This is the first year of the empty nest. It’s not terribly uncomfortable, or sad, or happy. It’s been all those things in turn, but it’s also been very nice to have the house to myself, turn the television to PBS or turn it off, and play music I like—loud. I miss them all but I am adjusting.
I am watching myself entering a new place in my life after having had children at home for much longer than most women do. My oldest son is 40 and the youngest of my 4 boys is almost 19. I have no regrets at their age spread. Each one was wanted very much at the time he was born and brought me astonishing joy as they grew up. Now, even the baby is gone to the wider world, out from under my wing. I am left looking around at the gaps, holes, and worn places in my life and learning how to fill them, patch them and live with them.
Life is quieter now and I find that strange after all the years of raising a family. The curse or blessing of being an artist/writer is that we observe our lives as we live them; the stuff of our lives is what we make our work from. It’s like watching a train rush by and suddenly it’s gone. The racket, clacking, wind and noise just whoosh, then it disappears. I know the train was there and if I lean out over the tracks can see it getting smaller in the distance. That’s how life feels right now. Yes, I will turn around and walk from the tracks back to the car and drive to wherever it is I’m supposed to go next, but part of my heart is gone with the train.
I talked to my sister yesterday and we agreed that on Mother’s Day we would not be sad because our sons were spending the day with their wives and children instead of us. We both feel a deep and peaceful joy when we look at who our kids have become. Our own mother was a crazy mean-spirited woman who could be wonderful fun and a wonderful parent one minute, and in the next turn into someone terrifying who could and did hurt us mentally and physically. As she has aged, she is 91 now; she has metamorphosed into a much nicer person and I find her pitiful instead of fearsome. She has no memory of her cruelty and if you call her on it she retreats into tears and says she did her best.
I think she did. Her life was not a bed of roses; her mother seems to have been raised without a moral compass. My grandmother’s mother died in childbirth when she was only two. She was raised by a grieving angry father and her older siblings. My grandmother managed to marry my mother off by the time she was 13. Grandma Faye had already dumped her Quaker straight arrow husband gotten pregnant and run off with the handyman.
Imagine my mom’s life: two children by the time she was 16, her husband was a wife-beating alcoholic with an alcoholic father who lived with them. She couldn’t go home, her father was remarried and her stepmother had her own agenda. She took her babies and left Lonzo when she was 18. She struggled to keep a roof over her head and food on the table living on her own in Chicago with two toddlers. She finally had to give up and take the children back to her ex-husband and his new wife or lose them to the state. She left them there for five years. She was 19 and she had lost her entire teenage falling in love, dating, living life years along the way.
The war came and she was beautiful. Soldiers fell in love with her every day; it would have gone to my head too. When she met my shy homely dad, she didn’t tell him she had two little kids in Missouri until just before they were married. He was an only spoiled child of a doting mama. My sister was a wild child who didn’t even own shoes and had a bad case of rickets from years in the Ozarks when her mother went to get her. My half-brother wouldn’t leave; he stayed with his father and never escaped that life completely.
When Mom found my Dad, he was like a draft horse with potential. Mother wanted a race horse and she set out to make one. It didn’t happen. My dad is still a wonderful draft horse and my mother is bitter and angry with life and him 24/7 –and he still adores her after 70 years of marriage. I have never figured out why. Our family life was larger and louder than anyone else’s. Both my parents yelled and fought constantly. I didn’t know some families were quiet and peaceful until I was 18 years old and left home.
I was so afraid of my mother that if she called me on the phone after I was married, I would throw up when she hung up. She was a completely selfish angry cruel loon most of the time, but still she opened so many doors for me. We lived in Europe and I visited all the great museums and ate amazing foods and met astonishing people because of my crazy mother. Remember that little door in Alice in Wonderland she couldn’t get through into the garden? My mother was the key to that garden for me, she could open the door for but she couldn’t go through herself.
When I grew up enough to ask questions and understand why she was who she was, I forgave her. She has never made it to where she wanted to be. There was always something else to attain and when she got that she discarded it and went hungrily after the next thing. I think because of understanding the tragedy of that I can stop and smell the roses. I take such joy in my life, in the little things, the moments.
I’m not a saint and I’m sure my boys can tell stories of my horrible temper and explosions over the years, divorces, marriages that should not have happened, but in the end I look at them and know that I did something right. My sister and I broke the chain. Our children have gone on to have lives that are not crazy, violent, horribly painful or terrifying.
Our kids are all stable, married, productive, and for the most part happy with their lives. Yes, everyone has problems, but theirs don’t involve a parent who beats them, berates them or terrifies them to the point of illness. We agreed yesterday, that breaking the chain of loony women is the best thing we could ever have done, and we gave ourselves that happiness for Mother’s Day. It feels like the perfect gift.