Saturday, November 28, 2015

Fractured families --- today and yesterday

We miss our family when they go off on their own. And we look forward to the times we can gather them together. 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 we are so inclined we can cite biblical injunctions to justify their departure. It is that reality, that parting, that makes preparing our offspring to go off on their own one of our most important parental tasks.
It's happened in our family, and probably yours too---those days when we watched our children leave for some other part of the country, taking the next steps in their own lives. Though we had mixed feelings about their going---we realized 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 country, and beyond.
In most cases the "leavers" depart in good spirits, excited by fresh and hopeful possibilities, a new life chapter about to be lived out---with new chances to create their own future and continue their "becoming." 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 often 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 have depended on their presence to make our own 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 those feelings are as old as mankind.
Of course, in our world of interstate highways and on-time airlines that sort of 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, have made staying in touch with separated family easier and more immediate than ever.
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 family nest was apt to mean something very different.
You see, a year ago Roma and I spent days tracking her OregonTrail ancestors over flat, straight Nebraska highways and crooked, dusty Wyoming backroads---from the broad Platte River plain to the Continental Divide. We visited impressive interpretive centers and hiked along riverside trails---seeing first hand the challenges those pioneers travelers endured.
Though it was a satisfying and eventful journey, following the Oregon Trail to its Oregon terminus, at some point along the way I found myself dwelling on a wave of melancholy thoughts---October questions I had never seen anyone  address before. Those questions, and their sad answers, were a fact of pioneer life that guidebooks and documentary videos seem to ignore.
Think of it this way. For just about every Oregon Trail pioneer family that sold off most of what they owned to raise the hundreds of dollars their "Oregon dream" would cost, there were family and friends who remained behind---who gathered to say their good-byes as the hopeful travelers started off on their adventure. 
There were times, of course, when the departing travelers left no one behind, when the family 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. In those days of wagon train travel, when that happened those parties could expect to live the rest of their lives on opposite sides of the Continental Divide.
For some of those left behind that emigration separation was not an entirely new experience. Chance were, only a generation or two earlier they or their parents had made a similar break---a shorter journey over the Appalachians to the OhioValley and beyond. That too had been a time of separation, of leaving home for good.
For the Oregon Trail pioneers that parting, that leaving for the “Promised Land,” was framed by the all-too-likely reality that they and the family members who remained at home would never see each other again. The odds of parents, who stayed behind to tend a farmstead in mid-America, ever seeing the son, daughter, or siblings who had moved half a continent away to the far-off reaches of a mysterious place called Oregon, were slim indeed. 
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? From the moment they turned their back on you for the last time, your only contact would be in the form of long letters from far away. Your relationship would be sustained by fond memories and words on paper.
Consider for a moment that harsh and very permanent kind of parting. Take a moment to imagine that your son or daughter is standing in the doorway, suitcase in hand, preparing to leave---forever. How does one get their mind around that?
Yet, in the name of creating a more promising life, they were leaving their family and past behind. It was the only way. And for those who were 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 migration drama. 
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. 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 it possible. 
Still, in a way I had not expected to find, I realize that those wagon-train pioneers were not the only ones to pay the price of separation. In ways that make present-day family separation tame by comparison, our October predecessors paid a price few of us would be willing to pay.

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