She curls her 82 year old fingers around a pen. And writes. Then slides something over to Pops and says, “I need you to sign this.” A check, she must want him to sign a check. I’m watching now, but no, not a check. A card. Of course! A birthday card, for my sister. He passes it back. She licks then seals the envelope. Stamps it, and heads out the door.
In my entire life, I have not known my mother to miss a single birthday, or anniversary, or special occasion. If the day is notable, there will arrive a postmarked greeting from Stone Court. It is as certain as flowers in the spring. I survey the room, this home the two of them have built over 60 years. Mementos of vacations long past. Dishes handed down from grandma. Handmade gifts from loved ones. And photos. An ever-changing array of photos. Of their family. Their 6 children. Their 18 grandchildren. Their 12 great grandchildren. Families.. spouses. All of whom have graced this room, sat at this table, shared a meal, shared a story, shared a life. It feels so full when we are there, so full you can almost forget that you are visiting
an empty nest.
It is perhaps the greatest challenge a mother faces. More difficult than tantrums, squabbling, bickering, laundry, and a zillion other things that wear us out. The day when it all ends. And the nest once full with chores and children and clutter and chaos, lies empty. Empty of people, empty of purpose, empty of promise. While the rest of the world carries on, she is clutching the layoff notice she signed the day she took the job. Knowing that the end result of a job well done, is a job, well… done. With the last goodbye, she turns to face the remains of a home as if desolated by storm. Tattered signs of life everywhere, with not a soul in sight. And if you watch her, really watch her, you will see her force up the corners of her mouth when far more than gravity is weighing them down. And choose to be grateful despite the ache that tears at her heart. But when no one is looking, she stands motionless in quiet rooms straining to hear the sounds that once filled each day, squinting to see faces that are no longer there, as if she might magically turn back the clock and relive even one moment when babies nursed, or toddlers clung, or children sang. There is no going back. She can only move forward. Find new meaning. New purpose. New joy. And still, no one notices.
We are so aware, aren’t we, of the wonderful things our mothers do for us, yet we miss the one most difficult. Motherhood doesn’t end when the nest is emptied. It becomes it’s most trying. Longing to take back those whom you have set free. Darting to grab the tail of the kite string as it is carried by the wind. Letting it slip through your fingers even though every part of your being begs to hold fast. Eyes fixed to the skies as your little one slowly drifts from sight…
I’ve thanked my mom, for all the things she’s done to raise me well. For her love, for her encouragement, for her support, for her patience, for teaching me all the best things I’ve learned in life. But I’ve never thanked her for letting me go. Letting me sail into my own life, begin my own family, raise my own children, build my own nest. My greatest gain was born from the pain of her greatest loss.
I watch my mother close the mailbox door. Raise it’s flag. Shuffle up the driveway, and struggle up stairs with a difficulty that betrays her age. She steps inside and goes about her business as she has everyday since
the empty nest.
Cooking, cleaning, maintaining. Finding joy in the daffodils. Gathering books from the library. Mastering the Kindle. Friends, phone calls, addressing cards. Accepting her loss. We continue where we left off. Sharing food, sharing stories, sharing life. But this time I see what I hadn’t before… those mementos and pictures, and dishes and gifts, they are like feathers tucked neatly in the twigs, delicate reminders of the life that once filled these walls. Life that was birthed to be set free. Ever reminding my mother of a job well done, a child well loved, a life well lived. And though her nest is mostly empty, her heart overflows.
The empty nest, tis hollowed ground,
where life was lived, and love was found.