I grew up with the expectation of leaving home.
It was a foregone conclusion that when we graduated from high school (and that we would graduate from high school), we would leave the area to go to college. Then, after college, we would find our fame and fortune someplace other than the town we grew up in.
The expectation to leave home is partially an element of socio-economic culture, partly a particular family’s value, in part the opportunity of privilege, and also related to the relative parochialism of one’s region. In my case it was all of the above, intensified by my mother’s disdain for our hometown.
In my experience, Midwesterners are far more flexible and open-minded about seeing the opportunities in any geographical area than most other regions of the country. I’ve lived in or visited every region of the continental United States and sense that in most of them the local population cannot conceive of living in any other region. I find parochialism, whether by church, region, or nation a particularly loathsome quality.
Still, I mourn for what I did not have.
I remember discovering with confusion that many families on our street in Columbus, Ohio had been there for generations. While Columbus itself is a bustling capital city with a major national university an integral part of its personality, and with no shortage of people moving in and out, there were still many extended families living near one another.
Likewise, and even more so, Buffalo, New York. After decades of decline the parochialism of that city had ossified into a strange mix of devotion and self-hatred. As its transformation and renaissance took hold more room was created for “outsiders” to join in, along with a growing metropolitan openness to new ideas more consistent with its historic innovative character. But still, Buffalo is filled with generations of families living in close proximity to one another and those who fly the nest for love or work are often seen as an oddity.
Now I live in a place where grown children find it exceedingly difficult to return home due to limited opportunities, and yet many eagerly do by eking out a livelihood with multiple and disparate jobs in the mostly agricultural and tourist economy. It reminds me of the struggle of rural cooperatives in El Salvador to find ways for their grown children to return after post-secondary educations; the most vibrant communities did find numerous and creative ways to repatriate the next generation.
As my four children are spread across the eastern half of the United States I find myself grieving for that intergenerational character of life so many people I know have worked to hold onto. The grass is always greener on the other side, but seeing the generations live in close proximity in Nueva Esperanza and on the scattered acreages of Brownington and Holland, Vermont, it causes me to question the modernist middleclass assumption of everyone for himself or herself.
As far as I know, there are numerous chapters left to write in my life and this conundrum of proximity to children and other family is a thickening plot. How to stay in meaningful connection over time and distance, with relationships marked by mutual growth and discovery, is the challenge all families and friends face in this world of wide open spaces and far flung opportunities.