Friday, December 15, 2017

Empty Nest

My official notice that my nest was finally going to be really and truly empty for the first time in 36 years came, without warning, in the mail. After a thoroughly lovely, sunny morning spent at an art museum with a friend, I had returned home and then checked the mailbox by the front door. I leafed casually through the assortment of bills and catalogs and other junk, and then there it was. 
A perky, colorful notice from the postal service verifying that my younger daughter was officially changing her mailing address to a city across the country.
This wasn’t actually “news” in the strictest sense. She’d been gone for several months, and this new location was something she’d been working at putting roots down in for a long time. It was a very good thing for my daughter, in fact, by any measure at all. She had had something of a love-hate relationship with that particular city for a number of years and had come and gone from there on more than one occasion, but this time the place just felt “right” for all the right reasons.
But all of that cool mature rationality didn’t stop me from standing at the kitchen sink and bursting into tears. Go figure.
Since my first child was born (the “training baby” that paved the way for the next three) I’ve tended a nest in one form or another. For most of that time it was a nest in the country that grew to have five bedrooms and was surrounded by acres of fields and woods, hawks and foxes and deer and birds of all feathers. And while my fledglings were young, there was plenty of hiking and cookie-baking and story-reading and minivan-driving that utterly and joyfully consumed my life and identity. I didn’t skip a beat at keeping that nest in place even after I went to law school and then the marriage collapsed after twenty five years. With teenagers still in high school, I kept trimming the Christmas tree and cooking dinner and baking cookies and keeping the spare bedrooms primed and ready for the older ones to use when they came home from college.
Then, at last, I sold that large place and moved to much smaller digs a couple of years ago. Now if I want to visit the forest primeval, I actually have to get in my car and drive there, though the drive is quite short. And yet…it still has a spare bedroom and that is very important to me.
For the past several years, my younger daughter has still called my location “home” as she has come and gone at various times to other parts of the country for professional or personal reasons. She is an artist who practices in a physically demanding art form, and she has a severe chronic illness, and she is the bravest person I know. And somehow the fact that I could still keep a safe landing pad for her kept me on an even keel despite the wrenching emotional upheaval of moving from the only stable home I’d known in my own life.
I’m pretty sure one could draw a direct line from my own life experience to the importance I place on having that “nest.”
The simplest way to describe my family’s functioning would be to say that my mother was in charge. Nothing of importance happened without her approval, and often times at her initiative. I remember that no matter where she was, she always wanted to be elsewhere. She is now 94 and widowed and has been crippled for decades. She lives in a very nice apartment with a good view of a river and a majestic historic building that she loves to see as the sun sets, and friends and excellent amenities for wheelchair accessibility, and she is still striving for one more move.
This did not generally lend itself to a feeling of tremendous permanence as I was growing up. But a particularly disastrous initiative had us leave my native Chicago when I was sixteen in order to move to an abandoned farm in northern Wisconsin with no plumbing except a kitchen sink. The nearest town had 143 people and that was two miles away.
In order to continue my education at a Catholic high school, I was sent off to a small city forty miles away and I boarded there, at least for the first few months, with a family recommended by the high school principal. It didn’t go well. I came back to the farm every weekend, and there was literally no room there for me. There were only two bedrooms in the unfinished farmhouse. My parents slept in one; my younger brother slept in the other one, which had just enough room for a twin bed nestled against one wall and a dresser tight up against the other. I remember having to sleep in a hammock in the living room when I came home for the weekends. And things only went downhill from there.
In short, any illusion of having firm ground beneath my feet vanished when I was sixteen, replaced by a yawning, inarticulate terror of abandonment and isolation that has haunted me through the rest of my life. It drove making some of my biggest life decisions, and blinded or paralyzed me from making others. My parents and brother moved back to Chicago four years after leaving it for the farm and picked up at the same address they had left off. It was too late for me not to have been utterly broken.
Fast forward to college, marriage and motherhood. As one, then two, then three, and finally four children arrived, I found an incredible source of fulfillment and happiness in making a stable home for them. With every bedtime story, every Halloween costume sewn, every batch of cookies baked, every Christmas stocking hung by the fireplace, I could feel something heal inside myself.
As they grew older, of course, their needs changed. Instead of fresh diapers, a corsage for the prom. Instead of lunch in a brown paper bag, money for gas. Instead of help preparing for a science quiz, reassurance that a major life decision was a good one. And so it went, through the college years and beyond.
Bringing me, inevitably, to the arrival of the change-of-address noticed that sent me, at least for the rest of that day, into a bruised and weepy tailspin. If there had been a pint of Hagen Daz ice cream in the freezer, I would have eaten it out of the carton.
I have dried my tears since then, put my chin up, and claimed the entire bathroom counter for myself since I no longer have to share. And with the approaching Christmas holiday doings, I haven’t had much time or inclination to brood.
But there is a new year about to start in just another couple of weeks. The turn of the calendar from one year to the next is always a time for reflection on the past and optimism for the future. Sometimes I make resolutions, and sometimes I don’t.
This time around I hope I’ll make some adjustments in my thinking. I’m already known for relentless optimism as a coping mechanism, but let’s take the glass-half-full analogy a step farther and say that when all is said and done, my nest isn’t quite empty yet. None of my kids may be getting their mail sent to my house anymore, but I’m still here, along with the four-footed pets. And so I might as well start picturing and investing in my current surroundings as a warm, comforting nest for myself.
Because you know, after all these years, I have damn well earned it.

No comments: