I’ve recently returned from the last harvest. Those of you who have read this column for the past few years will recall that each August, my family and I gather in southwest Oklahoma at my parents’ home, to assist with the harvest of grapes from my parent’s vineyard.
Their retirement project became the ritual around which the whole family gathered; a hot and dirty ritual, to be sure, but it was also a time when cousins got re-acquainted while taking turns driving the tractor, when my siblings and I discussed the challenges of child-rearing while snipping grapes from loaded vines, and when my parents were able to have all four children (usually with spouses) and all 10 grandchildren together at least for a few days. (It provided lots of good material for a column on healthy relationships.)
My parents have decided, however, that this project is done. They are aging and the physical work and the commute to and from the vineyard every day are increasingly difficult for them to manage. The older grandchildren are working all across the country, literally from New York to Alaska, and no longer are available to help. And my siblings and I are all on the downhill side of middle age. Even the vineyards are ready to stop, the effects of harsh weather and the wind-drifting pesticides from nearby fields killing the vines and reducing the number of gallons of juice to a paltry 18 this year. After more than 10 years, tons of grapes and hundreds of bottles of barely drinkable wine, we’re done.
The end of one phase of life, however, always raises questions about the next phase. While none of us will miss the hot, sticky days slapping at mosquitoes under a brutal Oklahoma sun, what we discovered as we talked about the last harvest was that the passing of the torch (or the clippers, in this case) has created some new responsibilities for my siblings and I.
For us, the harvest became the gathering ritual, initiated and maintained by my parents. My dad determined the date in August when the grapes were ready, and we all made our travel arrangements accordingly. By deciding to end the tending of the grapes and the investment in the vineyard, my parents have said to us, in effect, “OK, it’s your turn now.” As my parents have given up the vineyard and the harvest that gathered us together, they also have given up their facilitation of our family gatherings, knowingly or not.
Now it is up to my siblings and I (with input from our spouses and children) to determine what the new gathering ritual will be — or whether there will be one. We will decide how much time and effort we’re willing to invest in maintaining the relationships between the four of us, our spouses and our children. While my parents are still willing to be the center of the web of relationships, the tending of that web is now our responsibility in a way it hasn’t been before. We are the ones who have to figure out what it means, what we will invest in time and energy, and what it will look like going forward.
Many of us with aging parents and adult children find ourselves in a new place of relationships. Interestingly, it is the relationships with our siblings that might demand the most thought, consideration and effort to maintain, particularly when they are far away. While we will always be siblings, maintaining the health and strength of those relationships will require a new level of investment, of time and energy on our part. In short, we’ll have to manage them the way we do the other adult relationships in our lives — intentionally and with care. I suppose you could say it is a new vineyard to tend with a different harvest to reap. I’ll do my best to tend it well and hope that my siblings will join me — and that there will be fewer mosquitoes.