Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Now we are empty nesters







I didn’t sleep very well last night. In fact, I found it very difficult to get comfortable. I was on the bed for awhile, on the sofa for a bit, in the closet and finally ended up stretching out on the bathroom floor. I should have known something big was happening when I saw all of the suitcases and boxes piled up by the front door. Usually, I can tell when a family trip is planned or if Dad is going away on business without us. This time, the mountain of stuff was a strange collection of things including an ironing board, pillows, laundry soap and boxes of Pop Tarts. Then we all got in the car for a very long drive.

There was anxiety in the car for sure. My girl was quiet, then she got pretty emotional, then quiet again. I was very unhappy having to stay in one small space in the back seat because there was so much stuff packed in around us. We did stop a few times but my family did not give me a drink until we finally got to Baltimore. Jeez.

Here we found ourselves on yet another college campus. Last year I enjoyed visiting many colleges where the students were simply delighted to see me. They made funny noises and came running to give me a pat. At first I found this alarming, but once I got used to it, I enjoyed being treated like visiting royalty.

This time was no exception and I received a princely welcome. The difference, however, was when we started unloading the car into a small room in a large building that did not smell familiar to me at all. My girl was getting very excited and I watched Mom and Dad carefully for signs of distress. Mom held it together pretty well, and I expect that Dad was keeping his feelings hidden. I didn’t realize that when we got back in the car, leaving my girl behind, that she was staying at the college for a long time and we had now become “empty nesters.”

I remember when my boy left for college a few years ago. I was not invited to join that trip and it took me weeks to understand what had happened. He was not coming back anytime soon. I had to make a few adjustments, but generally this change was not too difficult for me. I started to sleep in my girl’s bed instead of his and found myself adapting to her schedule and actually enjoyed going to bed early. Now I do not know where to sleep since she is not in her bed and Mom and Dad refuse to let me onto their bed. Dad says I snore too loudly. Hah, look who’s talking.

I know that my girl will come back eventually. The boy has been here many times, going away again to school, work and whatever they do in Arizona. These homecomings are usually wonderful with everyone hugging and crying with happiness. I am extremely happy too because there are usually lots of great snacks around for the kids and their friends. Often, they leave all kinds of pizza crusts and cake crumbs on the low table where they watch TV. I love it.

I do not like being an empty nester. The house is very quiet. I’m pretty bored during the day because it is just Mom and me hanging out. She doesn’t do anything interesting really. She just spends a lot of time in the kitchen and on the computer. When my girl was home we enjoyed watching Chopped and Cupcake Wars on the Food Network and snuggling on the sofa. Of course when Dad came home from work every day, we pretended that I had been sleeping on the floor the whole time, but I wasn’t.

There are very few crumbs on the floor in the kitchen these days, and when I do find some, they are not the yummy kind of things my girl dropped for me. Now we are eating healthy which means far less crumby food and more crunchy, green stuff. Yuck. I think I may be depressed since I just don’t feel like gnawing on my rawhide or prowling the yard on the lookout for squirrels and cats. Don’t be alarmed: I don’t chase them, I simply observe them. The deer drive Mom to distraction with their constant munching of her flowers. I think they are scary because they are so big. She is not afraid of them and runs around yelling and waving her arms trying to get them to go away. They are not scared of her either.

Instinctively, I know that Mom and Dad will remain at this house with me. I suppose I will get used to the slow pace of our days here. I know I will have to be creative to find interesting tidbits to supplement the usually dull food offerings I get each day. I may have to go back to sneaking gum out of Mom’s purse. This is not the same as an Oreo or potato chip, but I think this is just one of the many adjustments I will be forced to make. My biggest problem however remains: where should I sleep?

Saturday, September 8, 2012

School agony in 4-year increments


Our family is experiencing a monumental confluence of firsts as we march into this new school year. My niece is going to kindergarten, my nephew is starting middle school, my daughter and another niece begin their high school careers and my son and another nephew are one week into freshman year of college. Whew! So many departures into the great, wide, unknown for our young folks. I’m not sure who is more nervous, as we all peer into the future, the children or their parents.
            As a mom, I have now experienced all of these “first days” of school. Kindergarten, of course, is poignant in its adorableness. I did not cry when my oldest got on the bus, nor did he. I saved this embarrassing tradition for his first day of college. When my youngest finally got to go to “real” school, she was so ready that she forgot to say goodbye to me. Elementary years are marked by new lunch boxes and endless packages of band-aids. Homework was serious business but really didn’t get in the way of playground activities and riding bikes in the neighborhood.
            Middle school is another thing entirely. At this important crossroads, the young child is just dipping his toes into the teen pool. There is so much confusion that I wonder how any of us survive these tumultuous years. Changing bodies, changing attitudes, changing school schedules and increasing demands on brains and muscles are only the tip of the iceberg. Awkward social skills begin developing, premature ideas of independence manifest in shows of attitude that actually belie the childish need for parental hugs and support. A keen eye and open ears are important tools in the parental arsenal at this time. Such skills will be honed and used (overused?) as we move with mounting momentum into the most important four years of a young adult’s life: high school.
            It’s funny how the interpretation of passing time is relative to one’s age. When you are young, an hour is an eternity. As we advance into our 20s, weeks and months spin by. Well into your 40s, the years begin to accelerate and a fond recollection of high school is actually (gasp) three decades past.
            A friend has a theory that time passes faster as we get older because we have so many experiences stacking onto each other. Maybe this accounts for the maddening deterioration of our memory as we age. Personally, I like to blame my children for this phenomenon. If they didn’t distract me so much, I would know exactly where I left the car keys or why I phoned a particular number.
            Looking back, it seems as though some of life’s most important early chapters happen in four-year increments. The first four years are spent learning the most elemental things like feeding oneself, walking, talking and social skills. After that, reading begins and school is not far off. From there, every few years offers a new school environment, with high school, of course being the pinnacle of four-year experiences. That is, unless you go on to college or grad school.
            When one is actually in high school, four years can pass at a glacial pace. All of the agony of algebra, dissecting frogs, rope climbing in gym and getting to know the opposite sex converge to make every day interesting, memorable and sometimes awful. From my decades-long vantage point, those four years went by quickly. Why, I wonder, do they stand out so distinctly in one’s memory? The four years between 22 and 26, for example are not as clear as my days in high school. Sadly for the teenagers in my house, I remember a lot more than they would like.
            From the first day of 9th grade to the final strains of Pomp and Circumstance four years later, the change can only be described as stratospheric. Most freshmen look like kids; most graduates look like men and women. The trick is, to get their brains, hearts and moral compasses to match the exterior trappings of emerging adulthood. It is hard to believe that I was so impatient to get them out of diapers and on to the good stuff. Wish I knew then what I know now!
            My theory on why high school is so memorable hinges on the deluge of new experiences facing this age group. The learning curve is steep as our youngsters take on physics, calculus, iambic pentameter, passé compose, playing the trumpet, trying out for the basketball team, learning to drive, learning to navigate parties where alcohol is available, discovering the true meaning of friendship, failing chemistry, not getting a part in the fall play, being left behind my last year’s best friend, facing parents’ divorce, death of a grandparent, the break up of the first romance – all at the same time. These experiences carry with them such forceful emotions that they are firmly implanted into our brains. By design, these momentous moments serve to shape us and help us become our adult selves, but it sure can be an arduous process at times. It seems to me that no other chunk of life offers such a diversity of new, interesting and terrifying events, therefore, we can remember this time with clarity and even fondness.
            I clearly recall the huge lump in my stomach on the first day of high school. I was simply frozen with fear. Would I get lost? Would I be abused by upperclassmen? Would I know what to do in my classes? Would I ever feel comfortable in that huge building with so many other students? The answer to all of these would be “yes.” Despite the agonizing first days, I survived high school and even enjoyed a large part of those years. I did not think much about my life beyond the coming weekend at that time of my life. Our kids of today, however, live very differently indeed.
            Today’s high school freshman has already looked out over her four year schedule with an eye toward how many advanced placement tests she can take (and pass) before graduation. She is thinking of co-curricular activities based on her interests in addition to how they will look on her college applications. He already knows how to type much faster than I ever dreamed possible as I failed Typing I on the brand new IBM Selectric typewriters in the business department at my high school. He takes extra courses online to extend his academic skills and help him compete with the thousands of others who will vie for that opening at his first choice college.
            It is a different world for my kids than the one I faced hundreds of years ago. They remind me frequently of my naivete, stupidity and general lack of knowledge regarding the modern world and its demands. Thank goodness I have my husband to lean on. At least we will be able to take care of each other when we are overwhelmed by our inability to deal with the real world as it exists today.
            And what of the future? My own mother, herself a reformed stupid parent, assures me that the globe will continue to spin, my freshmen will become seniors will become functional and happy adults, and that I will likely survive all of it and come out with a smile of satisfaction, no worse for wear.

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