Distance makes the heart ponder

November 25, 2007|By DAN RODRICKS

The gathering after the funeral took place in a catering hall instead of a relative's home - because there was no longer a relative's home nearby - so, when the two hours were up and all the food had been served, three waitresses started quickly clearing tables and moving chairs. That was a signal for the rest of us to head for the doors and get on with our lives. There were quick farewells and hugs and kisses, then into the parking lot and into cars, and back to the errands and chores of a busy Saturday.

No long, easy chats to catch up with cousins. No coffee with anisette and a little biscotti.

Time to hit the road. Time to get to the airport.

See you next time someone dies.

It's a common scene from American life - baby boomers at middle age burying their mothers, fathers and aunts and uncles; relatives stationed all over the United States, gathering only on occasion and going to considerable trouble when they do. I've felt the Big Chill before but not like that - when everyone split after a beloved aunt's funeral and I sat alone in a rental car in an empty parking lot for a few minutes, wondering where my family had gone.

I have never sensed absence and loss as much as I did at that moment.

Thanksgiving has become a transcontinental storm of air and ground traffic; the highways and airports will be crammed with travelers again today. Why?

Because hundreds of thousands of families are scattered across the fruited plain - the great American diaspora - and getting with family for a holiday requires more travel, expense and trouble than ever. (And some people just fly to Vegas now and forget the whole thing.)

We've made choices for career and climate, for love and profit - and for the millions of Americans who still care about kin, that means a long ride home.

It means long lapses in seeing family - that quaint institution that is far more powerful a force than we care to admit. Americans, we like to tell ourselves, are a special breed. We thrive in our independence. We like to be out there. We like to think of ourselves as adventurous and pioneering. And we're busier than ever, with limited time to get home to see relatives, assuming home still exists and that all the relatives haven't moved to Sarasota or Phoenix.

Cue Carole King: "So far away, doesn't anybody stay in one place anymore?"

Our ancestors were immigrants, traveling thousands of miles from their homelands, leaving behind family and friends for the New World and its promise. They felt absence, they felt loss; they survived profound homesickness. Most of them managed to overcome fear and sadness and get on with their American lives.

Then there was a time of relative stability, when the new Americans moved and settled into city neighborhoods, helped create small towns and establish family farms. They anchored themselves - for a generation or two or three or four.

Then came the next big wave of movement, within the continent, from the Northeast to the Sunbelt, from East to West, from North to South. Americans moved for opportunity and better weather. We became an increasingly mobile society, a generation of college-educated, professional migrants and transplants, constantly scouring the horizons for the next good thing.

This is America, land of opportunity, and the best opportunity hardly ever seems to be down the street from your childhood home. I have cousins in New York and London, Chicago and Charlotte, Reno and Dallas to prove it.

I have often found myself quietly envying men and women who grew up in Baltimore, still live here and have plenty of family nearby. I gather, however, that they don't always think it's such a great thing; they seem a little self-conscious about having never moved away, not even for college. Some might feel they sold themselves short by never making a move to a bigger city, a bigger career, a larger life.

But they know, as we all do, that you can't have everything. Everything involves trade-offs.

Stay in one place - work the same stable job, if you can, year after year or run the family business - and you might become bored and miss a great challenge elsewhere, and live with regret. On the other hand, your family is always a short drive away. The clock ticks, and aunts and uncles die, but cousins and brothers and sisters and nephews and nieces surround you, and you can see them easily, if you want. Even if you don't appreciate it, they're just a few miles away and they fill a psychic space; they're there if you need them.

Move away for what seems a great job or for a perfect climate, and you won't have the company of a favorite uncle or old friend for long periods of time. Your cousins might scatter as well, and the family becomes a series of pins on the national map. The Big Chill sets in and it can get pretty cold out there, in the rental car in the empty parking lot.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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