long distance families

A neighbor of ours has a child, but this child lives in New Zealand, which is very far away. It’s so far away that I don’t know the name of this person, or if it is male or female. I don’t want to ask, because our neighbor looked so sad when I inquired if she had any offspring.

New Zealand really is at the edge of the Earth. Sometimes, I tell my mother that while Estonia might seem like a long way from New York, it is relatively close. “It could be worse,” I say. “I could live in New Zealand.”

That’s true, but it never seems to make her feel better. She has resigned herself to a life of misery and longing over what might have been if I had never left my hometown. She’s tired of talking to my children via Skype, and being a ‘virtual’ grandmother, she says. She commiserates with the neighbor across the street, whose daughter lives in the Netherlands. They both long for the good old days, when families were close, both physically and emotionally.

But is ours really the first generation to suffer from this malady of globalization? I don’t think so. I think that in the past, it was even harder. Think of my poor great grandmother Maria who left the sunny fields of Bari for the winters of New York. And she never went back! Not once in her life. As an old woman, she sat, staring at the window and sighing to herself, perhaps thinking of Italy. Or so my mother tells me.

In comparison, these annual or biannual visits from far-flung relatives seem like a luxury. In the nearly 50 years that she spent in New York, Maria never went back once to Italy. But our friend Airi comes to visit Estonia from her adopted home in Brisbane, Australia, at least once a year. These are momentous visits too. She stayed about a day and a half at our house, where we drank wine and watched a movie. Then she was off to Tallinn, with plans to go to Riga the day after that. She has so many people to see in those two weeks that she is here. And my visits to the US are the same, brief encounters with friends and relatives, and then back onto the big airplane.

In my meeting with readers, I have met many sad-eyed grandmothers who bought books to send to their children in California or Australia or Brazil. Sometimes, I get the sense it’s to “show” their children that not everybody leaves Estonia for love. They have the same miserable look in their eye as my mother. It’s a look that shows that God has cheated them by denying them the right to have grandkids that live on the same street. And as much as they might think the weather in California is wonderful inside they hate California for stealing their baby. They long to have all of their relatives in a short driving distance.

The funny thing is that many of Epp’s relatives actually do live within driving distance, some even within walking distance, and we don’t see them so often. Grandma in the countryside gets one or two visits per season. Even my sister-in-law, who lives 10 minutes away, can disappear from our lives for weeks on end. If I added up all the days I have spent with my American family in the past five years and all the days I have spent with my Estonian family, they would probably be about even, if not tilted toward the Americans, with those month-long summer or winter visits.  So much for living so far away!

That’s still no consolation for those who miss their closest relatives. They are still unhappy. I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out why it is some people roam so far from the nest. After all that meditation, I have come to the conclusion that some people simply must leave home. Should Barack Obama have stayed in Honolulu? Should Toomas Hendrik Ilves have stayed in Leonia, New Jersey? Should Kerli Kõiv have never strayed from the city limits of Elva? I have an American friend in Estonia who used to work in a warehouse in the US. Now he’s the CEO of an important company and spends his days jetting around from Nigeria to Japan to Brazil. “Sometimes you just have to take risks,” he says of his life. And that means that some of us have to leave home. It’s hard on families, sure, it will break a mother’s heart, but, as I pointed out, physical distance and emotional distance are not always correlated.

Plus, as much as the sight of a big, extended family might make a person whose child lives in New Zealand jealous, the dirty truth is that a lot of these family members can barely tolerate each other. I know one Estonian woman who lived with her family for years in the US before returning home. I asked her recently if she ever thought of moving back. I thought she would say “no,” because Eestis on nii mõnus olla, it’s so swell to be in Estonia, but she confided in me that she missed America a great deal.

“We were so free there, we could do whatever we pleased,” she told me. “And you know,” she glanced over her shoulder, “in America we didn’t have so many relatives around.”

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