Before leaving, I had visited my father-in-law. “I think it’s terrific that you’re going there to be with your father,” he told me. “It shows him that you care.”
“He knows I care,” I said.
“Yes, of course he does, but this is an action.”
“Oh,” I said, trying to keep the annoyance out of my voice.
“In my life, I’ve always felt that care-taking was noble,” he went on. “But it was something best left to…”
“Women,” I suggested.
He laughed and waved a hand vaguely over his shoulder. “Well…other people.”
I looked at him and smiled wanly, this time raising my eyebrows for real. He thought for a minute and then said, “When we moved to this country, my father said, ‘Why so far?’ By that he meant, ‘We’d like to see you, and this makes it impossible.’ He and my mother came to America from Damascus once – you probably knew that – and they stayed with us for two weeks. After that I told them…” - he waved his hand again, this time sweeping his fingers decisively away from his body - “that’s enough!” He gave a little dry laugh, and shrugged. “After a few days, you’ve said all there is to say. I was working, M. was working; neither of us were home, what were we supposed to do? What were my parents supposed to do? They couldn’t communicate, couldn’t go anywhere on their own. So we packed them up and sent them off to my brother. He’s different, he’s good about those sorts of things and so is his wife. He kept them for a month or two, showed them all sorts of things. They liked it.”
I could imagine it. On the surface it was strange: he and his wife had come from cultures where the elderly were always deeply respected and integrated into the heart of the family, and where the extended family was the absolute norm. But I knew that for my mother-in-law, the Arab tradition of Sunday dinners en famille was anathema, as were the constant visits and net of familial expectations and obligations. My father-in-law enjoyed family togetherness, but like most Arab men, he felt no obligation to participate at all in the endless chopping and cooking and serving and cleaning that such a way of life required. My mother-in-law had put her foot down early, and to some extent he had agreed with her; a former student of theirs told me that in their early married days, back in Beirut, they were considered a very modern, even avant garde couple – which meant they adopted western ways and eschewed the Arab ones.
When they came to the united States in the late 1940s, they were on their own, and over the years when various family members inevitably appeared on their doorstep, a polite welcome was given along with a clear departure date. “Give them one inch and you’ll never get rid of them,” I had heard my mother-in-law say, with a shudder, more than once. She was, however, extremely generous with her time and care for people she chose. What she resented was the cultural obligation, and the resulting enmeshment in a web of favors and paybacks. As a result, J. and I had been married for a number of years before we ever met any of the other family members who had actually been living in the U.S. for years. My father-in-law wasn’t present when his parents died in Syria – and, as the favored scholar-son, was probably not expected to be – his work would be “too important” - but my mother-in-law suffered for a long time over the fact that she hadn’t been with her own mother at her death in Alexandra.
Oddly, it was my own family, gone from the Old World for centuries, that had kept to village traditions. I grew up in the same house with my maternal grandparents, and our extended family of cousins and great-aunts and uncles formed the main social tapestry for all of us. My parents were living in the house my father and mother had built, five miles away, when my grandfather died at age 90. That evening my grandmother said she didn’t want to stay alone, so my parents slept in the old house that night, and my aunt slept there the following night. That pattern never altered for two more years, until the day my grandmother died, even though it put a huge burden on both families. So far as I know, no one ever questioned it or suggested alternatives; they just did it. My parents ate lunch with my grandmother every noon, did errands for her, visited with her before going home from work; it was what was expected, and it was what they felt was right to do; the fact that they didn’t move back into the house completely was probably a major compromise. In that small town, there is still no nursing home or “retirement community”; there is one converted mansion that houses a half-dozen elderly ladies, and there are small extended-care facilities in a few of the larger neighboring towns. By and large, people stay in their own homes as long as they can, checked on by a network of family and friends, and then they move in with a son or daughter or hire someone to “come in” and do whatever tasks are necessary.
I was the oddity, the child who had left; now I was driving back to help, but only temporarily. As I thought about it, I realized why I had bristled at my father-in-law’s suggestion that my care-taking trip was a symbolic act: when seen in its full cultural context, it was.