When my brother and I left for college, I wrote a poem about my mom called “Still Life”. The image was one of my mother — who had gone from baby dolls, to baby brother, to marriage and babies, and had considered mothering to be her most important role — suddenly left rattling around in a lovely old house, mostly alone, arranging flowers that nobody would see, in rooms that nobody would walk through until the flowers needed replacing.
It was a difficult time for her, with her children gone and my father embroiled in an all-encompassing phase of his career, coming home late and distracted much of the time.
She would go on to engage her energies in life, friends, neighbors, travel and organizations, become a museum docent, and find new joys and passions. But my memories of that time in her life still haunt me.
This week, life has dropped a trail of crumbs that have me considering my own impending empty nest. Granted, my youngest is only 8, and we’re homeschooling, so it’s not coming any day soon — but it’s all tied up with the choices I am making today, this week, this year.
We spent last weekend at my grandma’s, celebrating her 91st birthday. It’s always like time travel for me, going back to the Michigan farm country where I spent my childhood summers and weekends. You could climb a tall tree in my grandma’s yard and see the house where my beloved great grandparents raised her, and the house she and my grandfather bought as newlyweds and raised my mother in, the farm where mom’s sister raised my cousins, the house where my uncle was born, three miles from where he live now, and the cemetary where generations of the family tree lie buried among civil war soldiers and the earliest founders of the town. People don’t stay in one place like that anymore.
Grandma has photo albums of gatherings over generations — backyard picnics like the one we had that day, but my now half-grown kids were the babies on the blanket in the shade. Then page back, I was the baby on the blanket… then my mother.. then my toddler grandma, in weathered sepia tones.
I came home kind of addled with the swirl of generations, the march of time and a flood of my own childhood memories. Then Tyler found a stack of old family movie videotapes, and spent an afternoon watching them. It was uncanny to come down the hall, unsuspecting, and hear my long-grown toddlers giggle, my baby cry, my little one saying, “Ma-ma?” and my own voice chattering back, unaware that a decade-later audience was listening in. There was little Tyler — (now almost 13, and an inch taller every month) — in his first “big boy bed”. There was little Molly in the fairy costume she wore every day for a while.
Those days seem like yesterday, and like a million years ago. I ached to hold those little warm sleeping bodies again, and at the same time, remembered the worries and doubts, the midnight fevers and conflicting parenting advice, and felt sorry for the younger, waddling, pregnant version of me. I wish I could send her a message, let her know that she was doing fine, and everyone would grow up healthy and smart and happy despite her concerns.
So I have been a bit nostalgic about how fast time passes.
Then, yesterday, they all packed their bags and left.
Every summer, Jeff and I spend a week at woodworking and clay workshops at Appalachian Center for Craft, in Tennessee. This year, though, we stayed home, saved our money for my tuition instead. But the kids were annoyed, and felt cheated out of the annual “week at the cottage with myna and papa”. So yesterday, my mom picked them up and they all headed for the lake.
And here I am. Alone.
I wake up in the morning with no Molly crawling into my bed for a morning snuggle and chat. The room I cleaned yesterday is still clean. I can spread out piles of kids’ lesson plans, bills and paperwork, and won’t have to scoop them off the table to make room for lunch. I can write this blog entry uninterrupted by kids showing me art projects, asking about math problems or tattling on each other.
So far, I just hate it. It’s completely quiet except for the rustlings of a mouse, a rat and a guinea pig who (and I may be projecting here) look as lonesome as I am. I have had one or the other of them in my lap or on my shoulder most of the morning.
Yesterday, I finally grabbed my car keys and fled. I could go to the bank without the usual argument about why I send the free suckers back in the vaccum tube, I could try on bras without one kid in the dressing room with me and two waiting on the bench. I called Jeff at work half a dozen times for no reason, just to hear a voice.
This is what I get, I suppose, for doing the traditional homeschooler eye-roll when other moms cheer about school starting again, and the kids finally getting out of their hair. This is my reminder – along with the trip to grandma’s, the home baby movies, and the alarming growth spurts of my children — that no matter how crazymaking the noise, mess and interruption of three kids may be, I will miss it when it’s gone.
And I will have to fill that space.
This is what my mother was saying, when she explained, “When I look back at my life, the time with little children was just a blink.” It seems impossible, during the decade of midnight nursings, diapers, toddlers and not-a-minute-to-yourself, to remember life before babies, or imagine a life after.
This is what Diana Pancioli was saying, when she advised me to consider an MFA, to have at my disposal after my children are grown.
So here I go, ready or not.
As a teen, I was a pretty darn good slalom skier. The way I learned was to start out on two skis, perfectly balanced. (I am thinking now of one ski as “my mommy role” and the other ski as “my own pursuits”.)
Right now – and for the next several years– I’m staying on both skis. But as my kids grow up and need me to back off a bit, and as my own skills and interests take over more of my energy, I’ll practice putting more weight on that me-ski, seeing if it can hold me up, all by itself.
Eventually, when my kids leave home, I can slip my foot out of that other ski and drop it. Eventually. When it’s time.
For the moment, though, I am melancholy. I’m feeling, as I have since childhood, the unfairness of the death of summer. My mom says I never wanted to go on to the next grade. I always wanted to go back to last year’s home room, the teacher I knew, my same old familiar desk.
Now my basil under cool grey clouds gives me a sense of urgency: make pesto, squirrel it away, dry tomatoes, prepare for winter. The boat-sized tennis shoes in the front room, the baby pajamas falling out of attic boxes when I look for sweaters, the Canada geese making practive V’s over the back yard — all sing a song about time rushing by, about sweet pea blossoms waiting for frost, and children entering the years when mommy can’t kiss it better or fix it with a band-aid.
I’m not sure if I am ready. For any of it. But it always makes me feel better, in fall, to do what my instinct remembers: work, gather, store, harvest, prepare.
Eleven days from now, I’ll begin gathering a degree. I’ll harvest information, store up technique and technology, work my hardest. What I am preparing for isn’t clear to me, but I feel like it’s a house without children in it. Or the quiet I often long for, only too much of it.
I’mpreparing for a future I can’t see, but will one day look back from, maybe reading my old worries, wishing I could send a message back saying that everything would turn out OK.