Slices of Wonder

Squarely in the middle of the sandwich generation, a daughter turned mother feels the squish

It’s Father’s Day weekend, and my 12-year-old son and I are on our way to visit my 83-year-old dad. The soundtrack for our drive comes compliments of 101.3 KDWB—not my first, second, or seventh choice, but, in the spirit of road-trip bonding, I’ve given Junior dibs on the dial until St. Cloud. “I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way….” You tell it, Gaga. I bob my head, out my pout, and swivel my seated hips.

The glare from the passenger seat is scorching. My son, my own blood and likeness, my life’s very light, stabs the radio knob off and asks what I think I’m doing: one of our fellow motorists going 70 mph might see. I vow to reform. I stifle my inner disco, save for tapping my index finger on the steering wheel, and we drive on in silence.

Bored after two miles of behaving, I insert a finger into my nose as an experiment. I look to my right: the etiquette director to whom I gave birth neither comments nor cares. I look to my left: passing us in a respectably racy Infiniti M56S is Liam Neeson’s double, who no doubt misses all the nuance of the moment and sees only a blonde performing a nasal excavation. Why, Lord, do you only put me in the paths of the male species’ finest when I’m either picking my nose or adjusting my panty line?

My thoughts speed ahead to another man up the road. This past winter was tough on Dad. Over the phone, he lamented, “I only have a couple more winters in me,” which doesn’t mean he thinks he’ll go down to Florida, but rather that he’ll go down altogether. Such talk knives me. There are excerpts of his life story I still want to plumb before time silences its teller.

Trouble is, I’m so fried by work, house, lawn, auto, checkbook, litter box, single parenthood, and personal maintenance that such things are always pushed to tomorrow. Dreams are deferred—the books I want to write, the planes I want to catch, and whitewater rapids I want to kayak. Meanwhile, I have a father and son who need me—now.

We arrive at Chez Shea, where a beaming Walter Matthau wearing his favorite rag of a plaid shirt directs us up the driveway. I wonder how long he’s been outside waiting. I think, but don’t say, “Hey, Pops, how about some iron-on elbow patches for Father’s Day?” Dad hugs me hello. He’s as thin as the threadbare flannel. He spies my car’s roof rack and—one, two, three—launches into a lecture about aerodynamic drag impeding gas mileage. I’m home.

Back in the 1980s, sociologist Dorothy Miller coined a term for people like me: the “sandwich generation”—middle-agers caught between caring for elderly parents and dependent children. The sandwich of which I am now a part is a little soggy around the edges, but still piled high with blessings. My son is old enough and my father young enough to feed, clothe, and bathe themselves. Both can somewhat hear and remember what I say, albeit selectively. The 71 years between them seem to disappear when I disappear. Together they organize their tackle boxes, haul brush, and plop down at the table, the cookie jar between them.

In this generational sandwich, I am the slab of Braunschweiger: pink-gray, salt-rich, smoked, made from suspect parts the likes of scalded pork jowl. Most days, I know it’s a privilege to be pressed between these two. I know that life’s bigger meaning resides right here. But sometimes that big picture gets lost in life’s tedious details, in reality rather than what I’d envisioned. My son is waiting to grow up. My father is waiting to die. I’m waiting to live. We are all in the unsettled middle.

Kitty Shea is a Twin Cities freelance writer and onetime editor of Midwest Home.