We spent five days touring Yellowstone, and four were in my Outback. It’s a roomy vehicle, that was sufficient for us five adults, with me behind the wheel, my copilot wife, Kay, next to me, and my brother, Rowan, his wife, Connie, and my grandnephew Wiley, in the back seat.
Cell service is spotty in the park, but sufficient enough to hear the frequent sound of texts arriving at Connie’s phone. Connie is the matriarch of the family. She and Rowan have pockets as deep as the Grand Canyon. When a family member, whether child, grandchild, ex-in-law, sibling, nephew, or niece, has a problem, who do they call? Problem-Busters. Rowan and Connie.
But they don’t talk to Rowan. Connie holds the purse strings.
Their 29-year-old daughter, who lives with them rent-free, texted from a thousand miles away. She needed help with a flat tire. Connie texted back, suggesting she call Triple-A. Problem busted. It was nice to know that not all problem busting costs them money. Sometimes they just use a little brain power.
Their ex-daughter-in-law, whom they employ, and whom they help out with all kinds of problems, texted with a computer issue. Connie and Rowan conferred with each other, then texted the solution back. Problem busted. And again, with only brain power.
Their son, who lives rent-free down the street from Rowan and Connie, in a house Rowan and Connie owns, texted from a hospital about a medical emergency going on with a grandson. Brain power couldn’t help this time. But the problem was busted. They didn’t tell us how, but I wonder just how deep they had to reach into their Grand Canyon pockets.
Kay and I cast knowing looks at each other. We’ve seen this pattern before. In Kay’s parents.
Kay’s mother, Ravena, was also a matriarch. And everyone came to her with their problems. And with a hand stretched out. And Ravena was always there for them, with a lecture on how to straighten out their lives, and a big wad of cash for their palms.
They never took her advice, but they always took the cash.
And they resented her. Her words of wisdom were trenchant and came from a place of deep and obsessive rumination. She was blunt and never let up. She ranted at them at length, as they squirmed in their chair.
For example, she often ranted to her promiscuous granddaughter, “A stiff prick has no conscience. Take your legs out of the air. Try having more than one kid from the same father.” (As she handed her money to buy baby clothes.)
They may have gotten a fine handout from Ravena, but at the cost of their dignity, from her verbal browbeatings. And so between them and the matriarch existed the same kind of natural enmity that exists between an employer and employee. A tension that grows no gratitude.
When my in-laws aged to the point of enfeeblement, nobody showed up to help. Because nobody had grown any gratitude.
Except Kay and me. But we had not been leaching off them. We always bought our own cars, and we paid off our own house. And when life threw catastrophes at us, we wrote the checks to cover the crises. So we stayed out of the browbeating line, and retained our dignity.
And for that, we felt gratitude.
That made it possible for us to appreciate and love her, and my father-in-law, Jake, like no other family member could. We saw something in them beyond a handout. We developed a great friendship with them.
We took over their care. And we accompanied them through their final journey through life, saving them from the humiliation of nursing home confinement.
It wasn’t easy. And we’re no saints. Sometimes we wished we could run away from this heavy responsibility that trammeled our freedom. But we stuck it out. To the end.
I only hope Rowan and Connie will have a similar family member to love and care for them in their enfeebled years. But so far, I’ve seen no sign of it. The matriarch and my brother are traveling a path paved with ingratitude and abandonment. But perhaps, if there truly is a Unicorn god, and they pray hard enough to it, somebody will step up to the plate.
I pulled into a parking lot at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The cell phone in the back seat went silent. A relief. Rowan and the matriarch were safe for the moment.
There was no service.