My grandmother spent the last 45 years of her life in the United States, and yet some part of her never left Germany. Her kitchen represented Germany circa 1947, eternally enshrined in Southern Florida. She shunned modern appliances and scrubbed the bare counters spotless. An ode to beer, carved in the old German lettering, hung above the table where she sat to smoke, drink strong coffee, and work her crossword puzzles (in German, natch).
Allow me to add that my grandmother was also glamorous, and one of the worst cooks I’ve ever encountered. No dowdy Hausfrau here.
Adrian, my husband, moved to the United States in 1999 and nationalized in 2009, and he too keeps one foot in his country of origin. Throughout each day, WhatsApp messages zip among him and his schoolmates. I stock our pantry (and wine cabinet) with homeland products. He even likes to have his suits sewn by his hometown tailor and shoes made by his preferred cobbler. During my our recent visit to South America, my mother-in-law asked me to drive across the city with her to pick up Adrian’s new loafers and boots.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “Martin will be bored, spending that much time in the car.”
“Martin? He doesn’t have to come. He can go to the playground with his cousins.”
The cousins in town that week ranged from 10 to three years old. I asked, “Will someone go with them?”
“Of course,” my mother-in-law said. “Don’t worry about it. Someone’s got him.”
Soon three cousins appeared in the apartment with their mother (my sister-in-law Claudia), gathered Martin, and left. My mother-in-law and I headed to the cobbler, a trip that took more than 90 minutes with traffic. Then my mother-in-law wanted to stop at the supermarket, and we ended up shopping an hour as she showed me the newest organic and gluten-free options. Just as I began to worry about Martin, I received an email from Claudia titled, “There are five!”, with no more explanation than a photo of Martin, his three cousins, and another kid I didn’t recognize, whom evidently the crowd had picked up along the way. Okay. No rush. My mother-in-law and I sauntered home three hours after I’d watched Martin whisked out of the apartment. We found my brother-in-law (the beloved bachelor uncle, Pancho) waiting. Pancho reported that Claudia was summoning him to the park to help her haul five kids home. I went along and found Martin. All was well.
The next day, Pancho (remember the “beloved” reference) sent me to a spa for an aromatherapy massage. When I asked what Martin would do while I was gone, the answer was again, “Don’t worry about it. Someone’s got him.” A couple hours later, relaxed and aromatherapied, I walked to Claudia’s apartment. I found Martin coloring with a cousin and discovered that the “someone” watching the children was Anna, a young German musician. Claudia’s husband is the director of the capital city’s philharmonic orchestra, and musicians from around the world seem to move through their home. I’m never quite sure how these arrangements work. In any event, Martin was fine. Anna assured me there’d been no trouble, and that for a snack Martin had eaten the special bar my mother-in-law sent. Okay.
At home, my childcare is regimented, and paid. Tuesday afternoons, a special-education teacher helps Martin participate in church Kids’ Club, and I have a couple hours free. Wednesdays and Thursdays, when I work in the City, Samara meets Martin at his school bus, makes dinner, handles supplements and any after-school activities, and puts him to bed. All other times, unless by arrangement Adrian or a babysitter is on duty, Martin is my responsibility. Someone has not got him. I’ve got him.
The two instances described above were not the only two when, during our recent South American week, I did something other than supervise my son. I went out for Thai food with Pancho and Claudia; Martin slept, and my mother-in-law was around in case he woke. I shored up a fee agreement for work; Martin played video games at Chuck E. Cheese—yes, that monstrosity has expanded into South America—with my father-in-law and some cousins so distant I’m not sure I could correctly identify their parents. I lingered over brunch with the adults; Martin was somewhere, with someone.
For any parent, residing with no family in the area is challenging. For the parent of a child with autism, who almost by definition requires more attention than a typical child, and in some cases requires unremitting attention, independence from family is downright burdensome.
Then again, how many parents with ASD children cannot even take advantage of whatever support system they do possess? When Martin was a bolter, I could not have allowed a German musician to supervise him and three other children. When Martin lacked proprioceptive awareness, and had no perception of where the jungle gym ended, I could not have sent him to the playground without one-on-one surveillance. When Martin needed physical restraint to sleep, my 67-year-old mother-in-law being in the apartment would not have given me assurance that I could leave. Adrian and I, moreover, enjoy the advantage of both our families supporting our biomed approach; we do not need to worry about well-meaning relatives slipping Martin sugar-filled cupcakes or cotton candy so that he can “be like other kids.”
I have newfound respect for my grandmother’s lingering attachment to Mainz, her ancestral home, and for Adrian’s hybrid North/South American lifestyle. There exists a comfort zone within a known culture and extended family—something they both lost, and something even I lost when, at 17, I left forever the rural Upstate county where I was born. As the number of children with autism skyrockets, I can only imagine our collective Sehnsucht will expand in tandem.
Meanwhile, I’m trying to find a way to grow the “someone’s got him” model here at home, with the resources available. I’m typing this post on a commuter train, on my way home from work. I just texted Samara to check in. Samara replied that she’s making dinner and Martin is “over at his girlfriends’ house,” meaning the twin girls who live across the street. First I panicked: Is Martin being a bother to our neighbors? What if someone feeds him an off-diet snack? Should I ask Samara to stop making dinner and be with Martin? Then I reasoned: The girls have been inviting Martin to their house, and their mother told me how pleased she is that everyone is playing together. Their mother also knows that Martin can’t have gluten, dairy, or soy, and that we avoid refined sugar. Plus, Martin polices his own food these days. Martin is fine playing at our neighbors’ house.
This week we have friends from Germany staying with us, including a ten-year-old boy, Leo, and his aunt, Heike. Sunday evening, 6:00 pm, Leo was bored and asked Heike to take him and Martin to the playground. I hesitated; the playground is a 20-minute walk away, we hadn’t eaten dinner yet, and on school nights Martin usually goes to bed by 7:45 pm. But how often does Martin get a special evening trip to the playground? He dropped his iPad and ran for the door as soon as he heard Spielplatz—playground—the only German word he recognizes. I started to give directions. Martin proclaimed, “I know the way! I will lead them!”, and off they went, Heike on foot, Martin on scooter, Leo on Martin’s bicycle.
I poured myself a glass of wine, and handed a second glass to Adrian, and said dinner would be late.
“Why? Where’s Martin?”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “Heike’s got him.”