The Next Generation

I was sitting on a beach looking at the Atlantic Ocean.  My cousin was sitting next to me, slathering on sunblock.  Her two sons, a year older and a year younger than mine, were playing at the edge of the water with Z.

This was the first summer that I wasn’t going to be working or going to school since I’d been pregnant with Zach five years ago.  I planned on milking my ten weeks of freedom as the sweet reward for the difficult nine months I’d put in teaching at the city school.  Having had such a great time with my father and his family over Thanksgiving, I proposed another trip out East for Zach and I in the summer.   I could drive, since I had plenty of time once school let out.  When I think of it now, me driving out with my nearly five year old son without a cell phone or a GPS system, with just an atlas and a full tank of gas, it seems crazy.  But I was looking for a real family to give to my son, and there were grandparents, aunts, cousins and of course my father now out East.

My father had talked to my aunt, and we’d all agreed to each chip in towards a week at a house to share on the beach.  My cousin and I would go with our kids (her husband staying at home to work), my father, her mother (my aunt and my father’s sister), and my grandmother.   The house was just a short walk away from the beach, so we piled our coolers full of sandwiches and sodas each morning and spent the days near the water while my grandmother and father cooked dinner back at the house.

I’d forgotten how much I loved the beach.  The last time I’d been to one was when we’d sprinkled my mom’s ashes on the beach up in Michigan.  But the ocean beach was a whole different animal; the waves were thunderous and crashed hard against the shore with force.   It forced your attention and focus and it’s magnificence crowded out other thoughts.  The beach immediately gave me a sense of calm and peace; no wonder my mother loved the beach so much.  I made a mental note to ask her about the beaches in Jersey for a moment, until of course I remembered I couldn’t ask her anything any more.

My cousin Beth was seven years older than me.  I’d never known her well growing up because I’d lived so far away; I probably had only seen her twice in the last ten years.  But now our lives were strangely similar; she was married with three young boys at home; I was unmarried with one.  Both of us were struggling as children of divorced parents to create strong family traditions and structures for our boys.

“Didn’t you always think it was weird growing up how everyone had different last names?” Beth said to me as we opened the cooler and broke out the sandwiches.

“Yes!  I never could figure out why my grandparents didn’t have the same last name as at least some of us, like my friends’ families did.  I mean, I figured my aunts had different last names because they got married.”

“Except the aunts all had different last names than the kids, too,” Beth laughed.  It was true.  Her mother had divorced her own father and remarried another man, giving her the last name she now bore, different than Beth’s.  Our other aunt had three children, all boys, but then had remarried and had a different last name than her kids too.  We were the only ones with the same last name as our mom; she’d never changed hers back to her maiden name after divorcing my dad.  Even my grandmother had a different last name; she had divorced our biological grandfather and remarried the man we all called “Poppop” long before Beth or I were born.

“Do you think that’s why we are trying so hard to raise our kids with a sense of family, because there didn’t seem to be a lot of that for us growing up?”  Beth and I had shared stories of growing up with single mothers, surprisingly similar stories of spending a great deal of time alone.

“Oh, I totally think that,” she answered.  “And I think it is so great that you’re working so hard for Zach to know this part of the family when you didn’t that much as a kid.”

“I wish I’d been able to spend more time with this side, but it was just hard all around for everyone.  My mom never had time off, and even if she did, this wasn’t her family.  And my dad, well, he was busy too with work but also rebuilding his own life.  That’s part of why, when I discovered I was pregnant, that I knew teaching would be the right career for me.  I knew it would give me the most time to spend with my kids.  That’s something I really want to give him.  My mom did the best she could, but she just didn’t have a lot of time for us.”

“I think that’s why I’m choosing to be at home with them now too,” said Beth in agreement.  “I never thought I’d be that person with three little kids and a husband and the suburban house, but now that I’m here, it’s all about the family.  I know I’m lucky to have the whole family around me and I want my kids to grow up valuing it and knowing how lucky they are.  How many kids get to spend as much time with their great grandparents as mine do?”  It was true.  My grandparents were a huge presence in their lives, living only twenty minutes from my cousin and her kids.

We got up and walked over to the water, going to tell the kids it was time for their lunches.  “It’s funny, sometimes, how your life as a kid totally pushes you to the other direction as an adult,” Beth said.

I nodded.  “Our kids are going to have it different than we did.”

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