Embracing the empty nest

The Thinker by Rodin

The house is now an even quieter place. Since there were only three of us and we are all pretty introverted, we were never a noisy family. If one of us wanted to enjoy multimedia, for example, we would use headphones rather than disturb anyone else. Now, unless there is conversation between my wife and me, the loudest thing that will be heard all day will be plaintive meows from Arthur, the housecat, who doubtless wants a lap or a scritch.

Arthur does not like our daughter’s absence one bit. He mourns his loss in his own peculiar way: by occupying the end of the bed where they spent so much time and gazing incoherently out her window. Our daughter is not wholly gone, of course, just living elsewhere most of the time. She has come home twice since we moved her into a townhouse in Richmond, once for her grandfather’s wedding. We expect her again this weekend and for a couple days it will be like old times again. This means there will be light creeping under our bedroom door all night, and Arthur will knead her pillow with his paws and periodically snuggle up under her chin. But seemingly as soon as she arrives she will be gone again, back to Richmond where, among other things she has befriended an alley cat. She has no memory of life without a cat.

University is turning out to be a bigger and grander adventure than community college. There is something invigorating about any major city, and Richmond qualifies as a major city. She is becoming used to the bums on Broad Street, who for homeless people are generally inoffensive and congenial. She has found a favorite pizza joint that is a good jaunt on the other side of campus. She has found one exasperating course (psychology) and is finding she must do things that her servants (her parents) usually did for her in the past, like her laundry. She must like it down there because we hear little from her. She sends us snippets of email now and then. But when she is home she is expansive with descriptions and feelings of university life. To our relief, this living away from home thing seems to agree with her. And for the most part I don’t worry that something weird and terrible will happen that only I (because of my advanced parenting skills) could solve. I am realizing, hey, I trained her long enough, let her deal with the ambiguity of life for a change!

I am starting to recall, dimly, a married life before there was a child. We only had four years of it, and it seemed packed with events. You cannot quite pick up where you left off twenty years later. Twenty years ago, the only Internet available was on college campuses and only geeks knew how to use it. The closest to an online experience was AOL, Compuserve or dialing up local bulletin boards on your 1200 baud modem. We were also much healthier creatures twenty years ago. Now we are more inclined toward sitting rather than moving. My wife and I trade daily stories and frustrations, but otherwise do not feel the need to be terribly communicative.

Life without our daughter may seem more serene, but in many ways it is even busier. Neither of us likes to sit around and vegetate too long. I have a community college course to teach on Tuesday nights, and that fills up a lot of my free time. And then there are persistent and annoying home maintenance tasks. Three nests of yellowjackets had to be removed. A screen door is in the process of being replaced. New landscaping was recently installed which means the periwinkle and sod have to be regularly watered. There is also the youth group at the church that needs my attention, and the covenant group on the second Monday of the month. And exercise. And periodic tensions at work can take extra effort. And business travel. In fact, as I write this I am wending my way westward toward Rapid City, South Dakota where I will spend the week. In some ways I feel busier than ever, but mostly in a good way, which is generally the way I like it. Since graduate school in the late 1990s, when I got into the habit of working, studying and sleeping and not much else, any other way of life seems a bit weird. Sloth just does not agree with me.

Yet when I am at home and not too engaged in other activities, I hear mostly the largely welcome sounds of silence. Somewhere in the last twenty years my life became too busy to listen to music regularly. I am trying to get back in the habit, starting with a large rack of CDs and vinyl records that once gave a sort of meaning to my life. Lately, I have been listening to music I have not heard in decades, but which remain imprinted in my brain.  It makes the silence go away for a while, and it stimulates creative thought. It also makes chores, like grading papers, more pleasant.

Old habits are partially coming back, such as family dinner. Family now consists of just my wife and I. With the chaos of work and school, family dinners were a weekend thing. Now they are happening during the week as well. My wife usually takes Wednesdays off, which means I often come home to a prepared meal on Wednesdays. It still feels strange, but I am getting used to it. I am discovering I do not have to depend on Lean Cuisine for my dinners during the week.

Perhaps this should be a time for husband and wife to recharge the marriage. So far there are few signs of extra connection going on. Perhaps we were optimally connected before, or perhaps neither of us particularly feels the need to reconnect more than we are used to. There are new options for our unencumbered state. We can see movies during the week if we want, or can disappear to a bed and breakfast for the weekend. So far we are just getting used to the quiet and the privacy.

I vaguely remember days when I would do brazen things like leave the door to the bathroom open while I showered. After all, if it’s just my wife and I inhabiting the house, and often just me, why bother to shut bathroom doors? One reason which I rediscovered is you need to door shut to retain steam and a higher room temperature. Perhaps I should worry about some pervert looking in through the living room window just so and getting a momentary glance at my naked body when I hustle naked down the hall. Such worries really are specious. No one is looking and frankly no one cares to look at ordinary naked middle aged people anyhow. They want to avert their eyes. I would too.

While at this stage of life I have no problem traipsing around the house buck naked when no one else is around, I realize I don’t particularly want to. It’s dawning on me that most people, including me, look much better with clothes on than without them. This is particularly true of us middle aged people. I am sure the thrill of any nudist colony wears off in about 15 minutes. Belly fat, cellulite, scars and droopy skin are features best left hidden anyhow. Better to imagine you and your spouse twenty or thirty years in the past. Better to wear a robe or a nightie to the bedchamber than show up sans clothes so we can at least pretend there is some mystery beneath those garments. Come to bed naked and you may turn off your spouse.

Overall, I am enjoying the empty nest. My suspicion is that when our daughter comes home for extended breaks, we will all be glad when she goes back to university. This new pattern is actually quite welcome. I still love my daughter, but we had her for nearly twenty one years. She needs to begin living independently too. It was time. It was past time to embrace the empty nest, rather than feel sad about it.