A single trip into rural Pennsylvania to visit my grandmother in her retirement home, situated in the middle of Amish country between shops, diners, and churches with names like Dutch-Way, Kum Esse (“Come Eat”), and Friedens (“Peace”) Lutheran, may take 84 hours round trip. If Grandma, a 93-year-old paragon of elegance, is feeling well the whole time, we are fortunate to spend 14 of those hours with her over four days. (We wear her out.) The remaining 80 may divide as follows:
- 20 hours – The main drive from Dayton to Pennsylvania and back, including drawn-out stops for meals, gas, and bathroom situations for children ages 4 months through 5 years.
- 24 hours – Sleeping.
- 5 hours – Driving to Hershey to ride the free Chocolate World ride at least twice, then to lunch at Troeg’s Brewery, then back to our “cottage” near Grandma’s.
- 2 hours – standing at headstones, including my grandfather’s, in three or four area cemeteries.
That leaves 21 hours, an average of 5.25 hours per day, or 10.5 hours per non-travel day, to soak up the sights, sounds, and smells of Amish country however our hearts desire. For instance:
- 1 hour – Playing on railroad tracks until trains force us off.
- 7 hours – Detour to Philadelphia’s Independence Hall and Sonny’s Famous Steaks.
- 4 hours – Detour to the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg and Hunt’s Battlefield Fries.
There are still nine hours left, but don’t ask me how we use them. If you haven’t noticed, time multiplies like loaves and fishes for a non-native visiting one’s elders in Pennsylvania (a process that Pennsylvania native John Updike described in his short story “The Other Side of the Street”).
Nowadays total trip time spent with my grandmother is less than 14 percent, down from 64 percent 20 years ago when she and my grandfather would visit us, or 48 percent when we would visit them. In those days we shared literally every waking moment. A major reason for the drop is that the number of waking moments are fewer. She needs more sleep, and when she wakes, mundane tasks like pill-sorting, pill-taking, dressing for daytime, then dressing for dinner, and writing letters exhaust (but do not depress) her.
Perhaps it is unremarkable that the total time with Grandma has diminished over the years, considering that her children, granchildren, and great-grandchildren live at least one state away and have their own families to raise. Time does not pause for each generation to assume the role of its predecessor.
What is remarkable is that the decrease in time spent with Grandma that I have outlined above has nothing to do with our families growing up, or living so many miles away, or the younger generations getting too busy.
On the contrary, our time with her is receding in precisely the same moments that we have dropped everything to gain more of it. Her sunset is the limiting factor, not our sunrises or high noons. Were we to spend a month with her, we would scarcely see her more. It is as if time itself were a puppet regime capable of granting its citizens free play within its walls, while secretly taking orders from a far-off emperor: death.
Death itself is a puppet regime that will one day be dethroned–“And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die”–a fact that makes our dwindling fraction of time with my grandmother not only appropriate but, strangely, uplifting.
On this subject, I recently wrote to my grandmother that on a prior visit to her, before my grandfather died, Grandpa told me he wanted to stand on the balcony to get some air. The sun that he could barely see was setting and the flag that he had served was flapping below us, and after some talk about the sun and the flag , I said, “Grandpa, is it sad to be old?”
“No,” he said. “As you get old, the body and mind get ready. It’s how God made them. It isn’t sad.” And we went in for pie.