Empty Nesting


A humorous caricature

I found this buried in My Documents. It’s a good ten years old, so although I wish I could expand on the emotions of the empty nest syndrome, they have faded. Dig between the lines, if you wish.

Empty Nesting: The conversation

“Hi, Angie,” Melissa said brightly. Eagerly. SMC was four hours away by car. The college was in another time zone, for heaven’s sake. It might as well have been in one of Mars’ canals. And her daughter was there. Oh. get a grip. She dug the phone into her ear and toned down the voice. “So, how’s it going?”

“Fine,” Angie said, sounding almost as far away as she was. A couple of days and a zillion miles did not change the habits of a teen. Getting details out of the girl was like digging flower bulbs out of the garden, not even in the first phone call after moving out of one’s childhood home. Unless one knew exactly where to look, lacking squirrel DNA, the bulbs would never be unearthed. In Angie’s case, one had to speak up. Then one may receive. Something.

Melissa asked, “What classes did you have?”

“Math. You’ll never believe what I did.” Angie didn’t pause. “I got to the room by eight. Class doesn’t start till nine. So I went back to the dorm and did some laundry.”

That was good for a giggle, but Melissa made sure it wasn’t heard in South Bend. Her goal was connection, not disaffection.

“Then I went back. Ten minutes early. But Ellen was there. She can’t be in my class–she’s a senior. The teacher was writing a room number and name on the board. I figured my class must have been switched somewhere. So I went and found the room. It was the teacher’s office. So I went back. I was late.”

“Chalk it up to being a freshman.” Melissa patted Heidi, Angie’s suffering, left-behind pet, ensconced on her lap. Heidi was desperate for attention while Angie was... Overeager. The girl hated the thought of going to SMC. She wanted to go to Bryn Mawr or Vassar. But she was so eager, she was an hour early for her first class. That was promising.

“Ellen is in your class?”

“Mom, she’s a senior!”

There was something monumental there, but it escaped Melissa. “So? At least you know someone in your class. You two can get together when you don’t understand something.”

“Yeah, right.” Angie sounded thrilled at the thought of studying with her sister’s roommate.

“What else did you do?”

“I went to Religious Studies. The teacher—”

“Professor. When you get to college, they aren’t teachers anymore.”

Angie breezed on. “She’s weird. She said straight out that she didn’t care if we even go to class. If we write the essays and take the tests, that’s all we have to do. But she did say we would do better if we go to class.”

“Don’t sluff off too much.”

“Mom.” Melissa sighed. Leaving home, starting college, the girl still acted as if Melissa was the most boring, interfering, predictable mother in the world. How much was she paying yearly for this attitude?

Until eight days ago, if Angie wouldn’t tell her mother anything else, she would reveal what she had put in her mouth, chewed, and swallowed. Melissa’s next question was, “What did you have for dinner?” Angie held true to form.

“I went to the International station. They had General Tso chicken. But it wasn’t as good.”

“That’s because we get ours from a Chinese restaurant with a Chinese cook managed by a Chinese immigrant.” There was a long pause. Melissa knew, with the instinctive mind-meld of a mother, that she had done it again. She had turned off the sputtering spigot that was Angie’s conversation.

“Well, I gotta go. I have to study Spanish. The teacher doesn’t talk in English in class. It’s all Spanish.”

“Do you understand her?”

“Mostly. I’ll talk to you later, Mom. Bye.”

“Love you.” Angie hung up. Belatedly, Melissa closed her eyes and leaned her head against the phone, as if getting an iota closer to the dial tone would put her daughter in the room. Then, a motherly frown might make an impression. It didn’t work. She swung around to put the phone in the cradle. That disturbed Heidi. She jumped down with an irritated “meow,” and stalked off to sulk on a windowsill.

Empty Nesting: Conversational pit

Melissa sat in the chair, growing mold. Let dust bunnies hop down the hall and spiders weave new panels in the curtains; it didn’t matter. Tom wouldn’t be home until late. She was alone. It was Melissa, an abandoned mother, and three cats against a cold, cruel world.

The first tear leaked out. It was the Pied Piper of tears. A whole village of the snotty things ran down her cheeks, following that first tear. There wasn’t anyone around to be upset by them. Only her. Alone.

Melissa knew quite well it was Empty Nest Syndrome.

The empty nest. She had been joking about it for three months. Before that, the concept was sufficiently distant that she hadn’t thought about it. Hadn’t considered it seriously. Over the summer, through the graduation parties that Angie’s clique scheduled bi-weekly, Melissa sat with parents at picnic tables and in lawn chairs and exchanged thoughts about the coming year, studiously avoiding thoughts of the empty nest.

Their daughters were going to college. Most of the mothers had younger children at home. By a quirk of fate, Melissa was the only parent who had already experienced the phenomenon of planting a child in college. Everyone wanted to know what it was like, sending your firstborn out into the world.

She was on a practicality kick. It was much easier to be factual than to impart advice on how to lose one’s child without sacrificing dignity. Melissa, who cried every time she parted from her older daughter, wasn’t sure she qualified as an expert. “Be prepared to find the hardware store,” she told avid listening moms. “Meijer’s will be out of those hooks the kids use. You have to find a hardware store away from campus and hope it hasn’t been raided by the hordes.” Hordes as in every freshman attending that school, every upper classman who forgot something from home, and every frenzied parent seeking to satisfy one of those picky, demanding kids.

“What hooks?”

“The plastic ones that come down easily.” She was a font of wisdom. “And don’t use double-sided tape. The schools will fine you at the end of the year if it doesn’t come off.” Moms nodded, mentally filing this indispensable advice in their minds after knowledge of what size sheets the typical dorm room bed required. Sheets that protected their baby’s body from the horrors of an unknown mattress were more important than distant, hypothetical fines.

Beyond empirical, these parents were scared. Scared that their child wouldn’t successfully assimilate into college life and scared that they themselves wouldn’t adjust to life without that child. But most of them weren’t scared of an empty nest. They had other babies cluttering the space.

Karen was the worst of the lot. Her daughter, Tina, was one of Angie’s best friends. Tina was an only child. They took Angie to the Caribbean on vacation. To their cottage. To the concert in Chicago. Both parents were lawyers. They had money, but they only had the one child. After they practiced on Tina, they wouldn’t have a second chance to get it right. Karen had to do it right the first time.

Money didn’t make her less apprehensive of the future. She was frightened of the whole process, especially the empty nest syndrome. Strong, self-assured Karen was scared stiff.

“You’ll talk on the phone,” Melissa pointed out. Karen gave her that look, the one that said she was a nutcase.

She made another stab at it. “Remember how free you felt when Tina started kindergarten?” Karen looked blank. “Did you send her to camp? Day camp?”

Karen was in a bad place. Melissa carefully neglected to tell her that Sherry, her older daughter, called nightly for months her first year in college. Not that Sherry cried, or seemed to miss her that much. But she called nightly. Would Tina call? Would Angie? Who knew. It was a crap shoot. They might disappear into the pit and never communicate again.

Melissa didn’t think it was significant that Sherry had called nightly her freshman year. She just did. Melissa had loved it. Who knew how often she would hear from Angie?

Did raising them right make surrendering a child easier? She’d done her best. Melissa didn’t beat her kids. Neither had a drop of sugar until their first birthday cake and after that, a sip of Mom’s Coke was a rare treat. They weren’t flooded with expensive, non-educational toys except at Christmas. They were given as much freedom and responsibility as they could handle. If it didn’t put them in the emergency room or the back seat of a police car, Melissa kept her mouth shut. She never (well, seldom) insisted that they check in with her.

With a sigh, she concluded that raising her daughters well wasn’t worth the reward of an empty nest. It was so quiet she could hear the clock tick in the other room. Cats are lousy conversationalists.

Empty Nesting: Face it or forget it

“God, I don’t know if I am going to survive the empty nest,” Melissa told Heidi, reaching for the Kleenex.

It was a conspiracy, maybe Communist, more likely Democratic or Republican. Melissa couldn’t think of any other possible reason that they were in the midst of a big project at work right when she had to face an empty nest. Every computer was to be updated from Windows 2000 to XP. It was a ton of work, so Tom didn’t get home until sometime after she fell asleep. He was gone when she woke the next morning. Because he had put in for the vacation well before the project was scheduled, they let him take a week to move the girls to school. That was last week.

Now he was back to work. He would put in long, long hours until all the computers were upgraded. A couple of weeks, minimum. It happened. Melissa had become accustomed to Tom being AWOL, but now it was different. She didn’t have the girls to wrap her love around. She was alone.

Cats don’t count.

When one was alone in a house, the atmosphere changed. Silence could be restful or unsettling. The echo of the empty nest plopped down on the couch and  rubbed grimy feet on the needlepoint pillows. Turning on the radio or TV for the sound of another being didn’t kick it out the door. Rather than soothing, it gave one a headache. They didn’t interact, those remote people of the national media. They talked and one listened, which did nothing to ease an empty nest. A person (AKA Melissa) had two choices. Stay home and face the emptiness or go out and seek interaction.

She could go to a restaurant and engage the waitress in conversation. Melissa overheard that once. Out running errands, she stopped at the local diner. Older and alone, the woman in the next booth tried every trick under the sun to keep the waitress at her table, talking.

 “How do they cook the salmon,” she wanted to know. “Are the ingredients fresh?” “Have you tried the bakery on Harper?” “Where do you get the vegetables?” “I’ve never heard of that meat market. Where is it?” Don’t be fooled that the quote marks are jammed together, dear reader. Each of those sentences is a separate paragraph; question followed by shorter and shorter wait staff response. They are crammed as tightly as the woman voiced them. She hardly took a breath between questions, she was so desperate to chat with that waitress. Had her child been swallowed by the college beast?

The waitress escaped to serve another table, but eventually, she ended up back in front of the woman.

Who had exhausted sandwiches, salads, and soups. She moved on to dessert. “What is in the yellow cake?” “Who bakes them?” “Does anyone prefer the yellow to chocolate?” Poor waitress. She put up with a few questions and then begged to do her job.

Give her a few minutes, and then the woman wanted another cup of tea. “How do you like working here,” she asked the waitress.

Right. Melissa should go out into the world and nag a waitress to death.

Friends. Talk to friends.

Amen. Have zillions of friends – at least 365. That is one a day. One friend to lose each day using them to dodge the emptiness of a nest.

No. Face your fear and conquer it, you twit. Her daughters would be home for Thanksgiving, only 89 days away. Melissa could manage 89 days. Somehow.

Empty Nesting: Heaven on top, Hell below, Chaos in between

The house was quiet. Way too quiet. Melissa had a psychedelic flashback, like a strung-out junkie on LSD. Not that she ever used it, but she remembered the posters and could hum along with In-a-Godda-da-Vida.

“What color do you want your room, Mom?” Angie asked a scant five days before they left for South Bend, where she would become that miracle of miracles, a college freshman.

Melissa eyeballed her. “Are you planning to paint my bedroom?”

“I want something to do.” No way was Melissa going to decode the psychology of that.

Without thinking, she protested, “I’d rather you painted the inside of the kitchen cupboards.” It was a token protest. Unwillingly, Melissa had already decoded the psychology. Painting wasn’t the way to alleviate jitters about moving away from home. Find something useful to do, kid. Try cleaning the bathroom. Then she forgot about it. The computer she was fighting had multiple viruses. Every time she tried to save the client’s data, the system crashed. It demanded concentration.

Three hours later, she surfaced from Windows and Office disks to find dishes covering every counter in the kitchen. Silverware and cooking utensils were on top of the dishwasher. The overflow snaked across the floor and slithered onto a card table in the living room.

The kitchen cupboards were empty. No, they weren’t empty. Angie was inside one. Her bare feet wriggled.

“God help me,” Melissa groaned, albeit silently. Her idle words had come to haunt her. The girl was painting the inside of the kitchen cupboards. It was a project Melissa had itched to complete, but not now. And not all at once. Her idea was to empty one cupboard, stacking the contents neatly out of the way. Clean shelves. Paint. Allow paint to dry and cure. Replace the contents. Finish that cupboard and then begin the next. Perhaps it became a drawn-out process, less efficient and a bother, but then again, the kitchen remained usable. The house was disaster-proof. There was no chaos.

There must be a God because God does have a plan. It is proven by the natural timing of life. Tolerance for chaos is within the province of the young. That is why women have babies in their twenties. Tripping over Barbie dolls and discarded backpacks doesn’t break a young woman’s hip. Hearing is acute enough to overhear the whispered plans to steal cookies, kiss the cute boy in English, and meet at the illegal drinking party. By the time the sensibly aged woman hits menopause, the kids are grown and gone. Chaos is a done deal. Gone. Over with. God planned it that way, knowing that his nasty joke, menopause, didn’t allow for great upheaval and children are the ultimate.

Modern life flies in the face of God’s plan, allowing women to have children after age thirty and even into their forties. It is doing them no great favor. Not that they are old when they have teens in their fifties, but they are too old for teens. Here Melissa was, at the big five-0, well into menopause and trying to deal with two teenaged girls packing to move the majority of their belongings out of her house.

Melissa's tolerance for chaos was nil. Clutter made her cringe. Blaring Alice in Chains was an instant headache. Unnecessary activity around the house made her want to cry.

The gravy boat was on the mantel.

Empty Nesting: Flip Heaven and Hell

“The paint will have to cure for seven days before you can put things away,” Angie said. “I kept the top of the stove clear so you can cook.”

"You did a nice job. Thank you," Melissa muttered weakly.

She looked around. Dear God, save me. The inside of the cabinets gleamed pure white with paint formulated specifically for shelving. Plates would not stick, pots would not scrape. In return for its desirable qualities, one had to wait for the paint to cure. A full week, minimum. Wait while every countertop was junked up like an unprofitable antique shop. There was no room to cook except the stovetop. Nowhere to stack dirty dishes other than inside the portable dishwasher, where, admittedly, they belonged. The dishwasher was piled high. How was she to drag it in front of the sink to run it? How was she to cook anything to have dirty dishes to put in the dishwasher?

The living room had a pile of pots and pans along the wall. The boxes from under the sink that housed towels, washcloths, and cleaning supplies blocked the closet. The rickety card table held her good china. Of course, the table was smack dab over the worn spot in the carpet where every foot stepped.

Not now. Please, not now.

In three days, Sherry’s things would start piling up in the living room. Three tubbies, a humongous rolling duffle bag, and assorted stuff would jostle Melissa’s good dishes for space. Angie’s belongings would want to join Sherry’s. Good Lord, the girl had four tubbies – it was anyone’s guess how much more – and that stuff would be in the living room. Two girls going to college equaled two cars crammed to the roof with junk that first held a lengthy pow-wow in the living room.

Can’t call it junk. Not with the dent in the credit card from buying it all. But it swallowed space just like the junk that accumulates in a garage. Inconveniently, in the way, right where you don't want it. It would all be cheek to cheek with Melissa's good dishes, all except the gravy boat, moored on the mantel.

Melissa girded her loins. Men gird loins, one might say. Too bad. She could too. “The computer is done,” she declared. “Sherry, if you will get it into the car, I can take it back.” And with the money Tim pays me for saving his polling data from viruses, maybe I can go to the bar.

At that moment, she couldn’t wait for the girls to leave for school. But it was only a psychedelic flashback.

Did she really want them gone at that moment? Melissa couldn’t remember. It had been at least seven days since that instant of insanity. Seven days of chaos. The essential belongings of two human beings huddled protectively around the card table in the living room and on the appropriate day, was stuffed into two cars. Those two cars caravanned on I-94 and M-60, arriving on schedule in South Bend. The next day, they were emptied and the junk was crammed into dorm rooms.

Melissa and Tom escaped in one car, leaving the second to be driven home by two college students coming home for Thanksgiving. After that, they would be wheel-less, forced to rely on feet and friends for transportation around campus and South Bend.

She couldn’t wait for Thanksgiving to happen. Yes, she wanted the car back, but she wanted the living breathing things in it more. Any woman who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s appreciated psychedelia.

Empty Nesting: From Here to Senility

The first week of freedom from offspring was hard. The house was silent. The phone didn’t ring often enough. With the kitchen a volcanic disaster overflowing into other rooms, Melissa’s vaunted promise to get the house clean and enjoy it staying clean was as good as a politician’s vow to save money.

The kitchen lacked granite countertops; it had no ingenious storage solutions. Only plywood cabinets. But they were solid, they did the job. At least once the paint cured and Melissa put everything back, they would do the job.

Angie had taken the cupboard doors off so she had better access to paint the inside. Melissa might as well paint the outside of the kitchen cupboards. All she had to do was scrub grease, sand down splotches, and paint.

Why didn’t someone remind her that the previous owner used rubber for paint? It didn’t sand, it gummed. She got out the razor blade knife and shaved the old paint off the end of the cabinet where she had sanded. Then she used the razor and leveled the worst of the dirt bumps that had been painted over. That included the preserved spider near the ceiling. God trapped insects in amber to be admired, so perfectly outlined insect legs may be artistic. If so, Melissa had the soul of a clod.

She didn’t turn on the radio. She let the silence fill her. When she was silent too long, she talked to the cats. At least she chatted with two of the three. Heidi, Angie’s cat, sat around looking morbid. Since her normal facial pattern was mournful, Melissa tucked the razor blade away. Angie would kill her if the cat committed hari kari on it.

Melissa sympathized with Heidi’s agony. “I know, loneliness is purgatory. You miss Angie. She went to school, same as Sherry. She will be back. I promise. You, in turn, must promise to continue eating. Just don’t throw up on the oriental rug again.” The cat wandered to Angie’s room to nap on the unmade bed.

To Tigerlily, Melissa was less understanding. “Off the stove, brat.” She was Melissa’s cat and unless she was totally demented, Tigerlily was gloating that she hadn’t lost her owner. Heidi hissed at Tigerlily for no reason. Melissa tried a hiss of her own. Tigerlily jumped off the sink and lay in the middle of the floor.

She took a break from cupboards and descended to the basement. When the light switched on, a raucous meow told her intuition had not led her wrong. Sibbie was hiding again.

“Where are you, sweet Sibbie? Come upstairs and get some love.” Sherry’s baby, their gentle, loving white cat, meowed again. Long, drawn out, rising at the end. How did the cat learn to whine? Melissa ended up cross-legged on the old bathroom rug in front of the washing machine, petting Sibbie.

“It’s okay,” she said to the cat in her most soothing voice. “Sherry went back to school. But this is her last year. Starting next summer, you are going to be with her all the time. Won’t that be nice?”

Sibbie purred, rolling over so Melissa could pet her stomach. The long-time parent and cat owner wasn’t fooled. The poor thing was sad. Her mama, Sherry, was gone again and Sibbie knew it was going to be a long dry haul without her.

“You need to give Heidi sympathy,” Melissa said, her fingers busy in Sibbie’s thick, soft coat. “Angie went to school too. You’re all stuck with me and me alone.” She kept up the patter, giving Sibbie all the love for nearly half an hour.

She was going stir crazy. The silence got so bad, she plugged in a radio and let Rush Limbaugh give her a headache. Sean Hannity wasn’t much better and Mitch Album was excited about some sports thing. Melissa turned the radio off and listened to silence again, interspersed with Sibbie’s whine, Heidi’s hiss, and Tigerlily’s smug mmrphs.

She cooked a lonely hamburger on the stove for dinner. The chaos of the kitchen precluded anything more complicated. Tom didn’t call, Sherry didn’t call. Neither did Angie. The only one with an excuse was Tom. It took time to put XP on all those work computers.

God save her, the only conversation Melissa had all week was with a cat. And the TV.  She answered questions on Jeopardy, told the people on Antiques Roadshow to pass their valuable antiques on to her, and tried to solve the mystery before House showed off the brilliance of the show’s writers.

There wasn’t anyone around. Empty nests were for birds.

Eighty-nine days later, when the girls came home for Thanksgiving, Melissa rolled her eyes at the chaos. Her clean house was overrun with junk. The kitchen, painted cabinets and all, was a beehive of activity. Cats jumped on any available lap at any possible moment.

Silence, blessed silence, please.