Monday, September 15, 2014

Fractured Families -- Today and Yesterday

Of course it's been like that forever---sons and daughters grow up, spread their wings, and leave the nest to seek a life of their own. By the time we reach our October years we understand that. And we know too that often as not their leaving is a bittersweet moment---weighing the excitement of their hopeful beginnings against our own sense of loss.

I suppose that ambivalence is to be expected. After all, we raise our children with the implied understanding that one day they will strike out on their own. If necessary we can cite biblical injunctions to justify their departure. It is that reality that makes preparing our offspring to go off on their own one of our most important parental roles.

It's happened in our family, and probably yours too---that day when we watched our children or other family and friends preparing to take the next step, leaving for some other part of the country. Though we had mixed feelings about their going, we knew that moment had been waiting for us for a very long time. Those partings happen often in today's mobile society, where families are apt to be spread all over  the place.

In most cases the "leavers" depart in good spirits, excited by fresh and hopeful possibilities---a new life chapter to be lived out, new chances to "become." In that light how can we, the ones left behind, begrudge their willingness to take a chance? Still, though we would never stand in the way of their growing and becoming, there is probably a part of us that resists their leaving---at least a little bit.

In a very real sense they are a part of whom we are. In ways we often fail to understand we may have depended on their presence to make our life complete. Though we have no right or inclination to hold them back, we can't help but wish they would stay, or at least not move so far away. Those are the urges that separation produces. I suppose they are as old as mankind.

Of course, in our world of interstate highways and on-time airlines that parting need not be a permanent thing. There will be  opportunities for periodic reunions. Additionally, with today's connecting technology the sting of enforced separation has been softened. The internet and wireless communication, in all their many forms, has made staying in touch with separated family easier and more immediate.

But now I ask you to pause for a moment to shift gears, to gather those thoughts of family partings and come with me to a another time, when leaving the nest was apt to mean something very different.

You see, for days Roma and I have tracked her OregonTrail ancestors over flat, cornfield lined Nebraska highways and crooked, dusty Wyoming backroads---up and down, from the broad Platte River plain to the Continental Divide. We have visited impressive interpretive centers and hiked along riverside trails---seeing first hand the challenges those pioneers endured. My Lord, we even woke up one morning to an early September snow.

Though it has been a satisfying and eventful journey, at some point along the way I found myself dwelling on a unexpected series of melancholy thoughts, October questions I have never seen anyone else address---a sad fact that guidebooks and documentary videos seem to ignore.

Think of it this way. For just about every brave and daring Oregon Trail pioneer family that sold off most everything they owned to raise the hundreds  of dollars their "Oregon dream" would cost, there were family and friends, the ones remaining behind, who waited to say their good-byes as the hopeful travelers left. In a real sense the very core of the emigrants' limited world had gathered to see them off. (Those were 1848 or 9 dollars---which meant many families were too poor to take advantage of the promise of a new start in Oregon.)

There were times, of course, when the departing travelers left no one behind, when the family was remained intact. One of Roma's ancestors joined a wagon train made up entirely of more than 300 members of their Baptist church. The congregation emigrated en masse. And surely there were times when parents and even grandparents, perhaps too old to be undertaking such a venture, joined the overland company simply to avoid being left behind. 

Still, more often than not families were destined to be separated---some leaving, some staying behind. When that happened each of those parties could expect to live the rest of their lives on opposite sides of the Continental Divide.

For many of those left behind that emigration separation was not an entirely new experience. Only a generation or two earlier they had perhaps made a similar, if shorter, journey over the Appalachians to the OhioValley and beyond. That too had been a time of parting trauma, of leaving home for good.

For the Oregon Trail pioneers that parting was framed by the all-too-likely reality that they and the family members who remained at home would never see each other again. After all, the 1840s and 1850s (pre-railroad times) were not a time of mass trans-continental travel. 

The odds of parents, who stayed to tend a subsistence-level farm in mid-America, ever seeing the son, daughter, or sibling who had moved half a continent away to the far-off reaches of a mysterious place called Oregon were slim indeed. In most cases from that time of parting their relationship would have to be sustained by little more than fond memories and long letters. It would be an expensive, painfully slow, and often unsatisfying means of communication. But it was the best there was.

Think about that for a moment. How would you deal with that sort of parting---watching a son or daughter, a brother or sister, ride off to a new life that in all likelihood would never again include you? 
In the name of creating a new, more promising life they were leaving you and their own past behind. It was the only way. And for those left behind? The more I think about them the more I realize that there were two very different sets of heros taking part in that "leaving" drama. 

So here I am, dwelling on a harsh and very permanent kind of parting---the sort few of us can get our minds around. Take a moment  to imagine that your son or daughter is standing in the doorway, suitcase in hand, preparing to leave you---forever. From that moment on your only contact will be in the form of long letters from far away. The moment they turn their back on you for the last time your relationship will be a matter of memories and words on paper.

Of course those wagon train pioneers, the ones who made the long trek, endured a hard and dangerous journey. Theirs was the stuff of legends---the story of brave men and women, many of whom did not live to see the promised land. Largely because of their efforts our country now stretches from sea to sea. In a very real sense it was their willingness to leave their families, friends, and the life they knew that made their success possible. 

Still, in a way I did not expect to find, many of us October types can understand that those brave pioneers were not the only ones to pay the price of separation.

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