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.
There are so many things important to me when choosing a candidate.
Character is key as are issues related to those most marginalized in society.
Years ago I remember overhearing my son explain to house guests why I couldn’t accompany them on a day trip.
I was on a grassroots organizing call around health care with President Obama. My youngest thought it was just the two of us on the call: Mom and the President of the United States of America. My older son had a better understanding.
“You don’t have health care!” our guests said, concerned.
“We have it,” my older son said, “But Mom wants everyone to have it.”
Gun Sense is another one of those issues that deeply affects the marginalized in society, whether it’s people of color, women (50 a month killed by intimate partners) or most painfully–children–killed–at schools and in homes–by their peers–when guns aren’t properly stored.
As an adult I feel morally responsible to take action with regard to these deaths. Voting is one way I do that.
Vote on November 6. (Or vote early.)
I feel a chill come over me each time a man and especially a woman dares to say:
“Aren’t you worried about some girl ruining your son’s life?”
After the chill, I feel grief.
After the grief, anger.
After the anger, despair.
My mind flashes on RAINN’s statistic:
“Every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. And every 8 minutes, that victim is a child.”
Do my friends mean to suggest that my job as a mother is to turn away from girls who have for centuries been sexually assaulted in fear of some hypothetical accusation against my son in the future? (A statistically negligible one at that.)
What also chills me is this other well-meaning admonition:
“Teach your sons not to rape.”
I’ve got to say… I’ve raised two boys and I’ve skipped that one.
The idea that I would have to “teach” my boys not to assault another human being just because that being is female is appalling.
This is a close second to:
“Teach your sons to respect women.”
“Respect women,” is something I’ve never said to my boys, but you can be sure it was everywhere implied. Because women. Are human beings.
It’s the little things.
My boys were raised in a home that practices boundaries and respect, kindness and consideration, anger and connection.
As they came of age, we let them know that their relationship with me had to change in some ways. Though I would always be their mother, I was also a woman, and they were becoming men. Given the difference of size and strength between us and given the history of what it is to be female in a society that perpetuates inequity, my boys would have to be even more mindful of any physical expressions of frustration, anger and persistence in my proximity.
We practiced this. I reminded them. Over time I shared some of the experiences of what it was to grow up female so that they might be more aware and sensitive to the adult gender dynamic between us and between them and women in the world even perhaps if they were innocent of any harm.
All along, since they were very small, we practiced responding to and respecting: No.
If they said, “No,” to tickling, we stopped, no matter how much fun we’d been having.
If they said, “No,” to more kisses or hugs, or to kissing or hugging a friend or relative, we allowed for that.
If they said, “No,” to an experience that made them uncomfortable, we listened, even when it was awkward, say with a doctor or other authority figure.
Violence was neither a form of discipline or a form of entertainment welcomed in our home.
Killing was not a game celebrated.
Degradation was not a source of enjoyment.
Trash talk was a chore.
The older of our two boys was not permitted to physically intimidate or violate the boundaries of the younger brother; and the younger, in turn, learned to reciprocate.
If the day comes that “some woman” accuses one of my beloved boys of rape, I will be horrified, not because my boys were always “good boys” or “played sports” or “studied hard” or “worked their tails off” (all of which they do) and not because “I taught them better,” but because to violate another in this way is one of the most trauma-inducing acts of violence known.
According to the New England Journal of Medicine: “Rape is about four times more likely to result in diagnosable PTSD than combat.” (The Guardian)
The odds, however, for “ruined lives” have long worked in favor of my sons. Not because they have been raised in a responsive and disciplined home without violence. Not because we engaged in a consciousness practice that allowed us to feel and express emotions, including anger, as well as monitor and modulate those emotions. But far and beyond because my children had the good fortune to be born male (not to mention white, educated and middle class.)
Perpetrators of sexual violence are less likely to go to jail or prison than other criminals. “Only 6 out of every 1,000 do.” (RAINN)
I love my sons with all my heart and respect the men they have become, but it is the humanity of your daughters that most concerns me and which I endeavor, along with my sons, to project.
We, my friends, are a family of feminists, which is to say, we aspire to uphold the human rights of all, particularly those whose basic dignity has been threatened for so long.
My sons and husband join me each year as NGO representative at the annual United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) with a shoutout to the revolutionary work of MenCare.)
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.)