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SUBURBAN DIARY

Notes from the sandwich generation

A once-familiar routine triggered a contemplative mood.
A once-familiar routine triggered a contemplative mood.(Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File 2003)

As I stood in my kitchen one day this spring spreading peanut butter on bread, muscle memory took over. The curving motion of the knife undulating across the bread, the gentle pressure with the blade to cut the sandwich into quarters, the habit of folding a napkin in half and tucking it under the edge of the plate as I set it on the table and then reached for a glass to fill with cold milk: All felt familiar, and yet it had been a long time.

Sandwich generation, I thought, and the phrase made me smile. Once upon a time it seemed I cranked out peanut butter sandwiches for my children by the dozen, but that was years ago. My son, now 20, consumes whatever leftovers he can find in the fridge when he’s home; my teenage daughter puts together salads for herself at lunchtime.

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This time I was making a sandwich not for a young child but for my father-in-law, who took up residence with us following knee surgery. That makes me part of the so-called sandwich generation, women taking care of children and parents at the same time.

Our situation is not the typical sandwich generation trope, though. The phrase usually connotes an onerous burden, an exhausted and overworked woman taxed with care for the young and the elderly at the same time.

My charges seemed neither young — my children in high school and college, respectively — nor elderly, though at the age of 80, technically my father-in-law qualifies as the latter. But he’s active and fit. He racks up more steps on his fitness tracker than I do most days. He walks to his favorite coffee shop every morning and volunteers weekly at a soup kitchen.

Except not right now, because earlier this spring he took a bad fall on the jacuzzi deck while on a Caribbean cruise and tore a knee tendon. The surgeon told us it would be six to eight weeks before he could expect to be mobile again. Since he is widowed and lives alone, we suggested he move into our house during the recuperation.

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And so like millions of middle-aged women across the nation, I found myself caring for an aging parent. But rather than an exhausting challenge, it has become a serendipitous gift.

My father-in-law is expected to make a full recovery, and his situation, though frustrating to him, is certainly not grave or deteriorating. Also, he is a very easy houseguest — and never more so than at lunchtime, when all he wants most days is a sandwich, sometimes a bowl of soup.

As a work-from-home writer, I’ve become my father-in-law’s primary daily caregiver. With my husband at the office and the kids at school, I prepare meals for him and try to offer a little bit of satisfactory company. In turn, we’re having something we’ve never had before: a chance to get to know each other.

Watching the news on TV much of the day, my father-in-law educates me on current events during my frequent breaks from my desk. As an octogenarian, he has seen decades of modern American history unfold, and his perspective on our nation’s struggles has taught me a lot.He has even used the recuperation time to read the entire text of the published Mueller report and summarize it over the dinner table for us.

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My daughter has had a glimpse of what it’s like to be put in a caregiving situation as well. This spring she checked in with her grandfather every afternoon when she got home from school, telling him what had happened in her classes that day and what she was working on for homework. He in turn has had a firsthand view of the busy life of a teenage girl, meeting her prom date and hearing about the progress of her college search.

My son had his own lesson in pitching in to care for a family member when he came home between college and a summer internship to find his bedroom already occupied. Unperturbed, he spent his three-week vacation on the pullout couch.

Though the days of my father-in-law’s recuperation have doubtless seemed long and tedious to him, and I admit I’ve occasionally had to recalibrate my schedule to accommodate the extra meal preparation and doctors’ appointments, we’ve all ultimately benefited from the experience, with more time together than we ever expected to have. And, in truth, it’s been fun for me to feel needed again, now that my son lives in another city and my daughter drives herself from school to job to social activities.

Our situation is far easier than that of most sandwich generation adults. We know my father-in-law is improving and strengthening by the day; his stay with us will end once he can walk without crutches. He has an apartment to return to and is no doubt eager to be on his own again, preparing his own meals and caring for himself.

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But I know in the future, peanut butter sandwiches won’t remind me only of caring for my growing children. They’ll remind me of this brief but meaningful interlude of caring for an aging parent as well.


Nancy Shohet West can be reached at nancyswest@gmail.com.