geographically challengedThey come. They go. They supercharge my life, then go back to theirs. We laugh, we talk – about things big and small. I sleep better knowing they’re under my roof.  Mornings bring the warm, familiar company I miss. But on the last day of our time together, sadness rumbles beneath the surface, undermining the pure pleasure of their presence.  Then: “Bye, Mom. Love you.” Off they go, until the next time.

I’m lucky.  My three grown children keep up a steady stream of visits. Our times together fill me up. I visit them, too, dropping into their full lives, appreciating the ingredients that flavor their lifestyles: the people they see, the places they go, the rhythm of their households. Before a visit ends, someone says, “Let’s figure out when we’ll see each other again.” Phone calls, Skype and cyber-messages keep us connected.  But between those electronic contacts life happens.

Parting is easier when I leave them. When they leave me I relive the heartache I felt when they left the nest.  I didn’t know I’d experience that pain over and over again. On one occasion all three came home for a wedding, then left again, one after the other, in birth order. Didn’t see that coming – will I ever get used to it?  Would I want to? They’ve made lives for themselves.  Good!

On a quick visit it’s easy to follow Will Roger’s advice: Never miss a good chance to shut up. It’s easy to keep things light when your time together is brief. That might be a challenge if we lived in adjacent zip codes. Would we get on each other’s nerves or descend into petty differences? Would grievances fester into rifts?

I remember squabbles my parents had with their siblings at family dinners.  And what they said when we got home:  “Ellen’s such a control freak. I don’t know how Frank puts up with her.” “It’s awful how they coddle their kids. They should try saying ‘no’ once in a while.” “Can’t Norma cook anything but that jaw-breaking flank steak?” But if trouble strikes, they were there for each other in a heartbeat.

I’d love to hear, “I baked an extra lasagna for you, I’ll stop by later to drop it off.” Or, “Want me to go to the doctor with you?  I know you’re freaked out about it.”  There are times when those grown-up children would welcome some over-the-top mothering. Or having mom hold the fort when they need a break. Instead of hiring sitters, wouldn’t they like to have a grandma on call? Or better yet, leave the children with me?  They’d gain an EZ pass to alone time, with no meter running.  And their children would discover an age-old pact: what happens at Grandma’s stays at Grandma’s.

I travel to my grandchildren’s birthday parties, recitals and graduations. I’d rather be around when they’re just hanging out.  I’d like to help my daughters run errands or pick up the kids.  Instead they treat me like a guest.  “Just go to the table, Mom. Then: “Leave your dishes.”  What kind of mom lets her daughter wait on her? The kind who isn’t around enough to know her way around the kitchen.

“The next best thing to seeing the kids arrive is seeing their headlights dim as they leave,” some friends wryly observed. I can’t imagine feeling that way.  Do they turn my quiet life upside down? Yes. Do I love it? Yes. Since time is short we jam in as much as we can – sightseeing, playground outings, piggyback rides and tickling matches.  So what if my antique scale with brass weights is more fun than any toy: “Just use the gold circles, honey, don’t put that rock on it.” Or they test the dog’s patience: “Please get off, he’s not a pony.”

My sweet little granddaughter tends to take off down the street or in the supermarket as fast as her feet can fly. When they’re suddenly starving I never seem to have the right brand of peanut butter or “their kind” of mac and cheese. My daughters shoot me a look, sigh and make a hasty trip to the store. So yes, it can be trying. Still, I’m never ready for the visits to end. When the moment comes I wave goodbye, smiling through a blur of tears.

Get a life, I tell myself.  Let them get on with theirs. But I wish the pendulum would swing back: There’s a reason we call our loved ones nearest and dearest.  Drop in visits beat those by reservation. When it comes to family, getting and giving hugs should not require advance planning.

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