The upstairs bedrooms are empty, laundry is down to one load a week and we now buy milk by the quart instead by half-gallon. There are no half-filled glasses of diluted soda on the side table by the chair and no towels on the bathroom floor. The beds remain made and the house stays clean. The only real weekly chore is sweeping tumbleweeds of dog hair; he wanders from room to room looking for his girls. The kids are gone.
When I was a young mother, older women who had already walked the path I now trod, often expressed how fleeting the realm of childhood.
“I know,” I always said, “they are growing so fast I can’t keep up.”
I’d smile nervously because so many people told me the same thing. I thought I knew all about the speed of growing up. The older women, the ones who had already stood in my doorway, would nod the all-knowing nod, because they knew I didn’t have a clue how fast the blink of childhood.
In our immediate family we have had two weddings in the last six months. We have gone from our daughters moving in an out of our day to day lives on the winds of graduations, hunts for jobs and stabs at independence, to a nest fuller when they all show up for dinner, to a vacancy greater than any described to me by women with arms empty of children.
I am now the older woman on the other side of raising children who is trying desperately to explain to young mothers in the prime of their parenting to stop for a moment and listen to which is brushing past so quickly, your children’s childhood. For your babies and toddlers, growth and learning and loving is the way of things and getting caught up in the seriousness of their stages is how it’s supposed to be, but stop. Stop for a moment and take in, not just the birthdays and holidays, the Halloweens and vacations but the sweet simple moments of their youth. You think you are remembering but I am telling you right here and now, you – will - forget. And once the house is devoid of noise and mayhem you will want to remember and you - will - not.
During a lazy afternoon, when my oldest daughter Becky, four or so, and our youngest, Rachel at two and I sat on the front step, both girls were playing in the yard as they often did after nap. It was a nothing-special kind of day, just one of the many to leaf through with pages blank of memory. But on that afternoon Becky, long hair streaming behind her, arms outstretched ran across the front yard and down the front slope calling out, “Look mommy I’m flying.” She circled the tree out front, coasted along the old stone wall and landed in my lap, winded by her flight. The three of us hugged and giggled and I knew I would remember that moment for the rest of my life; her little feet racing to keep up with her wings, a perfect moment on a non-descript day.
The afternoon Becky and I gardened together before Rachel was born. Wearing blue jean overalls, red flannel shirt and covered in dirt she was the cutest-cute I have ever seen, the epitome of a country kid. Three year old Rachel, blond pig-tails and filled with energy, quietly playing with her ‘Flat-Folks’ on the coffee table so as not to disturb me as I claimed the couch because of flu. Both girls splashing in the huge muddy puddle at the end of the driveway after a torrential rain, like little drowned rats I see them scrambling up the hill, and down again, to slide and splash in their own private little temporary lake. Those are the flashes of childhood I tell young mothers, are the garnish on your plate when the table is set for two or only one.
The overused ‘empty-nest’ term which so aptly explains what it’s like when the kids are gone doesn’t only describe the vacancy in a parents’ heart but also the opportunity to rediscover the person you once were before the eggs hatched. It is indeed an exciting time to set aside worry and enjoy that which is ‘self’. If you’re lucky enough to be walk over that new threshold with someone who shares the memories of the beginning, or fortunate enough to have someone who wears ‘discovery’ as a lapel pin, or even if, by choice or by circumstance, you are alone, put your arms out and run like hell.
“Look kids, I’m flying.” I’m circling the tree and gliding along the old stone wall and I’m getting ready to land on the runway paved with memories of you. The remembrances I share, the ones which fill the journal of my heart will soften my landing when the nest is empty - of even me.