The four of us — Melody, Mark, Alex and Jenna – before the game and the fateful car ride.

When our choices mystify the kids

The four of us rolled quietly along Highway 51 in north-central Wisconsin. The thud, thud, thud of car tires across pavement cracks was our only accompaniment.

We were four people lost in our own thoughts. I silently reveled in the Green Bay Packers’ victory, which we had witnessed a few hours earlier. My wife, Melody Gilbert, was asleep in the front passenger seat. Our daughter, Jenna, and her boyfriend, Alex, seemed to slumber in the back seat. It was late afternoon on Christmas Eve. Green Bay was in our rear-view mirror. Visions of a warm sauna and a cold beer danced in my head, though I remained on high alert for deer that might leap out of the inky darkness and in front of my car.

And then Jenna broke the hour-long silence.

“Mom, Dad. I have something to say,” she announced.

We gulped. This sounded serious. What could it be? Marriage? Illness? A breakup? (Though that seemed unlikely, since Alex was still back there — quiet as a whisper). Pregnancy? And then …

“This has got to stop,” she said. “You’ve got to get serious. Get a job. Find a place to live. You can’t keep taking money out of your retirement accounts. You need to settle down.”

She was lecturing us! Our daughter was telling us to grow up. She was upset. But the more animated she became, the more Melody and I laughed.

“This is not funny,” Jenna said. “It’s not a joke.”

Of course, it wasn’t funny. She was reacting to a new reality: Who are these people? And what have they done to my parents.

* * *

It’s partially our fault, of course.

For her first 22 years, we filled that parental role admirably, if I do say so myself. We got up and did the parent thing day in and day out. We went to work. We came home. We made dinners and built life-long friendships. We did home-improvement projects and yard work. We bought trampolines and hosted sleepovers. We drove carpool and gave out lots of hugs. We did what you do. We gave our lives over to her.

After scraping together enough money to pay for her college education, we raised our arms jubilantly in 2011 when she graduated from the University of Wisconsin. We did it! … Now, let’s go do something for us.

Now don’t get me wrong. We weren’t featured in any “Parents Gone Wild” videos or anything. We just stepped quietly out of our lives. We left jobs. We sold our house. We put our belongings in storage (and eventually gave all that stuff away). Then we moved overseas and started a new life. Melody was hired to teach at the American University in Bulgaria (AUBG) and I went along and taught as well.

Celebrating with Melody and the journalism department at American University in Bulgaria.

After four years of adventure and overseas travel, we moved back to the U.S. and settled in Chicago. When the job market didn’t open up for us, we threw caution and financial prudence to the wind. We cashed out a chunk of our retirement funds (lucky to have it; happy to spend it — and incurred early-withdrawal penalties to boot) so that I could ride my bicycle across the country. This was a selfish and exhilarating decision. Melody joined me and followed along with our car, providing support and turning the adventure into what we hope is a little film project (55andalive.com).

* * *
 
 Not surprisingly, when we returned from the 3,700-mile, 10-week ride to our home in Chicago, reality bit us in the butt. We didn’t have jobs (surprise!). We didn’t have income (surprise!). And we didn’t have many prospects (surprise!). Hmm, what to do? What to do?

Minnesota became our new North Star, so we packed our stuff (and put it into storage again, this time in Chicago) and headed for the Twin Cities. We still don’t have jobs. We don’t have a permanent home (we started out house-sitting for friends; now we’re renting an apartment in a building where most of the residents are younger than our daughter). And we are a little worried about sucking any more money out of our “rainy day fund.” But we’ve got tons of friends and a whole host of business relationships to reaffirm.

Our hope and optimism is intact. We don’t have any concrete reason for this cockeyed optimism. I’ve scraped together a few freelance gigs. I’m back editing part-time at my old newspaper. And Melody is doing what filmmakers do, which is chasing a dozen different projects hoping one is a hit. Which is, in essence, how we’ve approached life during our 30 years of marriage. A little of this. A little of that. We think “things will work out” because, in general, they have. At some point, that run of good fortune may end, and maybe that’s what finally wore down Jenna’s defenses. She might have been thinking: “What evidence do you have that things are going to work out?”

What she said was: “This has got to stop.”

When we finished chuckling at the incongruity of a child lecturing her parents, we tried to explain that we’ve made CHOICES. We’ve loved the turn our lives have taken. It sounds trite, maybe, but we’ve been enriched in ways money can’t buy. We’re not sorry. Not for any of it. Yeah, we’re going to push hard to reenter the workforce. We’ll do what we have to do to make ends meet.

All that is probably little comfort for a daughter who worries about her parents. But maybe someday she’ll be lucky enough to have a child who, during a long drive on a country road, will tell her: “Mom, I need to talk to you. You need to get serious!”