On Christmas Eve, my parents, brother #2 and his family (including his wife’s parents), Sister #4 and her family, and my family often gathered together for a celebration. This year my brother’s wife volunteered to host a potluck, my favorite type of get-together. Since I lived an hour away, I got the easy to transport dishes, salad and dessert. My parents lived in the same small community as my brother, known for its expensive estates, trendy boutiques, and former artists’ colony. (This is not the community I grew up in.) The day before Christmas Eve, Mom sent me a text, asking me to stop by her apartment before I went to my brother’s. I assumed we were going to exchange Christmas gifts and I had to stop there anyways because my brother told me to pick our parents up and bring them to his house.
When we arrived, my parents invited us to sit and chat, chat about Connecticut. Now to be honest, I was not a good daughter, sister, mother, friend, co-worker during this time. I didn’t tell people why we went to Connecticut in October. I said it was a business trip to anyone who asked. When we made the decision to move, I sent my siblings and parents a FB message, and then I posted for the rest of my world. I resigned formally before I told my colleagues. I didn’t tell my students until just before finals. I was busy. The end of the semester is always difficult. Since ten percent of the grade is the final, I need grades to be in perfect order which is almost impossible. Even though the school used an online grade book, I had neglected to keep mine up while making the big decision. Once I uploaded the grades since the last progress report, I had a steady stream of penitents. Students suddenly realize that I had collected something back in October that was buried in their backpack and they missed the last day to turn in late work. Some want to turn in extra credit because their coaches had given them warnings about grades. I had staff meetings, planning meetings, and essays. I was busy. I had the holidays: decorating, presents, baking (I skipped the cookies). I was busy. I was more than busy: I was completely overwhelmed. If I could just get through the semester, if I could just get through the holidays, if I could just get some sleep . . .
My mom wasn’t happy about being told via FB. She had already told me that I should have called her. The past few years we hadn’t talked much on the phone. I tried to be a dutiful daughter and visit or call but whenever I did, I felt bad afterwards. I don’t call as often as sister #2. My children are not as smart of those of brother #1. Sister # 1 is such a successful businesswoman. Not matter what I was doing, I felt like I was ten, competing for attention with all my siblings. Mom was just making conversation. So when she told me to stop by, I thought this was the perfect time to give them their Christmas present while they were focused on me.
We sat in the living room of my parents’ apartment. Dad started by complementing the house. He had seen photos that we had sent and really liked it. Then he said: “Can we come live with you?”
There was a moment of silence. I thought he was joking. My family had moved to California when I was nine. My parents had never talked about going back to New England. They hadn’t even gone for a visit in recent years. Then my father said: “You know that house is just 25 miles from where I was born? I want to go home.”
My husband and I looked at each other. We knew the right answer. We said: “yes.”
My dad looked relieved and happy, happier than he had in a while. I asked my mom: “Are you sure about this?”
“This is what your dad wants.” But she looked excited.
My husband asked the difficult question: “How will you get there?” My parents didn’t travel much. We drove them to our daughters’ college graduations in northern California. When I did talk to my mom on the phone about the move, she had told me that she couldn’t fly to visit.
They thought they could take the train.
I asked if they would miss the grandchildren. I knew I would miss my nieces and nephews, particularly the ones we would be seeing in a few minutes. I hesitated to leave my two adult daughters behind in California; plane tickets were in my budget. I couldn’t imagine leaving my grandchildren. My parents had thought of all these things. They wanted to return to New England.
We could make room for them. We did wonder if we had bought the right house. Maybe the one with the laundromat upstairs and in law apartment in the basement would have been better. Maybe we should have looked for one with a ground floor bedroom. While my parents were willing to live in the basement, we would have to make some changes almost right away. While the basement was furnished and had a bathroom with a shower, there was no bedroom. We would need to have a section made into a bedroom to give my parents some privacy. Even though they could have a bedroom and small living room and a work area for dad down there, we would need to go through the furnished section of the basement to get to the furnace and the well pump. We needed access to the wine cellar. We had bookcases that would fit only in the basement. Some of the basement needed to be shared space. Mom and Dad were fine with this. They wanted to sit in the sunroom, have coffee in the kitchen, and stroll down the driveway.
I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit I had other concerns. Just eighteen months before, my parents had announced that they wanted to move to an independent living community, a place where they could live in an apartment but get their meals in a dining room. Mom was often too sick to prepare meals for dad, who couldn’t cook. Dad’s repertoire of meals when we were growing up consisted of peanut butter sandwiches, scrambled eggs, and undercooked or burnt pancakes. (I preferred undercooked myself.) Moving to a facility that offered meals seemed like a good idea.
Brother #2, his wife, sister #4 and I went with my parents to look. One was in the community that they were living in. It was too pricey, especially since they wanted two bedrooms. Two were in a central location between the three of us. The fourth was in the community my brother lived in. It had an available apartment that had a large bedroom and a good size living room with a small entry/sitting area. It was the most spacious one bedroom we had seen, less than any of the two bedrooms, but still expensive. My brother worked up a budget. My parents moved in. Mom told us all that the moment she moved in, she felt like she was “home.” For a few months, they seemed happy. Then mom was miserable. She said that she was too young to be in “this type of place”. She was too healthy and all the food they served was not on her diet. She complained but she didn’t want to get an apartment. She was too sick to take care of Dad. Since moving to an independent living community hadn’t worked out, would moving in with us be better? I was sure that Dad would enjoy being with family. He was content as long as he had his computer. But our new house was isolated from stores and Mom no longer drove, would she be happy?
I had selfish concerns as well. I spent the next few days wondering how much more I could take on between work, husband, dogs, cats, and grandbaby. I could take care of making Dad’s meals. I usually made breakfast when I wasn’t working. How much harder could it be to work and make a morning meal? I could always fix him a plate for lunch, dinner leftovers. We did eat dinner late but that might not be too bad. I could serve a snack. But I couldn’t take on more housework. Mom was used to a service cleaning the apartment and changing the sheets. I couldn’t do this for her. Nor could I have a service come in with four dogs. They would have to do their own cleaning.
And how would it work having Mom living with me? Would I regress to teen behavior? When my youngest daughter moved back home, she began to act like she was back in high school. It took us a while to get into a rhythm of two adults living together. One of the hardest things for her to accept was that after living independently, she had house rules. This is my house. I expect the people who visit or who live with me to respect the routine of the household. I hadn’t lived with my parents since the summer after my 20th birthday. But I wasn’t the one returning home. They were coming to live with me. Would Mom accept that she was not the mom, not the one in charge? Could I throw her out like I did the boyfriend if she didn’t?
I was not the only one with concerns. Brother #2 and Sister #4 and I spent most of our Christmas Eve hiding in corners whispering about our parents’ request. Both of these siblings spent far more time with my parents than I did. They worried about keeping up their children’s relationships with my parents. They wondered how they could afford to go back east if one parent became gravely ill. They were hurt that my parents would move away from them. Where would my parents go if this didn’t work out? My other three sisters would echo similar refrains in the next few weeks. My parents had lived in California for 47 years. All but one sibling was firmly rooted in a California community. The desire to return to New England took everyone by surprise.
I wonder if they had always wanted to go back but didn’t want to go alone. When I talk to my Dad about the move, he talks about the birds in New England, how he wants to sit in the sunroom and watch the birds outside. I recently read an essay in The New Yorker by the New Hampshire poet, Donald Hall, in which he talks about how he spends his days watching the birds from a window in the farm house that had been in his family for generations, enjoying the changes the seasons bring. Roots run deep. We have ties to the landscape as well as the people. Someday I may yearn for the sparse chaparral of the desert or the brown pelicans winging above a California beach. Yet today when I see a cardinal, I think about how Dad is going to be so delighted to see one. I saw a pair of white swans swimming in the river; I thought of Dad. I took the dogs for a walk along a historical canal; every time I read one of the markers placed by the local historical society, I thought: “Dad would like this.” I look forward to discussing history with Dad. Mom always described herself as a New Englander. She would like sitting by the fire, reading a book. She would enjoy going to the farmer’s markets.
My parents still have family ties to New England. My dad’s sisters and brother lived a few hours away in New Hampshire. I know my parents talked with them via Skype but this would give them the opportunity to actually meet. Being away from family is hard. I may have been a bad sibling using FB to give news, but I enjoy getting together with my sisters and brothers. Sister #4 and I have celebrated Christmas together almost every year for the last thirty years. How could she not be with me next year? Sister #3 took care of my daughters when they went to college near her. I owe her and now I am a continent away (send your son to Yale, sis). Brother # 2 and his wife like to go out to dinner with my husband and me. I found some great restaurants for when they visit but it won’t be the same. And we just started family camping trips. Family relationships are important. A return to New England will give my parents a chance to see their siblings.
I know that I am not alone in the middle between a boomerang daughter and elderly parents. Magazines and newspapers report the recent trend of elderly parents moving into adult children’s homes for both financial and health reasons. Some home developers have begun to market homes with ‘in law’ suites, cottages for elderly parents, basements for returning twenty-somethings. One home magazine I picked up recently had an article on how to add an ‘in law’ cottage to your property. I know people who have moved in order to have a downstairs bedroom for a parent. My middle daughter and her partner have the partner’s father living with them most of the time. The partner’s father is younger than my parents but has several health problems. The smallest illness can become a medical crisis. One of my friends recently had his 94 year old father move in. When the father became very ill, my friend had to find home aides to care for his father. The stress level in his house skyrocketed. Strangers in the house, as I have already found, can strain relationships. Should I nominate my husband for sainthood now?
Sometimes the questions seem overwhelming. If my parents became ill, would I be able to manage on my own? My siblings wouldn’t be able to come to Connecticut. While my parents are very healthy now, would I be able to cope with issues as they became older? Will there be the resources for me to get them long term care? My husband and I want to retire in a decade. After putting three daughters through college, we have failed to save as much as we should. We need to focus on our retirement. Most of my siblings had children later than us. They are worried about college tuition, not retirement. None of us are in a position to supplement my parents’ income should they need nursing care. People are living longer. Medical costs are rising. Do my parents have enough financial resources? And these questions have no real answers.
I know that having my parents come live with me is the right thing to do. They want to return to New England. They may decide when a real winter comes to return to California but in the meantime, they can enjoy visiting the places of their youth. Even if it is for only a few years, we will enjoy having them live with us.