Empty nest blues
I’m guessing it’s something most October folks can relate to……a product of our times. A recent conversation reminded me it is that way today. And it was that way back in early 2015, when I first addressed the phenomena I labeled Fractured Families.
It can be a trying time, watching as one by one our precious offspring go off on their own. Of course we miss them. That is only natural. And we look forward to the times we can gather them together again. We know of course that it has 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 know all about that. Often as not their leaving is a bittersweet moment……when we weigh 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, which makes preparing our offspring for life on their own one of our most important parental tasks.
Sad, but excited partings
It has happened in our family, and perhaps yours too……those times when we watched our children take the next step in their own lives, leaving not just our home, but for some far-off destination, Though we had mixed feelings about their going……we realized that moment had been waiting there for a very long time. Those long-distance partings happen often in today's mobile society, where families are apt to be spread all over the country, and beyond.
In those moments the ‘leavers’ depart in good spirits, buoyed by the prospect of 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 accept a new challenge? Still, though we must not stand in the way of their emerging life, there is bound to be 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 sometimes fail to appreciate 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……feelings I suppose are as old as mankind.
Help is at hand
Of course, in our world of interstate highways and on-time airlines the sort of parting I describe 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 members easier and more immediate than ever.
Reliving another time of parting
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.
My thoughts on that ‘different meaning’ first emerged in the fall of 2014, when Roma and I spent several days tracking her OregonTrail ancestors over flat, straight Nebraska highways and dusty Wyoming backroads …… from the broad Platte River plain to the Continental Divide.
In the course of our travels we visited impressive interpretive centers and hiked along riverside trails……seeing first hand the rugged countryside and trying to imagine 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.
A different level of separation
Think of it this way. For just about every Oregon Trail pioneer family who sold off most of what they owned to raise the hundreds of dollars their ‘Oregon dream’ would cost, there were family and friends, dozens of them, 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 there was no extended family, or 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. When that happened, in those days of wagon-train travel, the separated parties could expect to live the rest of their lives on opposite sides of the Continental Divide.
For some of those left behind that migration-based separation would not be an entirely new experience. Chance were, only a few generations before they or their parents or grandparents 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, 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.
How would that work for you?
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 standing in the doorway, suitcase in hand, preparing to leave……forever. How does one get his or her 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 heroes 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.
Willie’s Wise Words
I guarantee you have never before seen Shakespeare quoted on these pages. Yet what says it better than “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”? Parting is often a sad time. We can’t deny that. Yet when the parting soul is family, there is also an affectionate ‘sweetness’ at work. Thankfully we live in a time when a phone call, an email, or text can take the edge off what would otherwise be truly sorrowful.