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    Hannah Coulter: When Geography Separates

    October 30, 2008 by Brandy Vencel

    Sometimes, fiction can work empathy into our souls. As we read about a character’s first-hand experience, that experience becomes our own. It might not be exactly the same as truly living the events, but it comes close if the work is written well. This is why we laugh with the characters and cry with the characters. We feel their losses as our own. When reading, we enter into another world and return to our own a little bit changed.

    In fact, this is one of the many reasons why I think it is so important that our family read aloud together. Two many stories read in isolation separate us from each other, while reading together doesn’t just not separate, but it actually drives us together a bit.

    But I digress.

    My missing copy of Hannah Coulter has returned. {We are pretty sure a short person is to blame, but we’ll never know which one.} I haven’t had time to get back into it, but there is one theme I was already contemplating, and that is the idea that education {specifically, college education} separates. Berry writes:

    The way of education leads away from home.

    This novel is thick with Hannah’s loss of her children. They didn’t die. They simply went away to college and never came back. And now she is old and living out her days alone, for the most part.

    I started this post off with the idea of empathy. That was on purpose. Midway through the book, I began to wonder if this is how Si’s mom feels. It’s not that she isn’t happy that he met me and made his own family, but I wonder if she hoped it’d be easier to see us. You see, she lives across the country from us. We used to see her more often, but each time we add a child, traveling gets complicated. When our children ended up with food allergies, traveling got even more complicated. Finances restrict our visits. Jobs without vacation time have restricted our visits.

    Life gets in the way.

    I also thought of my own sister. She’s not nearly as far, but sometimes it feels like she might as well be. She and Si did the same thing: met someone at college, got married, and never came back.

    Now, Wendell Berry doesn’t actually blame marriage. He actually sees it as a result of education itself. And not just the methodology of education, but the sort of dreams and goals a modern education encourages.

    But I still think that falling in love can be a big culprit in this area!

    I felt empathy come upon me when I read this:

    You send your children to college, you do the best you can for them, and then, because you have to be, you’re careful not to make plans for them. You don’t want to be disappointed, and you don’t want to burden them with your expectations either. But you keep a little thought, a little hope, that maybe they’ll go away and study and learn and then come back, and you’ll have them for neighbors. You’ll have the comfort of being with them and having them for companions. You’ll have your grandchildren nearby where you can get to know them and help to raise them. But that doesn’t happen often anymore, and you know better than to hope too much. Or you ought to.

    After each one of our children went away to the university, there always came a time when we would feel the distance opening to them, pulling them away. It was like sitting snug in the house, and a door is opened somewhere, and suddenly you feel a draft.

    I was raised in a small town. My father’s parents lived one street over and two blocks up from us. My mother’s parents lived one street over in the other direction…and two blocks up. From the time we were quite young, we could ride our bikes over to see them. We didn’t pack suitcases for a week or two of every year and go to visit my grandparents. We simply lived with them. Our family–our extended family shared a life.

    And now Si and I do not live in that small town, but we live close to it. At least one of my grandparents {the children’s great-grandparents} see our children every week. My parents live a couple miles away as well. My children have second-cousins and third-cousins at their birthday parties.

    Again, we do not go to visit, but we share a life.

    Except that we can only do this with my side of the family. And I feel the pain of that sometimes. I wish for their sake and the sake of my children that they could all know each other better than they do. Our visits often feel like Disneyland, so exciting and new. And it is tons of fun and exhausting, but it isn’t the same as building a life together.

    There is nothing that can be done to fix this situation, not unless folks want to move. And who in the world wants to move to California where the crazies live? Most people don’t. But it’s here we’ve built our life, and it’s here we are. And we’ll encourage the children to do the best they can in building a relationship with those who are far away.

    But it isn’t the same, and reading this gave me an extra measure of compassion, especially for Si’s mom, whose heart I know sometimes aches when she sees, for instance, other grandmas pushing their grandbabies in a shopping cart at the grocery store. She’s never done that.

    And now two of our children are already too old.

    Time. It gets away from us, doesn’t it?

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  • Reply Rahime October 31, 2008 at 6:30 am

    Modern transportation/communication is a mixed blessing. We’re able to “keep in touch” with people we probably wouldn’t have otherwise, but families (and friends) do tend to spread out a lot.

    By most people’s standards we live “close” to ‘Chung’s family–his parents and siblings are all it the Bay area. But we’re still 45 min from his brother’s family, an hour from his sister’s family, and 30 min. from their parents. In any given year we probably spend just as much time (if not more) with my family “far away” than his “close” family.

  • Reply Kansas Mom October 30, 2008 at 9:16 pm

    We’re very lucky to be near my husband’s parents. My children see their Grammy about twice a week (and more back when she was watching them for us). I do wish we were closer to my family, though, and all my nieces and nephew.

    It’s hard with friends, too. We have some very dear wise college friends with children close in age to ours. They are scattered across the country, though, and we rarely see each other. In many ways (though not all ways), we can keep in touch, but certainly our kids don’t know them well. And it is a loss.

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