I’ve probably cried more in the last two months than I have at any point in my life — except when my mother died.
It was coming across so many long-tucked-away items from my three children’s lives while clearing out our family home this summer that first turned on the waterworks. Comic books, massive boxes of Lego, my son’s once-prized fossil collection, my daughter’s favorite teddy bear when she broke her arm, and photos. So many photos. Then there were the items passed down by my mother. Dolls, quilts, ceramics. Oh, how she used to love to make ceramics.
The youngest of our kids graduated high school in June and my husband and I were moving from a Norman Rockwell-esque suburb outside New York City to Washington, D.C. Why? For one thing, the job I love called for a transfer — and beyond that, it was time. But this meant squeezing the belongings of the 3,200-square-foot house we sold into the new 1,200-square-foot townhome we’re renting for a year. It also meant the ruthless disposal of so many things I cherished.
Looking through the attic that served as my closet, full of clothing rack after clothing rack, my husband said to me: “If you saw these items at a store today, would you buy them? If the answer is no, they’re going to Goodwill.” Later, digging through multiple boxes of ceramics, all carefully wrapped in yellowed newspaper, he said: “Your mom loved ceramics and I know you loved your mom. Why don’t you pick out your favorite three or four pieces? Everything else needs to go.”
When I said “ruthless,” I wasn’t kidding.
But the trickles of tears sparked by the clearing of the house were nothing compared to the torrent that occurred when each of our children visited at various times over the summer and then left the house they’d spent the last nine years of their lives in for the final time. All I could think about were the pool parties, piano lessons, graduation celebrations, fights, laughter, Christmas trees I always wound up decorating by myself. And chicken tenders. Hundreds of chicken tenders, lowered in a basket into our much-used deep fryer’s preheated oil. Dipped in honey mustard, they were our children’s favorite food. Nevertheless, we got rid of this appliance, too. In our new kitchen, every inch of storage space is prime real estate.
By the time I was to drive away from our home for the last time, the floodgates had really ripped open. That whole “cry until you can’t cry anymore” adage wasn’t doing it for me. I just couldn’t stop weeping!
Lest you think I’m a complete basket case, let me say that I’m actually quite used to moving. As a foreign correspondent for many years in both Europe and Latin America, uprooting my life has become second nature. But this summer’s decision to downsize was part of a “perfect storm” that proved more painful and traumatic than I could have ever imagined. Not only were we leaving a neighborhood I loved — filled with neighbors I consider lifelong friends — but I was also grieving the diminishment of the role dearest to my heart: motherhood.
Perhaps most importantly, though, was the uncertainty over how to become a “couple” again with the man I’d been married to for 27 years. With our two sons and daughter, we remain a tight family, a fabulous fivesome. But as a husband and wife, had we become a complacent pair, a couple that has come to believe “good enough” isn’t really all that awful?
After our first week in our new home, I might have said yes. There we were alone, with only our dog underfoot. We drank wine and binge-watched West Wing — all seven seasons. Again. It was relaxing — and lonely. During these evenings, following long days at work, attempts at meaningful conversation had a way of feeling like irritating interruptions. We were out of sync. For once, I let it go. I didn’t have the energy to go down a rabbit hole that might be hard to climb out of.
But the second week was … better. My husband mentioned that the actor Jeff Daniels was playing in a band at the Birchmere, a legendary concert hall near our home. At the last minute, we bought tickets. Somehow these few hours of spontaneous fun lightened up the whole weekend. The next day, I suggested we take a walking tour of Old Town, Alexandria to get to know our new neighborhood a little better. Not wildly entertaining but enjoyable enough. That night, we went out for Middle Eastern food and the conversation didn’t drag. Even the pauses didn’t feel awkward. Baby steps, I thought to myself.
I’m sure one day I’ll look back at this time in our lives with envy. After all, our three kids are still young enough to return home from college for major holidays. And we’re planning a big family vacation — with all five of us — in March, something everybody seems excited about. One day our children may take jobs in new cities. They may marry. They may start families of their own. Just like loving your spouse is a choice I firmly believe you have to make every single day, so is being open to change — and that includes huge and sometimes hard shake-ups in your family dynamics — and being positive about the future.
A new empty nest can be a very scary thing. Mine ushered in a sense of wistfulness I’ve been scarcely able to bear, leaving me overpowered by memories of days that make up the years of a lovely life that’s over forever. But I’d be remiss if I allowed the range of emotions I’m feeling to get in the way of my marriage. A relationship is a lot like a shark. If it doesn’t constantly move forward, it will die. Marriage doesn’t become great or stay solid all on its own. It takes effort. Our nest may be empty, but our marriage doesn’t need to be.
Everyone needs a girlfriend!
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