Great Britain

My mum's 3,000 miles away, and I miss her. When will I see her again?

I miss my mother. She lives in Glasgow, and I live in New York City. Before our respective cities got locked down, this distance was business as usual for us. With a parent from either side of the Atlantic, I’ve always had family members living in both the US and the UK. But business as usual was when borders were open. Now, like millions of other people who live in different countries from their relatives, we’re trying to cope with the knowledge that we may not see each other for years.

We’ve had the privilege of seeing immigration as a force for good in our families: for opportunity, adventure, variety. But now, we’re reconsidering our choices in ways that we’ve never imagined we would.

Like so many of the personal sadnesses of the pandemic, it’s hard to reflect on this without acknowledging the good fortune we have in the grand scheme of things: we’ve stayed healthy, we’re not in danger of losing our homes. Many of us who are struggling with not being able to see our families in other countries are struggling because a huge luck that we’ve long taken for granted has disappeared. When we moved, or said goodbye to our relatives as they crossed borders, we did so under the assumption that we’d always be free to travel. We know that our particular pandemic predicament is far from the worst problem. But it’s still a big problem.

For people who’ve always lived near their relatives, it might seem like my family isn’t close. I have two siblings, and at one point we were all living at least 3,000 miles away from our parents. But families like ours will recognize that our inclination towards distance is a kind of closeness in itself: by going away we were being unoriginal, following in the footsteps of our parents, who themselves both were immigrants when they were young. When you grow up with people who are out of place, sometimes there’s nothing more comfortable than being somewhere you feel foreign. My siblings and I had confidence to seek adventure in far-flung destinations because we knew that our parents had flourished when they migrated – and because we knew that we could always go home.

I was sad when my mother moved back to Scotland after my father died, but I understood why she chose to. I’d just returned to the US after living abroad for many years, so I could relate to feeling pulled back to the country where you were born. When my mother left, I also understood that we’d visit. She was there when my son was born 19 months ago, just as my Scottish grandmother was present for my birth in New York in the early 1980s, taking her first flight at the age of 74. When I was growing up, return visits were rarer. It was a huge, expensive undertaking to get us all across the Atlantic in that era. My parents cut corners elsewhere in our lives to make it possible: experiencing another country and culture was a gift.

I was happy to believe that my son would get to experience that, too. We had it so much easier: flying was less momentous. Phone calls were no longer special treats rationed for birthdays and holidays. There was always the next visit to look forward to.

Until there wasn’t. It turns out that not being able to make any plan at all is the crux of the problem. It turns out that having plans were what kept us feeling hopeful, and close, and not filled with longing and terrible thoughts about the future that can’t be said. Why, we ask on our calls, did we do this to ourselves? Of course we know that many families are separated within countries, too, but still the possibility of domestic travel seems more promising. I can picture my family driving 1,000 miles to Florida to see my father-in-law, if that’s what it takes. It’s harder to imagine a world in which it will feel safe for my mum to get on a plane, much less one where the UK is welcoming to visitors from the global leader in Covid-19 cases.

We were complacent: that’s the truth. My Jewish great-grandparents, refugees who emigrated to the United States from Russia and Lithuania, didn’t have a hope of ever seeing the family members that they left behind. Their children, my American grandparents, only spoke English: what was the point of learning languages useful in places that they’d never return to? The truth is that before the pandemic there were millions of families making the same excruciating decisions as my great-grandparents. Families like mine felt sorry for them, maybe campaigned for them, or donated money to organizations to help them. But we didn’t relate: to us, immigration was about fluidity, not permanent parting.

Since the lockdown began I’ve FaceTimed my mum with my son most days: the bright side of being at home means that it’s easier to find mutually agreeable times to speak than it was when I used to go to the office. Now, my son knows who Granny is: we say her name and he points to my iPhone. We talk about what he’s been learning, and we talk about the weather, and we talk about politics – which government is worse today? Which leader most stupid and careless? We talk about a future in which we’ll be together again, but we don’t really talk about dates, or seasons, or years. My mother is doing OK, under the circumstances. Under the circumstances, so are we. But we miss her.

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