This year, more American parents will find themselves alone than ever before. Karen Stabiner has done a great deal of research on this new demographic: the empty nesters. In her new collection of essays, “The Empty Nest: 31 Parents Tell the Truth About Relationships Love and Freedom After the Kids Fly the Coop,” well-known authors, such as Anna Quindlen, Ellen Goodman and Susan Shreve, as well as less familar ones write about their experiences. Read an excerpt:
Proof of Love
An old hard-shell suitcase is like a book. It sits open on the bed, symmetrical, cracked along its spine, waiting to see what story it gets to tell this time. A family vacation means shorts and sandals and a big floppy hat that rolls up; a business trip means good wool in a monochromatic palette. Either way, an old suitcase demands planning, and rewards economy of scale. There is no room for extraneous detail; the frame won’t yield. My husband has one that belonged to his father, stiff cream leather with trim two shades darker and brass fittings. We never use it.
A new suitcase is more of a receptacle, with its soft sides, its wheels, and zippers that open to reveal another six inches of space. It allows for indecision and spontaneity—an extra pair of shoes even though red goes with nothing else you brought, the goofy souvenir that will go onto the back shelf with all the other souvenirs. A mother might say that a new suitcase lacks discipline, having spent her share of trips lugging a bulging case that a little girl can no longer manage. A daughter sees it differently. A pouchy case on wheels is all about potential. It’s ready for adventure.
We don’t yet own a suitcase big enough for our next major trip, which will be to take Sarah to college in the fall. I doubt that such a case even exists; how can you pack an entire life into a finite space? I expect that we will have to use more than one: We will stride onto campus together, Sarah in the middle, Larry and me at either flank, pulling her future behind us in thirds, as we walk up to the first room she will live in that is not down the hallway from ours.
She was four when the Northridge earthquake hit, and I was down that hallway and at her bedside before I was fully awake. She giggled as I reached down to grab her and get her away from the windows. “Mommy, I tried to sit up, but the house made my legs fly up in the air!” she said. This is the thing about an impending departure: My mind scrolls back and forth through history, as though I could lock onto a memory and slow things down.
Not a chance. Like any child, Sarah has been leaving in increments since she got here, and she has stayed, briefly, in rooms that were not hers—summer programs and school trips to here and there. But we handled those with easy denial and a single suitcase. Sarah is the granddaughter of one man who sold restaurant equipment and another who sold liquor, so she has the DNA to pack light. One underfed red duffel? She couldn’t be gone long. Besides, there were brackets at either end of those trips, which always took place during spring break, or right before school started. The obligations of young life waited for her. We knew she’d be right back.
When Sarah was a little girl, I was the one who traveled, just once or twice a year, and I had a simple and inviolate rule: I could pack anything as long as the suitcase fit as a carry-on. Homebound delays upset me. Sitting on the plane while we waited for an open gate, standing behind another passenger who wanted to complete her makeup before she walked down the aisle, walking behind what might have been an angelic child if not for the Beauty and the Beast wheelie she kept bumping into the seats, slowing us down—things that wouldn’t have bothered me if I were with Sarah drove me crazy when I wasn’t. I could not spend a half hour watching everyone else’s suitcases revolve around the luggage carousel. I had to be able to get off the plane fast, to trot down the moving sidewalk and head directly for a taxi.
I embraced minimalism. There was always a bulky sweater left behind, always a tough decision in favor of navy or black but never both. My suitcase was light, its top as concave as a starlet’s pelvis. I was coming home from the moment I walked out the door.
Sarah sat on our bed to watch me pack, the first time, silently considering the unfriendly way that time and space conspired to create separation. She tallied every sock and belt, and then she got up and disappeared down the hallway to her own room. Moments later she returned and held out a small stuffed bear to me. She always has a ramrod spine when important matters are on the line, and I could tell from the way she stood that we had entered a realm that had nothing to do with whether I’d packed enough underwear.
“Here,” she said. “You can take her with you.”
In a spasm of responsible parenting, we had bought three identical oatmeal-colored bears with lavender ribbons around their necks, all because someone with credentials had mentioned that it was very bad for little children to lose a favorite stuffed animal. Sarah was fairly tidy about her favorites, though, so we had a surplus of this particular model, which turned out to have an unexpected advantage. We might be separated by an entire country, but we each had an identical bear, and that link was as strong as a steel span between us.
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I took the bear. While a more rational mom might have left it in the suitcase, I believed as devoutly as Sarah did in the magical ability of bears to erase distance, if properly displayed. It sat on my pillow for the duration of the trip.
As she got bigger, the tokens changed: I traveled to New York with a good-sized one-eyed patchwork horse, with a crib blanket that Sarah was proud no longer to need now that she had a big-girl’s bed, with a shredded baby blanket that we had to fold inside a plastic bag lest it shed flannel lint all over my dark suit. On one trip, I took the largest doll Sarah owned, a by now rather blowsy platinum blonde with one sagging eyelid, dressed in a shiny white polyester wedding gown.
In return, I made a book out of colored construction paper each time I went away: “Sarah’s Book about Mommy’s Trip,” “The Story of Sarah and the Magic Heart,” titles like that, illustrated with plump airplanes that smiled, talking horses, and floating hearts. If it seems slightly frantic in retrospect, it seemed as essential as air at the time. We had been a family for such a short time; the way it felt was so new, and as fragile as it was overwhelming. We had to keep love right in front of our eyes at all times. Evidence reassured us.
The insidious thing about Sarah leaving is how subtly the balance tipped—how we endorsed the inevitable without realizing it. We taught her to flee, didn’t we: Her first piece of luggage, the diaper bag, got her not just to the park but to the train station, to the airport, to places no self-respecting baby would ever go unless her parents packed her supplies and took her there. We encouraged her to take a look around, and once she’s gone I will have lots of time to wonder why we didn’t stick to the neighborhood, where we might have successfully raised a kid who never wanted to be more than a zip code away.
By the time she started first grade she had a passport and her own little flowered knapsack, into which she packed the things that mattered to her when we went on a vacation: eight or nine stuffed animals and a pad and colored pencils for drawing. On one trip she listened to Charlotte’s Web while the grown-ups talked, our separation from her punctuated by the occasional random chuckle or sigh from the backseat of the rented car. She might not have had any idea of what to pack to survive on her own, but she had learned that going places was fun, and that she could find ways to entertain herself while the adults droned on about whether we should’ve taken that last left turn and the likelihood that we were lost.
Once she got to middle school, she acquired a series of backpacks of increasing and worrisome heft. A tiny friend who hoisted her pack onto her shoulders but forgot to lean forward to compensate fell right back on top of it, and lay there for a minute, helpless, her arms and legs wriggling like a beetle flipped onto its carapace. The other girls had to grab her arms and help her up—and yet we could not persuade Sarah to leave the history book in her locker until she needed it at the end of the day, or to leave the math book home if she didn’t have math class. Those literally weighty tomes were the keys to the kingdom, though we didn’t comprehend it at the time: Learn all this stuff, fill out a bunch of forms, graduate, and presto, you get to go to college.
In a scramble to manage the growing distance between us, I worked her magic in reverse and gave her things to carry with her that would remind her of home, even though she was no farther away than school. I tucked notes into her flowered bag, I gave her my wallet, I made sure she had a little elastic-bound notebook like mine. I presented one memento after another, as she did when I left town, to make sure that we were together even when we weren’t. I did so with the increasingly bleak awareness that Sarah’s departures were different. For me, the best part of leaving was coming back. We had no guarantee that Sarah’s trajectory would bank into a similar return curve.
One day, on the way home from elementary school, we ran out of conversation before the traffic cleared, so I raised a question that had bedeviled generations of philosophy 101 students, including myself: If a tree falls in the forest, I asked Sarah, does it make a sound?
She looked at me as if I were mad.
Of course it does, she said.
I presented a counter-argument. What if sound requires a witness? If I said I’d bought a blue sweater, it undoubtedly wouldn’t be the same color as if Grandma said she’d bought a blue sweater, so maybe some part of color and sound, some part of what our senses perceived, resided inside us, not in the thing itself.
Now she knew I was nuts. She went on at some length in defense of her position; having mastered all of her senses far more recently than I had, she wasn’t about to abandon her hard-won notion of a universal order.
I’d mentioned the falling tree because Sarah liked puzzles, and I thought we’d dispatch it before we got home—but the conversation continued for years, off and on, with increasingly sophisticated references to sound waves and audio nerves, to tape recorders and surveillance equipment. No matter what the level of discourse, Sarah remained as firm as she had been in the car, that first day: Noise and the elements of the color wheel and lots of other things existed even if nobody was there to see or hear or touch or smell or taste them. Some things, she insisted, just are.
That was a while ago, when the simple fact that I had a driver’s license and she didn’t guaranteed that we would have plenty of time to chat. Now, at the start of her senior year in high school, a disproportionate number of those conversations have as their subject the coming shift in our family landscape. I struggle not to compile a list of what a friend with an older daughter calls “the lasts”—the last time we are guaranteed all holidays together at home, the last year we definitely will celebrate all of our birthdays in person, the last time I will take a first-day-of-school photograph of Sarah posed in the same place she’s stood every year for the past twelve. How will I persuade her to let me take a first-day photograph next year, and where will the new wall be?
I see that the fulcrum of her life was the college tour she went on over spring break in her sophomore year. It was the academic equivalent of speed-dating—a college every three hours!—and in truth, we sent her not so much to find a campus as to let her have ten days of fun with her pals. It worked. Before the ink on the check was dry, we were getting calls like this: “I’m on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Forty-fifth Street. Where’s the restaurant with that cheese and tomato thing?”
The pace picked up dramatically after that. The girl who had never evinced the slightest interest in sleepaway camp—or in spending more than the very rare night at a friend’s, for that matter—came home one afternoon with a brochure for a three-week summer program and didn’t call home as often as any of us had anticipated once she got there. The summer before her senior year, she found a four-week program in a city where she could see friends she’d made the previous year. Temptation was everywhere; suddenly colleges in cities neither Larry nor I had ever visited were sending seductive brochures addressed not to us but directly to our daughter—and she looked at them and started to construct a hierarchy of desire.
And we, the reluctant but dutiful coconspirators, bought her a file cabinet in which she could keep all the brochures and letters and applications, so that she would have an alphabetized plan for her escape at her very fingertips. As much as I didn’t like the idea of losing her for four weeks, I began to look forward to the summer program—as I might look forward to root canal, which would hurt temporarily but would protect me, down the line, from a world of pain. For I had come to understand the subtext of all these small departures: Whatever a program like this offered our children, it offered parents an honorable experiment in being alone. This was a chance to build up calluses so that the real thing wouldn’t hurt so much.
Sarah packed for her month away without any assistance from me; in fact, she preferred that I not offer any opinions unless she asked. But Sarah is not unkind about growing up, so she did allow me to sit on her bed, as she had sat on mine, back in the day. I made a conscious effort not to give her something to put in her suitcase, to rise above magical thinking—and in the end I failed, sort of. I gave her a little leather horse on a key chain, a little horse emblematic of a couple of favorite family trips, but I dignified it by pointing out that she needed a key chain for her room key and the main key to the dorm. This was no mere totem. This was something a young woman could use.
If she saw right through me, she let it go. We got all the way to our destination before she suddenly realized that the one thing she absolutely needed and did not have was a summer-weight cardigan exactly like the one I had happened to pack for myself. I transferred it from my suitcase to hers without complaint. I like to think she took it not just because she was afraid her shoulders might be cold.
A few days before Sarah was supposed to come home, she called to say that her throat hurt, so she was going to sleep for the afternoon, because the next day was full of wonderful events she could not possibly miss. It was a half-and-half call: the little girl who wanted her mom to make the sore throat go away, and the busy young woman who had to get over it fast so that she could get back to her life. We went through the regimen—liquids, rest, compulsive hand-washing—and then we got to the truth.
“I really want to see you and Daddy, and you know I miss you,” she began, “but I wish this could go on for another month.”
There it was: If she had the choice, she would have stayed away a while longer, which did not mean that she no longer cared about us. It took me a moment to find my breath.
“Somebody asked me if you were having a good time,” I said, “and I told her that if you could find a way to stay in the dorm room and start your freshman year in the fall, you’d do it. And that would be okay with Daddy and me.”
I could not believe that I had said such a thing. I could not believe that I meant it, but in fact, I did. This was startling to me. Faced with a truly happy child, my complaints vanished. Faced with a truly happy child, I could not mention such pinched and irremediable concerns as missing her, as wishing that time would stand still, as wanting just for a moment to have a toddler in my arms.
I can’t hang on to it; blithe will not be a word anyone uses to describe me once Sarah goes to college. I will tuck a memento into her freshman suitcase, knowing that it will not bring her back the way we used to count on. I’m sure I’ll call too often, I’ll send an e mail for no good reason, I will find compellingly irrelevant excuses to visit, and sometimes I will be hurt if she’s too busy to talk. I will feel all the things I felt in miniature this past summer: lost, lonely, old, irrelevant; and, yes, capable, rested, focused, and occasionally even well groomed. It was, and it will be, intolerable and appropriate. Painful and a vicarious thrill. Heartbreaking and elating. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” in which case I am in the midst of a very smart season.
People don’t usually quote the next sentence: “One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” We cannot hold Sarah back, and who would want to? Sarah leaving is a work in progress—and leaving really is the wrong word, since it implies an absolute state, either here or gone, and she is not that. She will never be gone, no matter where she is, because feelings, because family, survive circumstance. The tree in the forest resounds without witness—and Sarah is our girl, always. That is our “otherwise”: If I pay attention to it, I might be able to put the sad moments in their place, and to be glad that my happy child wants to stay at the party, whatever that party is, for just a little while longer.
Love like this requires faith. I will have to work hard to remember what Sarah insists is true: Some things, she says, just are.
Excerpted from “The Empty Nest” edited by Karen Stabiner. Copyright 2007 Karen Stabiner. All rights reserved. Published by Voice.
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