I step over piles of blocks, scattered books, and sundry puzzle pieces, and peer out the window, searching for signs of life on our street, a reminder that the world is not just me and the spirited, beautiful, relentless baby girl at my feet. The day is now in slow motion, and the afternoon stretches before me like an endless ocean, the waves pounding back and forth and wearing down the sand.
Across the street, our elderly neighbor is out, a rare sighting. She drags a stool across her yard, sits down on it, and crouches over, painstakingly reaching for and picking up pine cones. There must be dozens. Each outreach of her arm, every labored motion, makes me ache for her. I am overcome with a feeling that I must do something; someone should do something for her, and I was the only witness to her determined undertaking of this gargantuan task.
As if I’ve forgotten who I am and what I am, I start for the door. I am going to answer the call for help. I feel a tugging on my hand, the frustrated sounds of my baby girl wanting to be picked up. So I answer another call for help, a different one than of the moment before. I know what my first priority must be. At the time, E was only just over a year old and not able to walk. She was intolerant of pack ‘n’ plays and even a few moments of my attention placed on something other than her ignited her fury. There was no way I could manage anything in this moment other than E.
Suddenly I find myself brimming with outrage. This poor old white haired woman, mother of 5, struggling to bend, laboring, her arthritic body putting forth effort it barely had to give. Where were her children? Where were her grandchildren? How could they let her do such a thing? And for that matter, why was she all alone?
I stopped myself. Almost slapped my palm against my forehead. Somewhere across a 24 mile lake, then across our country’s greatest river, someone could be saying the very same thing about my own grandmother! My beloved, cherished, 78 year old grandmother who lives alone—by choice—and insists on doing things clearly beyond the limitations necessarily imposed upon her by age and ill health. For a moment, I longed to make a trade. Why couldn’t my grandmother be the old lady across the street? Why couldn’t they swap places? Then I could care for her the way I should, make certain she wasn’t over exerting herself, treat her with the dignity and devotion that years of her love and sacrifice demanded.
Our society doesn’t function like this anymore. We live spread out, pulled apart by forces seemingly beyond our control, all in our own little homes on our own little lots, small households with great demands, dictated by the almighty Busy. As a historian, I can tell you this is a recent phenomenon. Prior to World War II, most people lived in homes that contained extended family members. There was no such thing as a nuclear family. There were just families. You lived with your grandparents. Mothers had the help and guidance of their mothers in the same household; children were raised by parents, grandparents, sometimes even aunts and uncles. No one had to worry how Grandma was. Grandma was right there. This goes back to ancient times. Mary would have been raised in a compound surrounded by parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and, if disease and hardship had not already taken them, grandparents. Just as Mary is the mother of us all, the women in the households of Nazareth would have mothered all the children present, whether or not they birthed them themselves. Jesus, who calls us all his brothers and sisters, would have come from a family in which extended members were regarded with the same closeness as siblings.
I suppose I am an anomaly. I would love to live with my parents. I practically do. My mother and father’s home, the home in which I grew up, is a mere 10 minutes away from ours. My daughter spends 4 hours a day, 3 days a week, with my mother. I consider my mother, along with my husband, of course, to be my partner in raising my child. We see my parents almost every day and go over on the weekends for dinner and family occasions. I feel so blessed to be able to do this. I cannot imagine how hard it would be, both physically and emotionally, not to have them actively involved in our lives. I only wish my grandmother could be here with us, too.
I hope and pray that one day when my mother is stooped and frail I will be there to lean in and take over the task at which she is struggling. And if not me, then E’s sweet hand, no longer the tiny, soft baby hand I know so well, reaching out, serving just as she was served.