When I decided to move to California, I tried to anticipate as much as I could. I assumed that I’d do it well. I knew I would be in a new place, a new setting, and would have to find my way and make new friends. That’s easy to say, but not so easy to imagine. Other than my being slower, I didn’t think age would make much difference. I knew, of course, that my daughter Susan would be near — the reason I was moving, after all — and that my son would be in range (seven hours by train), but I didn’t put any time at all into imagining what that would be like.
The first clue that I was entering a new realm of relationships came from the mover when we were discussing method of payment on the day he delivered my furniture. There was a form to be filled out, and he said kindly, “Ask your daughter to help you fill it out.”
Excuse me? asked the outraged old lady inside, while the polite old lady outside made it clear that she had lived independently for many years and was accustomed to filling out her own forms. That said, the mover and I completed our transaction in the next two minutes. But it was a warning. When I visited a new doctor a month ago, he, too, came up with an ask-your-daughter line, even though he didn’t know her and I had made all the arrangements to see him myself. If you are elderly and within range of progeny, people tend to turn to them rather than you.
When I was starting Emmaus, an outreach to isolated older people in Washington, D.C., a wonderful volunteer turned up. She had spent several years in Africa and offered to donate two months to Emmaus while she was between jobs. In Africa she frequently escorted chiefs when they met with government officials. She noted that the officials always looked at her even though they were addressing the chief. She solved the problem by always looking at the chief during these meetings, thus redirecting the official’s eyes.
I told this story to Susan shortly after she escorted me to Autoland, where I bought my car. To be fair, in my first days here I hardly knew where I was, and if I’d been the salesperson, I’d have looked at Susan, too. But it was worth mentioning, I thought.
My picture of Susan during those first days of unpacking is rather cartoonish — of her leaping around with a hammer always at the ready — a true home handyman. She claims she learned it all from me, but I think that was flattery. She was tactful in other ways, too. No matter what unrealistic ideas I had, she said nothing — no “how do you think you will manage that?” She’s very good at keeping quiet and just waiting until I realize “it” won’t work. What she did do right away was put a hook by the front door for my keys so I’d always know where they were. Along with many other things, it’s a piece of practicality that I’m grateful to her for.
Susan and I have been living a distance from each other since 1975, and now that the initial flurry of my move has passed, we are gradually reinstating a more realistic way of living nearby, giving each other the space we need. This has been an extraordinary time, not just because of the trauma of my move, but because we just passed the anniversary of Susan’s husband’s death. We have needed to be present to each other, but equally we need to withdraw as well. We are working on the balance.
I haven’t yet mentioned my son, John, but he’s in the wings. He and Dréa were here over Labor Day and did great works. John came with his tools and put up most of the pictures I’d brought, among many other things; Dréa quietly found her niche and brought color into this house. (The speculator left me with tan walls and tan wall-to-wall carpeting.)
Susan and I are on tap for family celebrations at John’s for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. The latter will include daughter Gretchen, Dréa’s parents and brother, my ex-husband and his wife and her son and daughter-in-law. We are very fortunate that we can manage this, but since we have all been living at great distances from each other, we will also have to approach this event cautiously. Probably each of us, at some point, will need a time-out.
Christmas this year will signal a big change. How different from talking to all my family members separately by phone. Something I think I can get used to!
Ms. Amussen is a freelance writer and former copy editor at Times/Review Newspapers. E-mail: [email protected]