Though it doesn’t make it hurt any less to look into their dark and vacant rooms, It turns out that they leave home at just the right time. You’re getting older. Noises bother you. Lights. Chaos. Commotion. You realize you’ve run a marathon and you’re not sure how you did it. You’re more and more attracted to simplicity, ease, slow. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. They’re home!
The children, once grown, move in and out of the home like water.
Trickles, flash floods, sun showers, but rarely if ever the familiar steady flow, though evidence of it is everywhere, like seahorses found in the desert.
It all happened so fast.
Not the day-to-day, which seemed without beginning or end, but the vanishing which screams in silence from room to room…
Two placemats on the kitchen table.
The empty bedrooms (though we do our best to avoid them.)
The basement, from which I’ve just returned, with a hand on my heart and another on my belly, as if I’m about to be sick.
Like a morgue, the basement houses the remains of a life once embodied, together.
What to make of the favorite toys? The collections? The artwork? The photos?
I’m a Keeper, the consequence of a fractured childhood.
But now, the keeping weighs me down, leaves me sad, makes me wonder what I am to do with it all (and myself.)
To whom does it belong?
To whom do I?
My mother departed before her nest emptied, so it’s my husband’s mother whose gradual paring of the home I watched over time. I hadn’t known I’d been watching. Absorbing. Digesting. Over three decades. (Three decades!)
I had such hopes for thinning this autumn. But the weather, it kept changing. Inside and around me. The visits fast and furious and sometimes choppy and extended.
“Be like water,” wrote Minister Kendra Ford.
Run deep run clear
fill any space to its
respond to the moon, to gravity
change colors with the light
hold your temperature longer
than the surrounding air
take the coast by storm
go under ground
be the one thing people need, even when they’re fasting
eat boulders, quietly
be a universal solvent.
Am I water too?
I’m not sure which direction I’m flowing.
Should I swim or float or dive deep like I did each time I welcomed a new baby into my body and onto my breast and into our lives. “I feel like I’m living underwater,” I used to say to friends.
Perhaps I am a beached whale or a fossil of a whale like those discovered in the Green Mountains near Lake Champlain.
In part, it’s the way the leaving instantly aged me, signaled the impending Swan Song. Maybe that’s the secret of large families–perpetually immersed in the sea of new life–wave after wave–grandchildren arriving before the departure of the youngest.
And what of those without children? Do they experience a more seamless, fluid aging?
Must we stay young?
How do we know when. To hold on. To let go.
They’re 18 and 23, and they don’t live with me anymore, but if we’re eating together, or worse yet if I’m simply watching them eat, I’m compelled to get involved.
Aren’t you going to finish that?
Do you want more butter?
Does that need to be heated up?
Don’t you like the soup?
And it’s not just loving, motherly attention I’m expressing, but anxiety. PTSD even.
As a mother of two, and as a lifelong early & elementary educator, and as the oldest of 8, not to mention being born FEMALE, I’ve attended to children at mealtimes since I was old enough to talk—from bottle-feeding to spoon-feeding to fixing meals and to taking my youngest siblings (and later nephews & nieces) out to Pizza Hut long before I had any kids of my own.
Over the weekend my husband and I went out for brunch–with our grown kids–and we were seated near two different tables, each holding a mother and a young son and no one else. It was adorable.
At the table closest to us, the mother had a fruit cup and her child had waffles or pancakes or french toast (I can’t remember which). At the other table, it was the child who had the fruit cup while the mother had yogurt with granola. I noticed this and something else on my way to the bathroom.
The child with fruit was on a device.
“Did you see those two tables?” my husband later said as we were walking to our car. “I felt so sad about the mother who missed out on talking to her kid.”
I paused before I replied, and then I suggested that perhaps my husband had a gender bias/blindness, unaware of how demanding it is on mothers to eat out with their children.
My favorite scene about this parental gender differential is one that takes place at the dinner table with the Incredibles. For years, I dropped this phrase on my husband:
BOB, it’s time to ENGAGE.
“Maybe that mother and child had a really good connection before breakfast,” I said. “Maybe they’re going out for a hike afterward. Maybe this was her only quiet moment of the day.”
Our own kids were device free and maybe that had been a mistake. Maybe I would have been more relaxed if they were more fully occupied without my attention at the table.
That said, I have two lasting memories of eating out with my youngest son when he was a boy: There was the morning I had tea and he had waffles at the restaurant attached to the Butterfly Museum (because we had mistakenly arrived before it opened), and there was the first time he tried sushi and to my surprise loved it.
I remember being in Japan for work and dining at a traditional restaurant where no one spoke any English and I was served a breakfast on a tray with a dozen ceramic dishes of mostly unrecognizable foods without any directions on how to use or not use the accompanying condiments.
I took cues from the small children at the table across from mine, thinking it more acceptable to stare at them then at a table with only adults.
They ate, like everyone else in the restaurant, almost silently, without a fuss, tasting everything on the tray, for a meal that lasted as long as a fancy dinner might.
Maybe my husband was right. Maybe that other mom was missing out. Maybe she was on the road and needed a break. Both mothers and sons seemed to enjoy a relaxing meal. I admired them both and was grateful to be eating with grownups.
Though it doesn’t make it hurt any less to look into their dark and vacant rooms, It turns out that they leave home at just the right time.
You’re getting older.
Noises bother you.
Lights. Chaos. Commotion.
You realize you’ve run a marathon and you’re not sure how you did it.
You’re more and more attracted to simplicity, ease, slow.
After 6 weeks apart, a week-long school break has served as the turning point for this half-life we’ve been living since we deposited our youngest (and his most cherished belongings) into a dormitory room on a campus 100 miles away.
Before this half-life becomes any more normalized, I want to attempt to capture what it is to be without children in the home after revolving around their presence for a quarter of a century.
I did not fill the vacancy so that I might truly know the absence and grieve it, and as such, create space for something new to grow.
I did, however, just ahead of his departure and in the weeks in between his visits home (weekend whirlwinds) rearrange some things, including the bathroom, the livingroom, the kitchen, and the mudroom.
It’s only now that I notice that I’ve turned the linen stand and the bookshelf and the kitchen island on the diagonal. (I suppose I would have turned everything upside down if I could.)
In the absence of a primal scream in the middle of a college campus, it helps to have one’s private world reflect how life’s tilt.
The simplicity. The silence. The ease. The futility. The vacancy. The despair
Who am I now?
Where is my grand retirement party?
Is my best work behind me?
And have I become irrelevant to it, like the founder of a fabulous company who is suddenly dismissed by the very board that she created to help it grow?
(Where is my severance package!!)
I know this half-life has reached a turning point because when he was home for the long stay, I felt myself e-x-h-ale as if I’d been holding my breath underwater for weeks.
There was some talk of my oldest returning home in the New Year, but those plans have since altered, as I, through the trial and error of attachment (favorably or unfavorably), continue to learn that the pronouncements of young adults
are always in flux, like the pronouncement my youngest made on his first weekend home:
“I don’t think of our house as home anymore. I feel sad here actually. I miss my dorm room and my friends. That’s my home now.”
Separation is hard work. For each one of us. Made more challenging by strong, healthy relationships. (If only we were happy to be rid of each other!)
None of this comes as a surprise. I’ve been preparing for it since I held my first born son at my breast, and realized in the depth of unfathomable love, with chilling sleepless clarity:
Heartbreak is my destiny.
No wonder men like Trump say they won’t have anything to do with their children. Loving is a fiercely courageous act.
It is only now that I realize how the radical separation between mother and child is also in store for my husband and me.
If not divorce, then death.
No wonder Trump cheats and trades in his wives so that in their youthful reflection he can hide from his own demise.
For the first time in 30+ years, my husband and I began sleeping apart. (There are so many beds!)
Recently, however, we’ve come together again which was the most notable sign that something had shifted in our half-life.
But first, our unusual separation was punctuated by the night that I brought my old blankies and ragged puppy to bed after a banishment that took place out of necessity when I placed a baby beside me in bed.
It appears that before I turn toward my husband again, I am turning toward myself.
Just yesterday in the midst of one mistake after another, I overheard myself say, “You’re so adorable, Kelly. I love you.”
And although Casey was the more reluctant one to sleep apart (to do anything apart really), to my dismay (and deep appreciation), he found in the space between us greater self-love, taking time to tend to his needs in ways he never much heeded before.
As we turn the corner on this half-life, I find myself thinking back to the great disruption that parenting first presented, of how quickly it swept away the sweet sense of ourselves as two, so that when our second child was born, there was the bittersweetness of nothing to lose.
I’ve been catching glimpses of that two-ness lately, we both have, and it’s a quickening that is hard to bear now that the end of life is coming into focus.
And yet, aren’t both our names Celtic for “Warrior,” and haven’t we been courageous in loving, each in our own way, for 30+ years.
There are times when I suspect that we will age to the end, and there are times when I feel the pull of an earlier desire–to be without the weight of home and belongings.
I think that Moms should go too. At least for a time. To rediscover who we were before we gave our lives to others.
“I can’t live in a museum of our family!” I’ve said again and again, to each of them, but if I’m honest, I am speaking to myself.
What I do appreciate in remaining present to this vacancy, is the slowing down, which brings to mind what the poet May Sarton said:
“Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is… an instrument of grace.”
And wasn’t it my child, who brought me to my knees, to see what he was seeing, and aren’t I forever the better for it.
After the truck pulled away with my youngest, I decided to sit on the front porch and soak up the day’s ending, and so I brought out the wool blanket from the couch and wrapped myself in it, and watched as the sky over Neringa Pond colored pink and purple and red.
After a while, I felt a chill descend, one whose icy fingertips I hadn’t felt since spring, and so I jumped up and ran back inside for the scissors and slipped on my garden clogs and dashed out the back door where the last of the light over the mountain lit up the stone wall, as the moon rose high above it, and I remembered: Full moons bring frosts.
I was in search of that last gladiola, the one that I had noticed earlier in the week when I’d been out soaking in the tub. I had long thought them finished for the season but I noticed then a new promising braid had appeared on the stalk. And wasn’t it now in bloom, and didn’t I find two more, and take all three which I would never think to do back in August or July.
As I turned to walk back down the stone path to the house, I stopped to admire the tall, cheerful faces of the zinnias–rosy and orange and red, and I cut some of those too, and then some quiet periwinkle-colored cornflowers bending shyly in the back (leaving the soft pink ones), and nearby in the shady spot some velvety silver plants, along with some painted daisies from a pot, and something else I don’t know the name of, because it was my oldest son, this past spring, who dug these flower beds when he was home for Mother’s Day, and filled them with manure and seeds and bulbs, returning again on Father’s day and for a week in July, planting more, while I complained about the extra weeding and watering (not to mention the debris) that he left behind in his wake.
“I worry about my gardens when I’m not there,” he told me on the phone from Burlington where he is finishing his degree. “You can’t imagine how that feels.”
“I think I can,” I said without mentioning his months in Central America or Morroco, Bulgaria and Spain.
And maybe he made these gardens off his mother’s office door beside the fox den because he could. Or maybe he made them because she is too practical for flowers. Or maybe he even imagined her pleasure when she’d look up from her writing, or when she’d pass the beds on her way to and from the outdoor shower. And maybe he didn’t know what a comfort these late blooms would be when all her children were gone, or maybe he intuited the exponential ending this summer brings.
Back when he was just a boy standing barefoot beside me in the midwife’s office, I turned to see his face, and I said: “Don’t worry Lloyd, you’ll never have to feel any of this.”
Mary was removing the stitches from the tearing at the baby’s birth that Lloyd, just two weeks shy of his 5th birthday, had attended with his father in the tiny bathroom of the farmhouse that we rented for 7 years when we first moved to Vermont.
His response was touching and rebuking and still unnerves and informs me almost two decades later as he wrapped his little arms around his belly:
“I felt it inside.”
Lloyd was home again a few weeks back for his father’s birthday–the three of their birthdays arrive in a row with barely more than a month between the first and the last, and not much left in me by the time that last one rolls around–on the anniversary of my mother’s passing just after the baby was born and the stitching removed one by one.
In between visits, he calls, especially when my texts and messages and photos and links have stockpiled in his inboxes.
“Were you writing about me?” he asked last week, referring to the piece I’d posted about a break-up.
“Don’t be silly,” I said. “You broke up with me when you were like 12, announcing that you’d never cuddle with me again, but reminding me that I still had your little brother.”
By the time I arrived at the back door and freed a hand to let myself in, I looked down to see my arms filled with flowers, and once inside, I picked up my phone without setting them down, to capture them in their gathered state before arranging them in a vase.
And that’s when I remembered the vegetables, and I ran out the front door to cover them in the dark, harvesting what I could see of the ripe cukes and tomatoes, unable to locate what remained of the basil.
Once back inside, I set to arranging the flowers but instead of tidily dividing them among the rooms of the house to make the most efficient use of joy, I stuffed them all into the largest vase and placed it at the center of our home, on the large round kitchen table, which we never quite filled as a family of four except when we had company, and where my mother’s tarot cards sat waiting, having completed my son’s Autumnal Equinox reading just before he left to go back to school and now awaiting my own.
Just then a familiar sound piqued my attention; a sound I hadn’t heard since summer somewhere in between the boys’ August birthdays—and this is how the first day of autumn ended…
An empty house, a bright bouquet, the call of the fox (which may have just been the sound of the aging dishwasher, completing its cycle.)
There’s a battle raging in my belly, but what is the fight really for? I expect few in the battle know.
I once fought for a lover, offered to wear a string bikini & buy him a motorcycle.
But was it really him I wanted? (I’m so lucky I lost that fight.)
Neither do I want my children to never age, to never leave home.
I woke at 3 this morning, 4 am yesterday. I was there when the morning took its first breath and when that breath swept across the land with the rising sun, and I saw it greet the setting moon in the pink sky over the pond.
Though it’s been painful and violent and sweeping, maybe there isn’t a battle inside. Maybe this is what comes from laying a mantle down.
Before my decades as Mother, I cared for classrooms of students (who are parents now themselves), and before students, it was my eight younger siblings and an entire generation of younger cousins.
“Kelly Ann, you’re the oldest, you must set a good example.”
They began to potty-train me before I could walk.
I wore black last Saturday when we moved our chubby-cheeked sky-eyed baby into a dormitory room 100 miles away.
Before leaving home, I hung a black fleece blanket on the line thinking: How fitting.
“We don’t have a family anymore,” I cried to my husband when we returned home to nothing but ourselves.
I refused consolation.
Like the fabric draped over mirrors, this grief, this agony is an honoring of a great passing. A necessary or at least certain tearing of the fabric.
“Let it rip,” my mind says.
“How dare you!” replies my heart. “Would you say the same of your life’s work, or your country or your self? What do you know of carrying a life inside! Of sustaining it at your breast!”
But the ripping has been there since the beginning. The cells dividing. The infant forced from the womb. The first day back to work. The first day of preschool. The first crush. The first death of a pet.
I lay on the couch, holding my belly in agony. I haven’t been able to hold down food since the day I wore black, and a hardly ate in the days leading up to that.
But I’ve figured out what it is about that line from that parenting song by Tom Rush where the son is leaving. It’s bothered me ever since my boys were young, back when this family of four was a forever feeling…
“Goodbye momma goodbye to you too pa
Little sister you’ll have to wait a while to come along
Goodbye to this house and all its memories
We just got too old to say we’re wrong
Got to make one last trip to my bedroom
Guess I’ll have to leave some stuff behind
It’s funny how the same old crooked pictures
Just don’t seem the same to me tonight
There ain’t no use in shedding lonely tears mamma
There ain’t no use in shouting at me pa
I can’t live no longer with your fears mamma
I love you but that hasn’t helped at all
Each of us must do the things that matter
All of us must see what we can see
It was long ago you must remember
You were once as young and scared as me
I don’t know how hard it is yet mamma
When you realize you’re growing old
I know how hard is not to be younger
I know you’ve tried to keep me from the cold
Thanks for all you done it may sound hollow
Thank you for the good times that we’ve known
But I must find my own road now to follow
You will all be welcome in my home
Got my suitcase I must go now
I don’t mind about the things you said
I’m sorry Mom I don’t know where I’m going
Remember little sister look ahead
Tomorrow I’ll be in some other sunrise
Maybe I’ll have someone at my side
Mamma give your love back to your husband
Father you’ve have taught we well goodbye
Goodbye Mamma goodbye to you too pa”
Give your love back to your husband!
WHY IS IT only the mother who is assigned another object of desire as if a woman is never a subject in and of herself. Either a Miss or a Mrs. Never an “I.”
Yes, I may have food poisoning or even a parasite. I’ve seen the doctor. And I’ve missed everything I’d imagined pouring into last weekend and into this week–from the Boozy Brunch to the Romantic dinner to the hours of uninterrupted focus to swimming with the moon and communing with friends beside the pond.
But have I really “missed” it?
Is that what I wanted?
Is that what was needed?
Aren’t I like Demeter, separated from her child, in a period of necessary darkness.
Isn’t it true what May Sarton had to say, that without darkness, nothing comes to birth, as without light, nothing flowers.
And isn’t this separation like a flower on a garland lifting up all the other flowers—all the previous incarnations of seed & bloom & leaving—like summer is getting ready to do. Summers past and lovers past and even my own siblings taken from the home we shared and kept apart from one another except for formal, supervised visits in a cold and unwelcoming place. And then the earliest flower of all, Lila, when 4 years and two-thousand miles separated me from the place and the person to whom I most belonged until death made that a fools dream.
Last night as I lay on the couch bemoaning the heat and a diet restricted to broth, a breeze blew through the window above my head and lifted the gauzy ivory curtain across my face, like the caress of a lover, like the first breath of the morning across the land, like a mother soothing a feverish child, like a covering draped over the head of the dead.
My life has held so much loss.
So much love.
To the refugees separated from their children, to my friends posting photos of the first day of preschool or a college drop off on the other side of the country… The flower of my heart is connected to yours.
On that first morning waking without a family, I looked out the window and saw that all the Gladiolas at the back of the garden had bloomed bright white.