The typical American lives just 18 miles of his or her mom, according to a recent study by the University of Michigan, with 40 percent living within five miles.
That news hits home for us this week, with our kids (and their families and significant other) under one roof (if you include the roof across the hall) for several days between Christmas and New Year’s. This happens for us just once a year, and it’s a good occasion to reflect on the role of geography in the way we’ve lived our lives.
When Carol and I got married in 1970, we were pretty open about where we might live. We did rule out at least a couple of places: Florida and California. Funny how we ended up spending about a decade in each state.
We were each encouraged by our parents, especially our mothers, to seek our dreams wherever they took us. In Carol’s case, that meant living near home (Louisville, Ky.) for the last time at age 17, when she went off to college. Same with me, living in Groton, Ct. for the last time at age 18.
In retrospect, it’s clear I was never very intentional about the role of geography in my life. I’d never even visited Detroit when a Free Press alum in the New York Times Washington bureau (where I was an intern in 1971) set me up with my next job. Our next several moves were also the result of opportunities more presented than sought (in Washington, D.C., central Europe, Detroit (again), Silicon Valley and Florida).
We considered opportunities to live closer to my folks in Connecticut only a couple of times — Boston in 1975 and New York 20 years later — but neither job worked out and we ended up staying put in Michigan and California.
Ah, how the tables turn! This week we’re joined by our daughter and her family visiting from their home 700 miles away in Michigan and our son and his girlfriend visiting from — wait for it — 3,155 miles west in California.
The pattern is broken, of course, by the daughter and family who live about eight steps north of us, across the hall. The arrangement doesn’t bridge all the gaps between grown children and their parents. But thanks to SKYPE, our son-in-law, Marton, was able to include his Hungarian family in our Christmas morning festivities 4,162 miles from Budapest.
Our almost three year-old granddaughter, Leila, reminds us that distance is all a matter of perspective. “Amma and Papa live too far away,” she told Kate over the weekend, “it’s too far to walk — I’m gonna scoot.” Whereupon she donned her new orange helmet, mounted her Christmas scooter and rolled across the hall.
Since returning to Boston three years ago, I’ve been struck by the choices most of my cousins made to remain in or around Quincy, just south of the city, their entire lives. My family left in 1955, when I was six, so my dad could take a new job at a different shipyard, Electric Boat, 100 miles southwest of the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy.
Some of my cousins’ grown children have stayed put, too; others have moved away. What they all share is something our kids don’t: A place to return to (or remain) as adults that really feels like home. We’ve lived in some places long enough to get a taste of what it must be like to be lifelong residents: If not exactly the Cheers experience of everyone knowing your name, at least the occasional delight of bumping into someone who does.
The University of Michigan study, reported by the New York Times here, explores the implications of proximity when elderly parents need closer contact and care. A lifelong New Englander, my mom lived her final days in California, where we brought her for excellent medical care that ultimately fell short. She died at 89 in our home in Fremont. Carol’s mom was still relatively young when we moved from California to Florida and she decided to join us, living a few miles from us before age and illness caught up. She spent the last year of her life in our house in St. Petersburg.
This morning, I was the first one awake of the seven family members packed into our place (which still seems spacious after two years in a room). So I ventured across the hall and spent some time with Kate and nine-month old Mateo (while four other family members slept over there).
Noting the pluses and minuses of life on the move, Kate said she hopes for a middle ground for her family: A place they’ll regard as home — maybe Boston or Brookline — as they move around the world as opportunities arise.
Carol and I realize we won’t have Kate and family across the hall forever. But boy are we enjoying those eight steps while we can.
How many miles do you live (now or previously) from your Mom or Dad (or your grown children)? It’s a question easily answered with a Google query along the lines of “How many miles from 26 Nicholas Avenue in Groton, Connecticut to Sieveringerstrasse 181 in Vienna, Austria? Any stories prompted by that geography that you might be willing to share?
When I was growing up, home was wherever my family of five was. We moved 10 times before I was 17, to cities all across the U.S. “Home” was just wherever we landed, and it was grand and exciting. After I married and moved to California, Mom and Dad were miles away. It was hard, having never been more than a 15-minute drive away. But we saw them frequently and my husband and I built our own lives with our children. I asked my Dad once, “Are you sorry we moved away?” He said, “Kids…that’s why you grow them, to be their own selves.” Wisest man I ever knew.
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Wise and strong and generous, Kate.
I went to high school in Kansas City with three siblings whose family name is Ruf. One was in my class, and when I paid my first visit to the Ruf home I was amazed to find a six-unit apartment building with Ruf carved into the stone over the front door. It turned out that all six units were occupied by various generations of Rufs: mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, cousins, et al. After my friend’s parents’ generation were gone, the kids sold the building and moved to suburban houses. Until then, two or three generations of Rufs would have been way way outliers in the University of Michigan study.
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Fascinating, Tom. That’s just the sort of arrangement we’d love, but feel lucky to have pulled it off with two as opposed to six family units!
I’ve edited the lede of this post to more accurately reflect the statistics of the study. Instead of the typical American living WITHIN 18 miles of mom, it now has the typical American living 18 miles from mom. That’s because 18 miles is the mean — half live further than 18 miles and half live closer.
Have you seen the Brooklyn Movie? Some of the comments attached to the NYT review (can’t link in comments but search A.O. Scott review of Brooklyn on the Times site) dismiss it as overly sentimental. But especially after writing the post above, I found myself more in agreement with the reviewer’s assessment of a film that’s “both sharply observed and gently nostalgic.”
What a beautiful gathering – you all have such gorgeous smiles and look like you are truly enjoying each other. Happy New Year!
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I love this post, Bill. (I’m so happy you guys were all together for the holiday! Ooh, I miss you guys!) It also made me feel tremendously sad. Each time I visit a charming place, I think, “What if? Could we live here next?” be it the Pacific Northwest, or the wilderness of West Texas, or somewhere across the ocean. But beyond the thrill of adventure, the reality of moving, for me, feels far more lonely. I’m tired of having to get on an airplane (and use limited vacation time) to visit family and the friends I consider to be like family. And while large, populous cities can be appealing for many reasons, I find living in New York City to be harder than other places I’ve lived: While it’s easy to meet people you like, and foster friendships, it can take a lot of effort to actually schedule time to be together, and the city is large enough that traveling to a friend’s house can take up to two hours. I miss the opportunity of simply walking or riding my bike a brief distance to spend time with a friend in a cozy, personal surrounding; even though quiet recharge time is important to me, there’s something really special about being able to see each other whenever you want. That’s what I really love about your experience in Beacon Hill, and now with Kate and Marton right across the hall. It’s intentional.
So I wish everyone I knew was ready to join our imagined commune, like, right now. (!!) But until then, Brendan and I will likely move back to Chicago, a city that we ironically would probably not return to if we didn’t have such a solid community there, only a few hours drive from both of our parents.
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P.S. Marton’s outfit is amazing.
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So many of the ‘better’ jobs – breadwinner jobs that help float a family in most big cities – are concentrated now in a few places. Most have crushing costs of living. NYC, Boston, San Fran, LA – pricey.
Affording to visit far-flung family at peak travel times like summer holiday weekends or Christmas or Thanksgiving is hard. A young family might have the ‘other’ side to visit as well and may need a plain ‘ole vacation to unwind. Hard work broken up by costly trips to family and no real chillax break is not a recipe for a happy family.
If possible, I think the older generation (empty nesters) should travel. If retired, they can access off-peak tickets. With no school or work schedule to balance, they can adjust and perhap….should.
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Points well taken, Nancy Jean. The problem with the empty-nesters-as-holiday-travellers scenario in our case is that it would also involve travel from Boston by the family members with the youngest kids still in the nest. Nothing’s simple, I guess…
….just thinking out loud. Not trying to serve as peanut gallery for your family, more musing on my own long distance parenting days.
My issue was resenting the ooodles of love, attention, babysitting and on-call last-minute help my in-laws lavished on their three in-town grands, while my two long-distance kids were virtual strangers.
That’s a tough one.
No easy answer. A therapist said land-bridge theory – which drove some people to seek new worlds – prevents some folks from happily clinging to the old hometown. I was driven to see, to move, to move again.
The land-bridge would have beckoned me – even with no helpful, doting grandparents to have my back. I liked the moves, the adventure, the rewards and the change of scene.
Good for kids? Not sure. Maybe not.
Something else to ponder at 3 a.m…..?