There were stars overhead. A long-legged eight year-old had plunked himself down in the bed beside me. We could hear the revelers downstairs, but youngest and oldest, we craved rest. The stars on the ceiling glowed in the dark and I remembered sleeping under just such stars 20 years ago in Venice Beach, California, an ocean and a continent away. This is how far my family has spread. This is how far I have had to spread my arms to keep them – what? – not safe, for that is impossible. Let us just say “to keep them”.
Technology has made the job easier in the last 15 or 20 years. E-mail was a great help, so much faster that snail mail. Answering machines and FAX machines appeared. Then long distance rates started to fall, the mobile phone came along, and texting became possible. Distances were easier to bridge.
In Brussels last week, I watched the last episode of the BBC’s David Copperfield in which the Micawbers embarked on a sailing ship for a new life in Australia. Something had finally come up, as Mr Micawber so optimistically kept on saying it would, throughout his disastrous life. The villain of the story, Uriah Heep, was also on his way there, barefoot, chained to other prisoners, to pay for his crimes. His mother cried out, “My poor boy. I’ll never see him again.” Australia was just too far then, even supposing Heep lived to get released. Letters might be exchanged, but probably only two or three a year, given the time the voyage took.
In 1945 when my father moved us from the Eastern Townships of Quebec to Hamilton Ontario, my nine year-old self seriously doubted that I would ever get back to the mountains and the family I loved. Letters were posted and received weekly, but we had no phone. In the event of something momentous like a new baby brother, we could borrow the neighbour’s phone and pay the exorbitant long distance cost. In fact, we did return the summer after my brother Rob was born, in 1947.
Rob was the first family emigrant, hying himself off with a backpack at the age of 19 to explore the world. Our mother cashed in his life insurance policy to finance his getaway. By then it was a tossup whether our father would murder Rob or Rob would murder our father. All of the three older girls in the family harboured the same homicidal urge, but were not as capable of the deed.
Rob stayed safely out of reach of familial harm in Afghanistan, India, and Turkey, where various strangers had a go at him. Finally, he settled in Belgium. Where he had a phone which I could now afford to call to tell him our mother had been given only weeks to live. He thought it was a trick, and indeed, our mother survived against all odds for another 6 years. She had that ace in her pocket though -imminent death- and he came back for a visit – 3 years after he had left. He invited us to visit him and 2 years later I did, with my young family. We formed a friendship then that had not been possible before. So I began the process of long distance living. What time is it here? What time is it in Belgium or Italy or Sweden, wherever his career as a film gaffer took him?
Just when I got the knack of that, my daughter Julia took off for New York City. No problem, same time zone. But -what’s this? She’s off to the west coast. She’s getting married in Las Vegas. And so I began living in 3 -count’em – 3 time zones.
It’s quite dizzying. Whenever I want to talk to Rob, he’s already asleep. Initially, after I returned from Brussels last week, I woke up at 4 a.m., Eastern Standard Time, thinking it was already 10 a.m., and called him then. My daughter up on her west coast mountain would be snoozing away in her 1 a.m. world. As I acclimatized to Toronto time, I kept missing windows of communication. I ended up texting Rob while he slept and getting his reply when I woke up. Julia is beyond the reach of cell phone texts at present, but I catch her at odd moments as she builds the fire in early morning.
As I lay there on Christmas Eve, looking up at the stars, I thought about all the grandparents who travel great distances to be with their far-flung families and sleep as like me in children’s bedrooms. I thought about older women alone in their cars on lonely highways and on long distance flights. Like me, they may well count over 50 such trips and see the results in maturing children who know they are part of something bigger.
That something is family. I can’t help it. I have to communicate, to be there. Someone needs to hold the family together and time has made me the matriarch.