»  The Straggler, No. 54

May 14th, 2007

  Single Parent Blues


An old Scottish ditty complains that:

There's nae luck aboot the hoose,
There's nae luck at a'
There's little pleasure in the hoose,
When oor gude man's awa'.

I can't speak to precisely that, but the Straggler household has been in a sad way these past few days owing to the absence of Mrs. Straggler. A family crisis in China has to be dealt with, so off went Mom, leaving Dad and the kids to care for themselves.

Mom did her best to see us through the ordeal. She spent the couple of days before her departure cooking up meals in woks and pots, sealing them up in neat plastic containers, and storing them in the family freezer. Detailed instruction were written down for expected deliveries, bills to be paid, garbage pickup schedules, contents of school lunchboxes, the car-pooling of kids to their extracurricular activities, school concerts, grocery re-supply, house-plant watering, dog feeding, the sorting and saving of Mom's mail. Dad, whose household-management abilities Mom holds in no very high esteem — in no esteem at all, actually — was subjected to quizzes and drills to make sure it all sank in.

On the day of departure we all went together to J.F.K. airport. (Which a friend of mine, the most committed Kennedy-hater on the eastern seaboard, insists on referring to as "Idlewild.") Mom's departure flight was delayed, so we mooched around the featureless stores and restaurants of Terminal One for a while, unwilling to let go. At last there was nothing for it but to see Mom off. We all hugged, exchanged terms of endearment, and ran through a final household-management check. Then off went Mom.

We could see her going through Security. She had that flustered look she has when dealing with unfamiliar situations, the look that gives me a mighty urge to run to her side — which, here, I couldn't. Through all the Security nonsense at last, she turned to wave. We all waved back, the kids jumping up and down to be seen over the crowds of travelers resignedly divesting themselves of belts and shoes. Then she disappeared into the tunnel behind Security that leads to the gates. We were left looking at each other, and at the prospect of at least two Mom-less weeks.

I suppose every family has its own philosophy for coping with the world beyond itself. Ours is isolationist and defensive: Us against It. I do not have an easy conscience about this. Anglo-Saxon civilization should be more broadly social, more hospitable to the "little platoons" that guarantee our liberty. The intensely family-centered model belongs to low-trust cultures — Sicily, the East — where the citizen can depend reliably on nothing but his family, everything beyond being a power- or money-racket.

However, Mom comes from one of those very cultures, and Dad is an unclubbable loner, so we peer suspiciously out at the world from behind the family ramparts. It doesn't help that we are not merely a nuclear family, but actually an ionic one, with no electrons in orbit. I mean, we have no relatives closer than three thousand miles away. Dad's family is on the other side of the Atlantic; Mom's, across the Pacific. There are friends and neighbors of course, good-hearted charitable Americans all, and eager to help, but it's not the same. Now, with a key family member absent, we huddle together like sheep in a blizzard. The kids are strangely quiet.

Household management proves more daunting than Dad thought. The "nae luck" clause kicks in right away, the son falling to a sensational bilious attack the day after Mom left. The poor kid was throwing up all day. Take him to the doctor? It didn't seem to rise to that level. My parents never took me to a doctor for throwing up, nor for anything much short of a fractured limb. Kids throw up, it's a thing they do. Should I medicate him? I scanned Mom's medicine cabinet cluelessly. Nothing suggested itself. At last the boy fell asleep. I went to bed myself — alone, for the first time I can recall, in the parental bed. It seemed big and cold. Perhaps I shall sleep in a chair for the duration. Next day the son was better, though still subdued. We are all subdued.

We call Mom. She is safe and well, just horribly far away. I succeed in heating up one of her frozen dinners in the microwave. Cooking the accompanying rice, however, I get something wrong, and the rice comes out wet and mealy. The kids are sarcastic about this, but mutedly so. The family dog, who of course knows that something is amiss, eagerly helps dispose of the failed rice, perhaps in the doggish belief that such acts of co-operation will return things to normal.

Next day is bottle collection by the town's recycling squad — a thing Mom drummed into me, but which I somehow manage to forget anyway. I hear the truck, but it is out of sight before I can get to it with my bottles. This does not bode well. When is waste paper collection? I scrutinize the kitchen calendar, peering forward into the coming weeks with doubt and fear.

I am, of course, I know, making a fuss about nothing. Untold numbers of human beings have, like that Scottish goodwife, coped with a spouse's absence. For military folk, or wives of sailors and traveling salesman, it is routine, and a matter of months or years, not weeks. Often enough the absence is permanent, through death or divorce. That is real anguish and trauma. The cross I am bearing here is a very light one.

I seek consolation from those similarly distressed.

Inches:   And how are you this morning, Sir?
Churchill:   All right, I think. Thank you for asking. Missing her, of course, but that's to be expected. No point in dwelling on her absence. We must KBO.
Inches:   Yes, Sir. Keep buggering on at all times, Sir.
Churchill:   KBO. That's the order of the day.
                — from Hugh Whitemore's screenplay for the BBC/HBO
                       production of The Gathering Storm

You can depend on Churchill for life advice. Let his order of the day be ours! The Stragglers will KBO — until we are whole again.