Sunday night Mike and Chris were in the living room with their girlfriends, playing Scattergories and drinking a little wine in front of the fireplace. I removed the garlands from the stairs on Saturday, and Mike and A took the tree down Sunday afternoon, bagged it and put it into the garage. Now the couches are back facing each other in front of the fireplace, and with the velvet slipcovers, a red amaryllis on the front hall table and a trio of big ivory candles on the piano, the house looks like winter, but not like Christmas.
Taking down and putting away the decorations is always bittersweet for me. Putting them up, I find myself buoyed by the happy anticipation of the holiday ahead, but taking them down…there’s a bit of sadness in that, always. When I was a young mother this was no time for contemplation. There was barely time to catch my breath. There was a whirlwind of activity year round when my kids were young. Taking down and putting away Christmas decorations was simply something that had to be done because at the end of the month, Ali would have her birthday, and we’d be getting ready for that; then February brought Valentine’s Day; spring break came in March followed by Easter in late March or early April; A’s birthday in early April; the end of school in May; beginning of summer vacation in June; fireworks, picnics and perhaps a family trip to South Padre Island or Colorado in July; Mike and Chris' birthday and the start of school again in August; Labor Day and my birthday in September; Halloween in October; Kath’s birthday and Thanksgiving in November and voila…back to December and another Christmas. In addition, there were school open houses, music lessons, swimming lessons, band concerts, science fair projects, book fairs, volunteering, scouts, pets to care for, dinners with friends and family, rooms to paint, grass to cut, leaves to rake, grad school classes, papers to write…”A very rich life”, Aunt Mimi once said to me, and it turns out that she was quite right, although I barely had time to reflect on that comment when she made it.
Now I'm an empty nester, a thing that I’ve joked about, and yet in many ways it's no joke. Everyone who has children must eventually deal with having an empty nest. There's loneliness in having them gone, of course, but I think that one of the hardest things about being parents of young adults is that it forces us to redefine ourselves, yet again, just when we thought we had it figured out.
Because if I simply look at my calendar now, it’s not all that different from when I was a young mother. It’s true that it’s no longer filled with reminders of scout meetings and music lessons, but many of the events remain the same: Ali’s birthday will always be at the end of January; February 14th will continue to be Valentine’s Day, etc. It's not that the events themselves have changed, but my role in these events has changed considerably. And yet, to add to the confusion, in some ways my role is the same as ever. I'll always send Ali a gift for her birthday, because I'm her mother. But now that she's grown and not a child living under my roof, I don't spend January 29th scrambling to bake a cake for her, or making a late night run to the grocery store for flowers and croissants so she can have breakfast in bed on her birthday on the 30th.
When our children are young, our role as parents is clearly defined: we're simply counted on to take care of everything, in all situations. Hungry? Cold? Scared? Kid down the block bothering you? Want new skates? Who do you turn to? But as our children grow up that changes. We're still Mom and Dad, but we're no longer primary, and although that may be a bitter pill to swallow at times, it's absolutely essential to accept it. It's the goal of having children, after all, or should be: to raise them to the point that they are able to be successful in making their way in the world without us.
I was reminded how my role has changed on Saturday, when six of us were going to the DMA to see the Tut exhibit. I’d planned and organized that outing the same way that I’ve planned activities for my family my entire life, including going online and buying and printing out the tickets. But when it came time to drive to the exhibit, I was reminded that things have changed: it's no longer essential that I, as their mother, drive them anywhere. There were six of us going to the DMA, but my car seats just five, so we had to take two cars. Mike and Chris immediately opted to drive together with Brooke and Stephanie, leaving A and me to drive together in my car. There is some grace to be had in having a partner with whom to share this transition, and, happily for me, that applies even though we’re divorced. I looked at A and smiled in amusement: “You realize, we’re now officially The Old People,” I said, and I added, “How did that happen?” I remember, like it was yesterday, when we were The Young People, and like Mike and Chris, there was absolutely no question that we’d have preferred to drive with our friends rather than with our parents. Ah, well, the more things change, and all that.
There are people who aren't able to make this transition, who become bitter. I don’t want to be one of them. I want to grow old gracefully, and to move on with a sense of adventure, and my sense of humor intact, into the new roles that await me as time goes by.
Longfellow described it eloquently, in one of my favorite poems (Morituri Salutamus):
Shall we sit idly down and say
The night hath come; it is no longer day?
The night hath not yet come; we are not quite
Cut off from labor by failing light;
For age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.