The Christmas tree is down, the menorah put away until next year. Children are back in school, homework and after-school routines re-established. I remember that feeling of a restoration of order with fondness.
For many of us with college-age or older kids, though, a certain melancholy has settled in, alongside the renewed calm. Just days ago, the clutter of extra sneakers, piled-up laundry and dirty dishes filled what are now empty, albeit cleaner, spaces. What will fill the spaces now?
I used to wonder as I watched older siblings’ and friends’ children move out and on, if one truly qualified as an empty nester if kids were simply away at college or grad school. Or did offspring have to be officially launched as independent young adults to qualify? Now I understand it’s a distinction without a difference. The clean bedrooms, neatly folded throw blankets and a linen closet full of unused towels tell me that our nest is indeed empty.
In some ways, this new reality feels like a throwback.
Instead of planning dinner and tracking down who will be home when, popcorn has sufficed some evenings, like it once did in college, though now it’s washed down with a better-quality wine.
There’s also a little bit of a feeling of being able to devote myself more fully to work and other pursuits, as I could before the many-years-long scramble to complete the after-school-sports, grocery-store-run and need-a-ride-somewhere gauntlet.
Negotiations over who gets the big TV for the evening are over. Two cars are plenty for us two remaining adults, no one’s left stranded (that is, I am not left stranded). The fridge door isn’t being left open at 1 a.m. There are no slammed doors reverberating at 2 a.m.
I’m told there are multiple ways to approach this new era. A friend of my daughter recently noted her family plans to sell their home, and split their time between a ski house and a summer place.
By contrast, our nest is literally under construction, to the amusement of many walkers-by. “Aren’t you supposed to be downsizing?” they ask. We’re adding space we’ve long wanted but also adding square feet and privacy with the hope it will lure the kids and their future families home for long visits someday. Is there a comparison to the hummingbird feeders I hopefully fill with sugar water every day in season? Sure. But my editors likely will not let me include such a tortured metaphor. (Thanks, I think, if you do!)
I keep a snapshot of my husband and me framed at my bedside. In the photo, we are in the full bloom of courtship, and if I could caption it, it would say, “Once upon a time, we were young and full of dreams.” I would add today, as the afternoon shadows grow alongside the not-yet-familiar silence, “Now we are older, but we are still full of dreams.” How those dreams will be realized and how they will fill our empty spaces remains under construction.
Virginia Buckingham is a member of the board of directors and a weekly columnist for the Marblehead Current.
A member of the Marblehead Current’s Board of Directors, Virginia Buckingham is the former chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Port Authority, chief of staff to two Massachusetts governors, deputy editorial page editor for the Boston Herald and author of “On My Watch: A Memoir.”