One thing my family does quite well is emigrate but the experience has changed fundamentally through the generations. When my grandmother’s siblings emigrated to the US in the 1920s and 1930s, they knew they would only cross the Atlantic once. Visits home were unheard of for most long-distance emigrants of that era. When my uncles emigrated to Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, the trip back to Ireland was still expensive and they mostly came back once a year – until they found English wives and then less often. Even my older cousins who emigrated to the US and London in the 1980s baulked at the price of phone calls and visits were infrequent.
I can only imagine to what degree they suffered homesickness and loneliness in their new homes. Ultimately they were forced to let go. For better or for worse they built new lives for themselves.
Mine has been a very different type of emigration. Ten years ago I left Ireland to come and live in Switzerland and now new family ties keep me here. The trouble is I haven’t left Ireland behind, I can’t and I don’t want to. All the time that I’m forging a new life here for myself, I’m carrying around an ailing version of my old one. Through email, phone calls, skype and texts and regular visits I try to keep up contact – but it is an imperfect and fractured kind of contact. I try to stay close but people are having crises I know nothing about and I am having a crisis I never get to explain.
The truth is I come back from visits to Ireland like a bag of cats, suffering from a kind of post visit stress disorder. Instead of being happy that I got to see one aunt, a friend who lost his mother at Christmas, my niece and nephews, my mother and sisters, and a college friend back from England (all in three days!), I am tormented by guilt and regret over the other people I didn’t get to see or speak to, some of whom I didn’t even tell I was coming (more guilt). The long visits are even worse because we all have the mistaken impression two weeks is a long time. Arrangements add up and people say “sure we’ll see you again before you go” and next thing I know I’m squeezing in appointments like a greedy doctor and I’m using my mother’s house like a hotel with free babysitting.
I like to imagine that one day, when my working life is through and my children are established in their own lives, I will end up in an old folks’ home with my sisters, close cousins and friends. We will hang out on the porch, enjoying warm Irish summer evenings (it is a fantasy) and we will talk, talk talk. We will finally get to catch up on all those missing years and belatedly support each other through every past triumph and disaster and all the humdrum days in between. If I find myself feeling nostalgic about post visit stress disorder – not impossible, I can develop nostalgia for almost anything – all I’ll have to do is book a flight back to Switzerland.