Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Christmas of the Old People

The predominant theme among the people I have talked to or spent time with this holiday season has been Oh God My (Mother) (Grandmother) (Family In Law) Is Driving Me Insane. It's a part of the Christmas experience I was blissfully unaware of as a kid, but one that is surely repeated year after year in family after family.

People seem to fall into two camps: the grit your teeth and deal until Christmas is over camp and the fuck 'em, I don't care if they're old camp. My uncle and his wife yet again made the five-hour drive from Chicago to the small downstate Illinois hometown to be with Grandma on Christmas Day, fighting stomach flu and insane western suburbs freeways and foregoing their own Christmas celebration to sit in her kitchen for three days and repeat every conversation at least four times because he's the only one of her sons left within driving distance. On the phone, with some wonderment in his voice, he says,"I'm 63 years old. I can't believe I'm letting my mother still do this to me... But I didn't want her to be alone for Christmas."

Other friends had similar experiences. Aging parents create very interesting cycles of demand and guilt, duty and exasperation. This one needs to be in assisted living but insists she'll be moving back home to live alone very soon, despite being unable to perform basic tasks without help. This one harangues both the help and the grown children who come to visit, and then wonders why everyone is so reluctant to spend time with her. This one doesn't understand why the one child left in town won't drop everything on a moment's notice to bring her a sweater or run an errand. Over and over, people wonder aloud why they put up with this crap and simultaneously swear they'll never do the same thing to their own kids.

My parents aren't there yet. They're still dealing with their own mothers with varying degrees of patience. My visits up to Flagstaff to see Dad still have enough perks to be enjoyable rather than a dreaded obligation, although he's increasingly displaying the same traits that drive him completely nuts in his mom. I asked him for advice in dealing with the last leg of this trip, the stopoff in Phoenix on the way home to see my mom's parents, the grandmother I finally realized I avoid talking to because every conversation comes with a heaping dollop of guilt for not visiting or calling nearly enough. His advice boiled down to: getting old doesn't give you an excuse to be rude, and I don't care if you managed to survive to 85 if you're just being shitty all the time. In retrospect, not much help there.

Someday I will be old myself, or at least I hope I'll make it as far as my grandparents have, and I'll probably chafe at absent kids and grandkids, ungrateful bastards the lot of them. I hope I'll remember what it is like to try to balance the familiar role of child/grandchild with the newer role of parent/partner with a life of her own and an immediate family to prioritize. I remember traveling every Christmas with my mom, making that five hour drive ourselves to the hometown to spend the week with the grandparents, and being thoroughly delighted by the whole experience. Now, as a worn-out adult, after three days away I simply want to go home.

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