On a recent Saturday morning in our neighbourhood, I saw a father and son working on a snow blower. The son, in his late 30s or early 40s, was testing the machine, making sure it was ready for his dad to use.
I've seen them together before. The son comes by his parents' house most weekends. He helps his dad cut the grass, move heavy stuff, fix a few things. Sometimes in the summer I see him sitting with his mom when they're done, having lunch on their front porch.
I'm happy for these parents. They see a lot of their son. He must live nearby - or at least somewhere within the boundaries of the "drop-in zone."
That's what I've come to think of as the geographic cut-off point - probably no more than an hour's drive away - that determines how we relate to our grown-up kids.
Inside that zone, I've noticed, old patterns of family life stay pretty much intact. Sons and daughters who live close by are still at home in their parents' homes. They walk in without knocking. They help themselves to coffee or leftovers. They know where to find the scissors, how to jiggle the toilet handle, when it's time to take the trash out.
They've never been gone long enough to turn into guests.
I thought of that subtle dividing line the other day, when our younger son called to say that he was on his way from Montreal, where he lives, to Toronto, where he had business. He'd be passing right by our Eastern Ontario town.
"I'll stop in for lunch," he said. "Be there in about 20 minutes."
I scurried around the house, tidying the kitchen, straightening up the living room, checking the cupboards for sandwich fixings. It was while I was putting on my lipstick that I began to wonder: When did I start doing that? When did I start worrying about what my kids thought of our house? When did I start primping for a visit with my boy the same way I prepare for a meeting with a client?
We have a dog that greets every visitor to our house with the gift of a soggy squeeze toy dropped at their feet. Most of the time, she ignores the daily comings and goings of me and my husband and our teenage daughter, but if we stay away for more than a few hours, we get the toy treatment, too. It's sort of like that with our two older kids - they've been away too long to be considered a regular part of the household.
That makes me wistful.
I'm proud of our boys, what they've accomplished, where they've been, how they're making the most of their busy lives in busy places. We did everything we could to prepare them for life and propel them into the world.
But now that they're back and settling down - past school and more school, past Europe and Asia and Australia and South America, past Skype and different time zones and empty chairs at Christmas - I wish they lived just an hour or two closer.
Although we look forward to the weekends every few months when one or the other makes the trip down the highway with overnight bags, dinner-table stories and treats from the city, there's a part of me that longs for the ordinary - the 20-minute stopover to return the stepladder, the grocery drop-off that turns into tea in the kitchen, the Saturday morning hand with yardwork that finishes up with an impromptu lunch on the veranda.
A friend of mine, the mother of three sons in their late teens and early 20s, is busy overseeing the forms and formalities that will take all of them away. She's lending her professional eye to their university registrations, foreign study requirements and overseas job applications that will send her boys far beyond their local orbit. But even as she helps to orchestrate their liftoff, she admits to a secret conviction that the best place for them to land is back at home.
"When I visit the town where I grew up," she tells us, "I see families that have reassembled there - people who went back to raise their kids, and live near their family support systems. I can't help thinking that they have a pretty good life. I tell my kids that when they're done seeing the world, they should think about coming home. I say, find a job nearby. Marry someone who grew up here. Think grandparents! Better yet, think two sets of grandparents! Your lives will be easier and richer."
She doesn't really mean it though, even if deep in her heart, she believes it. After all that she and her husband have done to raise thinking, seeking, outward-looking young men, she knows her sons are unlikely to touch down anywhere near their launching pad.
Like them, my husband and I have built lives of our own. We don't need to depend on our kids to entertain us or, for that matter, to keep our machines in working order. When it comes right down to it, we want them to be too busy, too involved, too engaged in the wonder and promise of the wider world to have time for the weekend-long visits that justify their trips to see us.
But sometimes on Sundays, when none of us is doing much of anything, I imagine that it would be nice to be close enough to drift together, naturally, a family gathering at the table out of history, heart and habit.
It would be nice to have them close enough to just drop by.
It would be nice, now that they're near, to have them nearer.
Liz Mayer lives in Belleville, Ont.