For twenty-five years I had a full nest. My two girls commuted to and from college every day and spent plenty of time at home studying, watching television, leaving clothes and shoes around the house for me to trip over and a sink full of dirty dishes to keep my hands sanitized. Nothing much changed from their transition from high school to college. We still managed to have dinner together as a family most nights and exchange stories about our day, our friends, and the ups and downs of life. But one day my older daughter graduated from college and went to work. She was missing all day, every day. Then, three years later, my younger daughter graduated and got a job working the second shift at a lab. My daughters are two ships passing in the night. They went from seeing each other all the time to maybe one or two evenings a week. Our regular family dinners have been slashed to once a week. And although I know I am lucky to still have them “home,” I still miss us all being together. I miss watching my girls interact with each other. What’s a half-empty nester to do?
I hate setting the table for two or three, when there should be four of us sitting there. Sometimes I have to rearrange my daughters’ seats so there isn’t an empty seat separating three of us, and making the absence of the one that’s missing that much more obvious. I change my meal plans for dinner based on which one of my daughters will be eating with us. They each have their preferences and I try to accommodate whomever is home that night with something they will enjoy. I have to make extra of certain meals because I need leftovers so my younger daughter can have her “dinners” at lunchtime the next day, before heading out for work. The “leftovers” also fill in for my older daughter’s hot, healthy lunches for work, since she hates sandwiches. So now, instead of planning nice family dinners, I have been relegated to a short-order cook.
When I dust and vacuum the floors, there are no feet that need to be lifted, no shoes to pick up. I just go about my business in a house that is so quiet that the eerie noise from the refrigerator motor is all I can hear. There’s even less laundry. My older daughter has decided to take care of all her laundry herself even though I tell her she can add items to the family hamper. I can buy less snacks because there is no one home to eat them. The sink doesn’t get full of dirty dishes during the day. As soon as a couple of breakfast mugs are washed, the kitchen is closed pretty much till dinner. In fact, the whole house stays a lot cleaner, a lot longer, when I am the only one roaming through the empty rooms. I guess I should be happy.
It’s not like I miss the extra dust, laundry or dirty dishes. We could all do with less of those things. But I do miss the reason for the extra work. Those not so little feet going up and down the stairs to get their laptops, are now running around an office. The hungry little mouths opening refrigerator and cabinet doors looking for snacks are waiting for their lunch break. Today, as I walk into their rooms, I fix the slightly askew comforters on beds that were made in haste, not out of laziness, but out of a rush to get to work. I close the wardrobe closets that were left half open after the day’s outfit was selected. I adjust the couch pillows and see the jackets that were thrown haphazardly on them last night are gone this morning. And there goes the refrigerator motor cranking its “American Horror Story” noise.
I remember watching the movie “Marty,” starring Ernest Borgnine, years ago. It’s a great movie about a single guy who is still living with his mother into his thirties. One day his mother is talking to her sister about the “empty nest.” Here is what Aunt Catherine had to say (in her Italian accent):
“These are the worst years, I tell you. It's a gonna happen to you. I'm afraid to look in a mirror. I'm afraid I'm gonna see an old lady with white hair, just like the old ladies in the park with little bundles and black shawls waiting for the coffin. I'm fifty-six years old. And what am I gonna do with myself? I've got strength in my hands. I want to clean. I want to cook. I want to make dinner for my children. Am I an old dog to lay near the fire till my eyes close? These are terrible years, Theresa, terrible years . . . It's gonna happen to you. It's gonna happen to you! What are you gonna do if Marty gets married? Huh? What are you gonna cook? Where's all the children playing in all the rooms? Where's the noise? It's a curse to be a widow, a curse! What are you gonna do if Marty gets married? What are you gonna do?”
Okay, maybe things are as bleak as Aunt Catherine makes them out to be, but some of her words do hit close to home. I guess I better start preparing myself for the full empty nest and figure out the answer to Aunt Catherine’s, “What are you gonna do when your girls get married? It’s a gonna happen to you. What are you gonna do?”