Empty Chairs and Empty Tables

 In Books, Community, Family, Fred's Blog, Friendship, People, Relationships, Transitions, Uncategorized

Listen to “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” by Fred Smith

 

When we moved to Tyler from New York I had lived for many years away from where I grew up. In fact, after leaving for school I never returned as my parents soon moved as well and their new home in Dallas never really was that for me. Moving around frequently became normal and I had accommodated myself to it. In fact, I had difficulty understanding those who chose for whatever reasons to stay in one place for most of their lives. I would not have called myself a drifter or a loner but I was rootless and unattached. I made friends easily but only temporarily. David Goodhart in his book “The Road to Somewhere” describes two kinds of people – those who come from Somewhere and are rooted in a specific place or community and those who live Anywhere. These are footloose and superficially connected with many people but do not identify with a particular place. They value autonomy and self-realization before stability, community and tradition. They live in a wider world but not necessarily a better one. I was an Anywhere.

Sitting in church on Sunday years ago I noticed how many full rows would be occupied by one family of parents, children, aunts and uncles, grandparents and even cousins. Restaurants had as many tables for ten as for two. High school graduates were encouraged to attend the local college and more than half of all the graduates did just that. It troubled me that the Chamber of Commerce was concerned about “brain drain” and losing students to colleges and universities outside Tyler. I thought of brain drain as not leaving. Even many of those students who did would come back after two years to finish up at home. Some might even stay away for a few more years, marry, have children and then return. I did not understand why families would want their children to do that. What was the good in raising children to return? I even started a few projects inside a file I kept in my office labeled “Get Out Of Town” where I encouraged kids to leave and start life elsewhere. Experience a wider world! Escape the pull of gravity and tradition!

Baby Chasers

Many did and now, years later, their parents (and my good friends) are beginning to leave and live near their kids and grandkids. The adult children did not come back. They are not sitting with generations in the long pews or moving tables together at the restaurants on Sunday. Instead, they are encouraging their parents to leave and come be with them. The parents are called “baby chasers” in some studies and as many as 25% of Baby Boomers are moving away to be with their children and grandchildren.  

“Unlike their parents, baby boomers find it important to be both geographically and relationally close to their grandchildren, despite FaceTime and other technology that has ostensibly bridged the geographical distance between loved ones. There’s been a shift back to, ‘We want to have that human interaction, and we want our family to be an important part of our lives.’ I think the digital age is actually pushing us more toward that.”

At this stage in life I have thought a good deal about the inevitable loss of friends through death and the natural grief that will entail. But, for some reason, I have been unprepared for the grief that comes with the loss of friends moving away. It doesn’t seem as natural. Besides, I was always the one leaving. It seems that over the years I have become a Somewhere and attached. I have grown close to friends and even though we all promise to stay in touch it is a different loss altogether. Death is sure and final. It leaves a hole and also reminds us of our own mortality but friends moving away is a lingering loss. It is not a reminder of mortality but of loneliness and the priceless value of friendship. It is not dying but it is still, as the lyric from Les Miserables says, “empty chairs and empty tables.”

I should probably congratulate myself that my “Get Out Of Town” projects went so well. The number of high school graduates going on to colleges and universities out of town increased dramatically. Bright young people found life opportunities in other places for work and careers. The gene pool that was once so small has now increased substantially by their living in larger communities. The pull of gravity has far less influence now than it did. Yes, there is joy in that but now that the tables are turned there is the painful tension of wanting to celebrate the families being together and at the same time mourn the loss of my treasured Somewhere friends.

Photo by Fred Smith

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  • Avatar
    Troy Groves
    Reply

    So good. Thank you for this. I keep ruminating & studying David Brooks latest piece ‘The Nuclear Family Was A Mistake’. Confronting our half century of cultural encouragement for our kids to ‘strike out on their own’, leave us, leading to fragmentation & smaller detached nuclear families of their own. It felt so unnatural to drop our oldest off 600 miles away to begin his new life-no wonder! Your words add to this & give me more to consider. Thank you.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      There seems to be more
      and more people feeing this inchoate longing for more than a nuclear family and extreme individualism. I think it will grow. You’ve read this from “Jayber Crow”. “ And so I came to belong to this place. Being here satisfies me. I had laid my claim on the place and had made it answerable to my life. Of course you can’t do that and get away free. You can’t choose it seems without being chosen. For the place in return had laid its claim on me and had made my life answerable to it.”

  • Avatar
    Rodney Mabry
    Reply

    Poignant, Fred. I am an “anywhere,” and wonder if my high school classmates still living in and around Paducah, KY, have an appreciation for other places and ideas that I have. On the other hand, they have the clear advantage of close family and friends, ties forged over many decades.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Rod – I read this from Wendell Berry’s novel “Jayber Crow” years ago and it made sense to me. “And so I came to belong to this place. Being here satisfies me. I had laid my claim on the place and had made it answerable to my life. Of course you can’t do that and get away free. You can’t choose it seems without being chosen. For the place in return had laid its claim on me and had made my life answerable to it.”

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