By Patricia Gottlieb Shapiro
When my children left home and I no longer had to watch the clock or follow a school calendar, I yearned to travel beyond my narrow, upper-middle-class, suburban existence. I didn’t know where I’d go; I just knew that I wanted to experience exotic places in faraway time zones. Then, in 2005, a letter arrived from a first cousin in Samara, in southern Russia. Until that moment, I didn’t know that Anna Gotlib existed.
Anna wrote that she had been searching for cousins in America since her father’s death in 1974. While preparing to move to a new flat, she discovered old correspondence from my father, who died in 1979. She had decided to make one final effort to reach us. I’d be happy to discover new relatives at any time, but this communication came at a particularly poignant one for me. My daughter Margo was pregnant with my first grandchild, and I was beginning to contemplate anew how we pour so much into our children’s lives only to watch them leave—a necessary departure but often painful nonetheless.
I looked forward to sharing our family traditions: seeing the reflection of Chanukah candles in my young grandchild’s eyes, and making bunny pancakes for the next generation. But as thrilled as I was that our family was expanding (my son Andrew would have a son six months later), it made me sad to know that my grandchildren would never hear my father’s thick Russian accent, or listen to my mother sing “Happy Birthday” to them off-key. Somehow, discovering a first cousin who lived on the other side of the globe seemed to balance the equation. So after a two-year email correspondence, my sister and I set off for Samara to meet her.
Before I left, I wondered how much we’d have in common. From our emails, it seemed like a lot. I’d learned that we were both professional women “of a certain age,” as they say. She was a sociology professor; I was a social worker who’d gone on to write about midlife women’s issues. Each of us had been married for close to 40 years. We both had a grown son and daughter, and two grandchildren.
We lived parallel lives in so many ways, yet I was curious about something that was harder to get at. In the United States, women’s lives change dramatically after their children leave home. Was this transition, which is so pivotal for American women, even an issue in Russia?
At 5 a.m. on a Saturday in July, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, we rushed through customs and searched for Anna’s face on the other side. We spotted her pushing through the pack, her arms filled with yellow mums. She had short auburn hair, dark almond eyes, and a broad smile on a heart-shaped face much like my sister’s and mine. We embraced long and hard, took a step back to study each other, and then hugged again, somewhat dazed to actually be standing together.
After a short rest in our hotel, my sister and I approached a four-story, cinder-block building covered in graffiti. Two flights of dark, dank steps led to Anna’s apartment. Still wearing the three-inch heels she greeted us in at the airport, Anna welcomed us with another big hug.
“Come, come.” Her skin glistened with a thin layer of sweat as she scurried around the 1,000-square-foot apartment bringing steaming dishes to the table. Anna’s 37-year-old son sat with his wife on the sofa, chatting with his 28-year-old sister and her husband. The younger couple’s 18-month-old boy streaked through the flat.
How easy it was for the whole family to get together! They all lived within 30 minutes of each other. Like most Russian children, Anna’s son and daughter had lived at home until they married. They went to college in Samara, met their mates, and settled there. Anna’s daughter was now back in her mother and father’s home along with her family, as they waited for their own flat to be built. The empty nest was something Anna had never experienced.
With my children, it had been so different. Andrew, who craved excitement, headed to the Big Apple. Margo, a rebellious spirit, wanted to go as far from Philadelphia as possible. She attended college in Washington state, then lived in Hawaii and spent time in India. When they left home—within a year of each other—I felt an enormous void. I threw myself into my work, but it wasn’t enough to compensate for the emptiness I felt. Only when I interviewed other women and wrote a book about this transitional period did I understand that I was going through a very normal process. It varies from one woman to another, but those of us who have “unfinished business” with our children tend to hold on longer. Only after resolving those issues can we let go and move on.
As I walked into the kitchen and found Anna filling platters, dashing between the stove and the table, I realized that I had something Anna didn’t: the freedom that comes after accepting this loss. In our culture, we believe it’s necessary for children to separate to become independent. In hers, that independence didn’t seem to be prized in the same way. Family members tended to live close by, and pitched in to help each other get by.
The language barrier made discussing this difficult, but Anna did share one thought. “Russian women have a hard time when their children leave home too,” she told me. “But most Russian women always work very much to survive. That’s how they overcome their pain and loneliness.”
American women, on the other hand, seem more apt to experience what Margaret Mead called “postmenopausal zest,” that creativity and energy that’s released when we no longer need to care for our children. In my case, I deepened my passion for yoga by studying to become a teacher, and began writing in a more personal way. Answering the call of a fervent dream, my husband and I moved to Santa Fe. And postmenopausal zest is not exclusive to women with children. For those without, just knowing the childbearing years are past can free them to come into their own and find their passion, like the woman I interviewed who for years yearned to sail and finally bought herself a boat.
But how do women who have not separated from their children experience postmenopausal zest? Does it come in a different form, or is it completely irrelevant? Maybe the joy of living with a grandchild trumps the tension of three generations under one roof.
Anna didn’t seem to suffer from the fact that her life had not changed in any significant way in years. Even with her grown daughter’s family living in the flat, she continued to do all the cooking, despite working full-time as a professor. How different the situation was when Margo and her family moved in with us last fall while they remodeled their house, after I returned from Russia. She and I took turns cooking, and they did their own laundry. We respected each other’s closed doors.
When I let go, a space was created for something else to happen. Margo was liberated to become her own woman and live on her own terms. Then she was free to come back or not. The choice was hers. We now live 15 minutes from each other.
Sitting down to my first meal in Russia—a feast of caviar on white bread rounds, platters of luncheon meats and cheeses, baked cauliflower, potato and chicken salad, and the requisite vodka—I couldn’t help but think about the heritage Anna and I share. How did our grandmother, whom neither of us knew, feel when she had to say goodbye to four of her six children within 10 years—two bound for the U.S. and two to Russia? My father, who couldn’t attend school because of quotas on Jews, and yet dreamed of sending his own children to college, immigrated to the United States at 24 and never saw his parents again. Anna’s father became a Communist at 18 and moved to Moscow to be at the center of the action. Did our grandmother cry for days, immerse herself in work on their grain farm, or stoically believe that these moves were for the best?
After lunch, Anna slipped her arm through mine and guided me to her balcony, suggesting that get a break from the heat. The space was just wide enough to hold three folding chairs. We sat about two feet from the neighbors’ flat. The aroma of cabbage mingled with the humid air. I closed my eyes and drifted off—transported back to the small town in Lithuania where our fathers grew up. Two brothers are raised in the same home; one goes east and one goes west. In their wildest dreams, could they ever have imagined that their daughters, living 8,000 miles apart, would live such parallel lives, and one day meet face to face?
I hadn’t imagined that my quest to broaden my perspective after my children left would lead me so far from home, only to end in the discovery that what matters most to me is my bond to my own family. Would I appreciate them in the same way if I hadn’t traveled half way around the globe? Would my daughter have come back if she hadn’t left? Must we all leave home to come home?
The essay first appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette in the Nov/Dec 2008 issue. Pat Shapiro is an author and yoga teacher who lives in Santa Fe. She specializes in writing and speaking on women’s issues.