Thursday, July 29, 2021
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Unsettling Thoughts During an Unsettled Summer

My mother used to yearn for the day when all her children would be “settled.”

I hated that word. 

To Mom, settled meant settling down: finding a good job, spouse and house and then, above all, providing her with “gorgeous” grandchildren. Once we had checked those boxes, she wouldn’t have to worry about us anymore. 

I heard settled as settling for, as in accepting less than what you wanted: I wanted the kitchen-sink sundae, but, mindful of my health and fitness, I settled for a small cone. 

Sooner or later, we all settle for the small cone in one way or another. But we’re never permanently settled. In mom’s idyllic vision there was only naches – a Yiddish word (rhymes with Johann Sebastian Bach-iss) meaning pride in the beauty and brilliance of one’s children and grandchildren. Such a vision did not allow for the possibility of marital, financial, psychological or medical crises.  

She knew better, of course. Even if it were possible for your kids to avoid all tsuris (cares and woes), you’d worry about them anyway. As a friend’s mother once said, “They’re over your head your whole life.” As a parent of three adult children, I can attest: They are.

Conversely, as parents age, they’re over their kids’ heads. In the past few months, several of my friends have dealt with the death or debility of their parents. And as that generation leaves the scene, my generation turns to worrying about our kids having to deal with our increasing frailty. 

We talk of moving close to our children – unsettling ourselves — so we can enjoy and help take care of our grandchildren. Unspoken is that such a move positions us so that our kids can take care of us – a deeply unsettling thought.

Part of the reason for these unsettling thoughts is that I am having, by choice, a most unsettled summer, living out of a suitcase as I circulate among my kids and friends in Oregon and California, and talking, talking, talking with my peers about this next, last stage of life when we retire from our jobs and have to decide how and where to live out our allotment of years. 

These conversations are a reminder that while we may have to settle for less than what we want, we’re only truly settled when they lay us in the cold, cold ground. Until then, we pivot from challenge to challenge, decision to decision, plan to plan. “Never a dull moment,” we say when we could really use a dull moment. And then, when we get one, we shake things up.

Speaking of shaking things up, two weeks ago, we descended, reluctantly, from Yosemite National Park’s glorious high country into the July heat of the Sierra Nevada foothills, passing the charred stumps of trees burned in previous fire seasons. We stopped in a park in the town of Groveland to send texts and make phone calls. As we did so, our cement picnic table began to shudder. 

Native New Yorker that I am, my first absurd thought was that a subway train was passing beneath us. Need I tell you that there is no subterranean commuter rail system in Groveland, California? Amid all the talk of fire – everyone we know out here has a “go bag” near the front door, lest they have to make a quick escape from advancing flames – I’d almost forgotten about the most unsettling thing of all about life in the Golden State: earthquakes. 

As a result of this one, rockslides closed a highway not far from where we’d just been camping. When we arrived at our friends’ house in Sonora, we saw that the pictures on the walls were all hanging askew. The instruments told us this was a magnitude 6 quake. The last seismic spasm I experienced, the Bay Area quake that happened during the 1989 Bay Bridge World Series between the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants, was a 6.9.

Earthquakes, of course, are the ultimate reminder of the instability of all things. 

A week later, en route to Point Reyes National Seashore, we had to detour: fire on the mountain. CalFire planes flew overhead. Later, we passed a blackened hillside and a line of 20 engines. A couple of days after that, we passed through southern Oregon, where a fire has burned 300,000 acres. This is life in the West now.

In another couple of weeks, having gazed at, fussed over and cuddled with our newborn and 3-year-old granddaughters, we will return to our “settled” lives in State College. Barring the unforeseen, we’ll try to maintain the status quo for a few more years. But maybe we’ll start keeping a go bag by the front door, for emergencies, yes, but also as a reminder of the unsettled nature of all arrangements.

Central Pennsylvania isn’t prone to earthquakes, but one never knows when the ground will shift beneath one’s feet.