Have you read Olive Kitteredge? Do. It's all about us and our interior lives, emotions and fears--of growing older, of our children moving away, of our spouses dying or worse, losing their minds.
For those of us whose grown children live in another city far from us, there's one particular story in Elizabeth Strout's series of linked short stories (they all revolve around Olive, a big woman with a big persona) that hit home. Olive, who has a dysfunctional relationship with her only child--her son has moved away and avoids contact with her--is suddenly invited by her son to come visit him and his new wife and her children from former relationshsips. The story touches on the tumult of emotions we go through when we visit our children, especially on our own without our life's partner--the joy of being needed and embraced by them and their family; the awkwardness of fitting in, of being a fifth wheel, of being part of things but not; touched by the affection within the little family; dismayed when a discipline of a child is [from our point of view] mishandled; the disorientation when you witness a nasty spat between spouses. And the surprise--the shock really--of the overwhelming desire to go home, even after just a few days in residence. Or, as Olive tells herself, "After three days, I stink like fish."
Strout also captures the almost inexplicable need and desire to touch base with our home base--a spouse, a close friend. To do so is almost an affirmation that we haven't melted into the woodwork. I think it gets back to that notion that we are no longer center stage. We know it. Intellectually, we accept it. When we go visit en force--paterfamilias and the momma bear--we're an exciting event; the center of things. And that's why we tend to wrap up the fish in a day or so. Leave while you're still ahead and still the Star Turn. But when we stay for longer--usually because we're needed for emergency babysitting-type purposes--the reality of how much on the periphery we really are hits home. And this despite all the kind words and attempts at inclusion our children make. Of course, Olive didn't get that from her son. But I leave what happened to her to the story (within the larger story), "Security." Read it and feel sad--for Olive and for all the losses that come along with getting older and being the parent of an adult child whose focus is, rightfully, on his or her growing family.