My mother was born at home on a farm in rural Oklahoma. She was the seventh of nine children. I spent a lot of time at my grandparent’s house during summer vacation, and I never stopped trying to figure out how all of those kids — three boys and five girls, not including the baby, who died at two from heart problems related to Down Syndrome — managed to find space there. As it stood during my childhood, it consisted of a single bedroom with a second “sleeping area” also within the same room, the sitting area, and the kitchen/dining area. The entire dwelling couldn’t have been more than 650 sqft. But manage, they did. To this day, the siblings still living share an unbreakable bond.
Most of my mother’s siblings stayed close to home as they grew up, went to college, and married. Mom was adventurous, though, and after completing her undergraduate degree, she moved to Las Cruces, NM for graduate school.
My father was an urban kid, whatever that meant in 1950. The fourth of five and the first boy, dad was born at Lee County General Hospital in Hobbs, New Mexico.
Four days less than 23 years later, I was born there, too. For nine years, I lived a mile in any direction from a grandmother, three aunts and two uncles and their kids. My best friend lived next door; my cousin Justin was like my brother. I spent more weekends with those two than I spent at my own home.
Every summer, we drove overnight to my grandparent’s home in Oklahoma. Because it was farmland, and my relatives all lived on several acres, the homes were spread out more there. But spread out or not, your neighbor was bound to be kin. I had a couple of aunts and uncles who had moved about an hour away and visiting them was the biggest treat, because down where they lived was the creek, and cousins everywhere. There was more than a sense of family; there was knowing you were never alone. No matter when you started school, somebody with your name had come before. There was safety in that.
But it was oil country, and with the big boom of the early eighties, Dad took a new job way up in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. For a little while, he traveled back and forth every two weeks but it was wearing him thin. So in June of 1983, we packed up and moved to Anchorage. I’ve been here ever since.
In 1983, my brother was three. He doesn’t remember Hobbs, or the feeling of being in the middle of the safety net called family. Maybe because of that, even though we are each other’s only family here, we rarely speak.
Alaska is a beautiful place to live, but it’s also lonely. People come here when they’re running from something. My dad was an alcoholic before we moved, but with no family to check his behavior, he really let loose. So, there was that. That’s another story.
It was Alaska, so obviously, everyone wanted to visit.
In ’83, my folks were 33 and 34 years old. Just kids, really. The unknown was like a siren’s song. New Mexico was barren and dusty and dry. Alaska was an adventure they would have been crazy to pass up, and they did the right thing. And until my brother graduated from high school in 1999, they were happy with the decision they had made. But we missed out on so many births, and weddings, and graduations, and funerals that at some point, mom weighed the pros and cons again, and the scale had tipped.
My parents moved back to Oklahoma in 2001, so mom could help care for her dying mother. In 2002, I got married and had my first child. And in 2009, I divorced. I’ve lived here with just my two children since. My custody agreement does not allow me to leave the state with my children without their dad’s consent, and that will never happen. Likewise, I wouldn’t let him take them, nor would I follow him. The kids are at home here, so that’s okay. They need us both. But my youngest won’t be eighteen for nine more years. Nine more years I’ll be too far from my family to reach them (reasonably) by car; too far to be any help in a crisis.
Don’t get me wrong: We’ve built a support system of our own. We have lots of wonderful friends. My kids’ stepmother has family here, so they’re exposed to some of that. But they don’t get to go to their cousins’ ballgames. They don’t go to church with their Nana every Sunday. Or sit around the big table after, over roast beef and tall tales. When their Papa teaches them to cast a line, they only get to practice for a week every summer.
It’s all they know. I guess they can’t really miss what they’ve never had.
But I had it. I had almost 10 years somewhere I belonged. The other three-quarters of my life, I’ve been struggling to find a place I fit. I’m like a puzzle piece that got put away with the wrong puzzle. All my other pieces are in a different box.
I missed the last 15 years of my grandparent’s lives. I’ve lost three uncles, three aunts. That favorite cousin I mentioned spent 14 years in prison for a crime I’m not sure he committed. I wouldn’t know, because though he was my brother before I even had a brother, I don’t know him anymore. How could I?
Everyone grew up, and grew old, and moved on.
My mom — my ROCK — is turning 68 this year. In the last month she’s had surgery, a breast biopsy, and a potential recurrence of skin cancer on her leg. She’s getting older, and I’m missing it. I’m missing HER.
I feel torn between tomorrow and yesterday. I feel torn between what’s here, and what’s