Friends make the best kind of family

Hey! We survived the holidays. I spent most of mine either at work or alone at home, so I didn’t have much opportunity to be bothered by people who are obsessed with their kids. By maintaining a sort of tunnel vision, I could ignore all the images of happy family gatherings that did not include me. I dared not dwell on the sadness of not having anyone to kiss on New Year’s Eve and opening my Secret Santa gifts alone—and yes, those presents that showed up on my doorstep in a priority mail box a week before Christmas were the only ones I had to open on Christmas morning.

I gathered a few other gifts along the way from friends at various holiday gatherings, and I am grateful to them, especially to my friend Pat who had earrings custom-made for me on her trip to Mexico and Sandy who welcomed me to her early family Christmas dinner, where I received several wonderful gifts. I got a check from my dad, Portuguese food from my aunt, and Amazon gift certificates from my brother’s family. But nothing under my little tree to unwrap. And the beautiful Christmas stocking my godmother made many years ago remained in the box with the other unused Christmas doodads.

I think I have figured out where the Secret Santa gifts came from. I wasn’t involved in any organizations that did secret gift exchanges, so it was a mystery. None of my friends admitted to it. It had to be someone who could mail the box from Newport, Oregon, just north of where I live. It had to be someone who knew I had a dog named Annie . . .

The senior center. A few months ago, I attended a meeting there for people living alone and concerned about getting the help they needed. We filled out forms that told about our pets, our hobbies, and our interests. We talked about getting together again, but we haven’t so far. I think that list triggered the Secret Santa packages. I’m not going to ask; I want to leave the identity of the gifter a secret for now. If the staff or regulars at the senior center were the ones, I’d like to help next year. It means so much to have someone notice you’re alone and send you gifts without asking for anything back.

This reminds me of the couple from church who used to give me chocolates for Valentine’s Day and Easter because they knew Fred wasn’t around to do it. Ann and Dick. They were in their 80s then. Dick has since died. Ann is disabled now and needs a lot of help, which her neighbors provide. They care for her like family. She has a son somewhere, but he’s not around much.

Friends. The family you create. I think that’s the key to surviving in this world where families are so spread out and so complicated and where it can hurt so much to be the only ones without children. Many of the singers in our church choir went off to see the grandchildren for Christmas or hosted family for the holidays. God bless them. At my house, it was just me and Annie. It was okay. We read, watched videos, walked, ate too much, and relaxed.

When people have children, their holiday activities are pretty much set. They know who they’ll be with and what they’re going to do, whether they want to or not. Those of us who are childless get to choose, and that’s good.

So how were your holidays? What are you looking forward to this year? Have you already blown your new year’s resolutions like I have? Stay on the diet, do yoga every day, practice the piano for an hour . . . Right. Feel free to whine, complain, celebrate or commiserate in the comments. I’m anxious to hear how it’s going.

I leave you with a gift: Jody Day’s anti-New Year’s rant on her Gateway Women page. Read it. I think you’ll identify with some of her feelings.

Hang in there. We’re going to have a good year, in spite of everything.



A Childless Life Well Lived

Jill Baker
Jill Baker photo posted by Maureen Little on Facebook

Dear readers,

One of the women I interviewed for my Childless by Marriage book passed away last week. Jill Baker had been suffering from major heart problems for years. She was married once in her youth, divorced and never remarried. She never had children. But none of that defines who Jill was. Full of life, even when her body was failing, a large presence even though she was a small woman, Jill stood out wherever she went. She was funny, opinionated, and loaded with talent.

I first met Jill at the Central Coast Chorale, a singing group that I joined shortly after I moved to Oregon. Jill was the one always raising her hand with suggestions or laughing loudly from the alto section. We were both chosen to sing in a smaller ensemble that used to be called Octet Plus and is now Women of Note. You could count on Jill to hold down the low notes while the rest of us warbled up above. She was also a talented flute player. After I moved on to other musical endeavors, Jill rose to assistant director of the chorale.

Jill taught music—piano, flute, voice, and more. She sang in small groups and major choruses. She had also worked in bookkeeping, accounting and computer software because it’s hard to make a living with a music degree, but she was finally able to focus on music after she moved to the Oregon coast.

Back in the 1960s, she was engaged to be married when she discovered she was pregnant. Her fiancée took off as soon as she told him. She had an abortion in a motel room. “She was some kind of a nurse and did illegal abortions and it was awful,” Jill said. “I hemorrhaged for six months, during my final six months of college.” Once the baby wasn’t an issue, her fiancée came back, and they got married. He refused to even discuss having children. Eventually the marriage ended. She said she never found another man she felt strongly enough about to marry.

Before our interview, Jill had never told anyone about the abortion, but she had reached a point where she was willing to share her story and happy to have me use her real name. Telling me meant she would have to tell her family, she said. She was a brave woman.

Jill never knew for sure whether that abortion affected her ability to have children. Suffering from fibroid tumors, she had a hysterectomy in her 40s, . “I guess it wasn’t meant to be,” she said.

When I asked how she felt about never having children, she said, “I felt lucky in that I didn’t have that massive craving to have a child. I would have liked to have kids, but only if I was in a marriage where the husband could be a father. I never wanted to have kids just to have kids.”

Instead of having her own children, she dove into the role of aunt to her siblings’ children and dog mom to her precious canine companions. Jill was the one holding her sheet music with one hand and petting her dog with the other in the chapter of my book about dog moms. Asked if she felt left out when her friends talked about their children, she laughed. “No. I get ‘em back; I talk about my dog.” She added, “I get irritated when people feel sorry for me. I really detest that because I think I’ve had a good life. I don’t believe you have to have a husband or kids to be happy.”

As for old age, she was determined to live on her own as long as she could, moving into a retirement home if necessary. She never had to. As she left this life, her hospital room was full of friends who loved her like family.

Rest in peace, Jill.

Are children the ties that bind forever?

My mother never got over my moving to Oregon. Reading through old journals for an essay I’m working on, I read over and over about how depressed she was after we left, how she suddenly seemed old, how she spent half my visits in tears. If I had known she would die of cancer a few years later, would I have moved?

My father was devastated, too, although he expressed his feelings mostly by criticizing our decision to give up our good jobs and our nice house in San Jose to go live by the beach where we had no jobs and didn’t know anyone. The thing is, I didn’t know it would hurt them so badly, or that it would hurt me, the perpetual daughter with no kids, so much to be away from them. When we said goodbye, my tough-guy father sobbed.

I have never stopped feeling guilty. Every day. If my parents had been able to wish us luck and be happy with their own busy lives, it would have been different. But no, they made it clear we were fools who were breaking their hearts. I thought they would visit often. They didn’t. We visited them. I was just there two weeks ago. At the airport, my tearful father wanted to known when I was coming back. I walking into the terminal trying not to cry.

Why have I never moved back, especially after my husband died? Because it costs too much to live in the Bay Area, and because I like it here. I have built a life in Newport, Oregon that allows me to do the writing and music I have always wanted to do. The air is clean, the traffic is easy, and I meet friends everywhere I go. When I cross the Oregon border coming back from my visits to San Jose, I feel a burden lift. I honk the horn and shout because now I’m in my own place where I can shape my life the way I want to.

What does any of this have to do with not having children? Simply this: If I had children, even adult children, living back in the Bay Area, I would never have left. I would not want to be separated from my sons and daughters and grandchildren. The beach is swell, but they would be too important a part of my life to leave. At least I hope so. I have seen families in which the parents stayed for their children’s sake and then the children moved away. Heck, Fred and I were the kids who moved away.

I did not have children of my own, but I did have three stepchildren and two step-grandchildren by the time we left. They did not factor into our decision. I figured we wouldn’t see them much less than we already did because Fred was not involved in their lives. He had always been a hands-off dad. He didn’t seem to consider them at all in our decision. We did invite the youngest, who had been living with us until shortly after he graduated from high school the year before, to come with us. He declined. The older two offspring were angry at us, much more than they told us about at the time. But here’s the thing: The guilt I feel about them–and I do feel guilty–is considerably less than the guilt I feel about moving away from my parents. Is this because I never grew up and became a mom? Because I don’t know what it’s like to have your children live far away?

Most of my friends here are parents and grandparents. Nearly all of their children live somewhere else. In this rural area supported by tourism and fishing, you have to leave to go to a university or get a good job. So the kids move to Portland or Seattle or another major city. And the parents visit. Everything they do here takes a back seat to the kids and grandkids, and you can’t argue with that. But they have their own lives, too. They don’t pour on the guilt like my parents did. Fred’s parents never did that either. They were happy to send their three sons into the world and get on with their own lives.

How long do you need to stay near your parents? If you have adult children, is it okay to move away from them? If you don’t have children, does that make us wonderfully free to go wherever we want? Are you tied down by your partner’s children, and do you resent it? What do you think about all this? Please share in the comments.