironic song about our times: ''Make love in the microwave/Think of all the time you save.''

In the past few years, with baby boomers in the White House, I have seen another, larger image of this rush hour. Since taking office, the Clintons have lost his mother and her father. In the pace of their lives, were they allowed enough time for reflection, for the slow absorption of loss and its meaning?

This summer when Al Gore's mother was first hospitalized with a stroke and surgery, he canceled his schedule. But then he did what was required. He took his worry back to work. Gotta go.

There is a family and medical leave policy for some of us, some of the time. There are small allowances for childbirth and sickness-unto-death. But the traffic jam of our lives rarely makes way for everyday family problems. Nor are we, surely, expected to brake for something as routine as saying goodbye to pieces of a family home.

Tonight, however, attention will be paid. There are boxes to pack but also a life in change. There are times when the more human speed limit must be observed. When talk is slow.

I go home late and tired. But I take with me a soup pot, a dozen stories and a silver basket that was -- I now know -- given to my grandparents for their wedding. Someday, I will tell that to the next, middle-aged generation. Before they gotta go.

8, Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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