With more than three months clocked into this empty nesting thing, I’m not sure what to say about it. People ask me about it at the Safeway, at a Ravens parking lot, or in a bar. I take a deep breath and let whatever mood I am in come out, informing me of my status as much as them.
Come mid-December, all that should change. My daughters will be coming home from college. They will be home for a month.
There’s the mirage that our house will be filled like our bellies after the Thanksgiving meal. But the holiday season, already fading, gives me a taste of what’s to come. The chunk of time between December and late January will burn up like a big log in a fire on a familiar story arc. Once again, we’ll cook for them, offer them rides, push them to see old friends, but this image of us spending hours together is fantasy. They will run through the weeks, popping in and out, seeing friends, picking up gig jobs, retreating to their rooms.
We were no different when we were that age. We happily let the front door swing behind us as we ran to getaway cars. Now we are those folks on the other side of the door, listening to the cars pull off, pushing up smiles to continue. Let’s be honest, the very conversations that would have driven us out of the house.
One of the surprises of this whole empty nester business is that their absences have been swapped out by a kind of smoke signal existence. In this landscape of excessive stillness, messages appear across the chasm of their empty rooms, chattering TV, oversized dinner table with the same impact as Morse code — beep, beep, beep burrowing into deep space. Each dispatch presses down fingers on my tight nerves.
A simple photo from them plays out way different than other folks. There’s the snap of one posing ridiculously with bug-eyed swimming goggles before hitting the lap pool. There’s a shot of the other with two friends gleaming brighter than the dorm room Chanukah candles they just lit.
Wow, look at ‘em. It’s fortunate that they still need to show off like little ones bringing home drawings on stiff paper — actually, they still post drawings on our family thread.
This has been our groove for the last few months — dispatches from the field, relearning to live as a couple — going to pop-ups, sneaking away for weekend trips, grinding through our must-see shows. Then thank you Thanksgiving for playing out like a relapse, creating the illusion that they are only temporarily gone and back home is the reset, the compass point where all else vectors.
In a frightening way (cringe), there is no place like home. This is usually said from the child’s point of view, but now as parent, we also have a stake. To this day, 14 years after my parents’ death, I will detour past my childhood home, roll down the windows, take in the air and glance at the light shining from the kitchen. As a concept — thanks to GPS, I get the distance and speed, but time still throws me. This is a bit pathetic and possibly mentally risky, but still, there persists the undeniable feeling of realness in the crisp air rolling off the lawn where I wore down playing kick the can.
I remember my mom would break the third wall of the everyday and say, “Are you going to remember this?” Her words landed out of nowhere — for there was nothing significant going on — like an ominous premonition that something precious was spinning away. But there was wisdom from the way she looked at me driving the Chrysler, with the Kent cigarette in her fingers.
I’m on the other side of a glass window, trying to impart a sense of passing without going to that cliché — it goes by so fast, enjoy it while you can.
Me, I am trying to clamp down on the curiosity when it comes to this evolving stage of, let’s face it, family forever more. I aim, with bumbling results, to live in the moment, learning how to treat expectations and letdowns as terrain to be hiked over and relish the unexpected little gems found in between. Likewhen the two sisters got home and saw each other for the first time since parting ways this summer to sit cross-legged across from each other on the floor. They spoke rapidly, something only sisters can do. We sat on the couch trying to keep up with the twists and turns, wondering whether the aging process had dug into our gray matter more than we had known.
Those gleaming-eyed greetings of the Thanksgiving break ended with them turning away, leaving by train, by bus and us by ourselves, picking up with where we left off.
And here is the weird part. Since they went back to school, there were days of dead air between us, and me feeling a wee bit guilty that I’m enjoying this newfound freedom too much.
But then again, this is how it’s going to be. Without a time-lapse setting in the brain, change and growth isn’t discernable until it is, like a tree outside the window. Have we as a family morphed into individuals with free will to gather or not? They certainly think they have new powers, although still are a bit tentative to flex.
My anticipation of this approaching chunk of time together has that roulette wheel spinning. Other than hoping for a snow day to hit, as so many have predicted, I got nothing. Although there is the Christmas goose that I plan on cooking, a Charles Dickens tradition that comes from my Scottish mother. I hadn’t done that for 10 years, but something is telling me that the timing is right for goose, chestnut stuffing, roast potatoes, gravy and possibly an elaborate dessert. Could it be the kind of family fulcrum that it was for us until my mom died? I don’t know, but I’m not going to ask them, either.
Charles Cohen is a freelance writer, filmmaker and Baltimore native. In the fall, he and his wife, Amy Lynwander, sent one daughter off to college and another one back to college.