The nest is empty. Our last fledgling is settled into college dorm life and has already slept through his first test, while his mama-bird, blissfully unaware, awoke to her to-do-or-not-to-do list, none of it involving him. I’ve been preparing Stone his whole life–and myself all year–for when he would be washing his own socks and feathering his own nest, and I would be wondering what to do with myself.
In some kind of strange role reversal, he is now doing all of the things that I have been doing for him over the past 19 years. And while he believes he is newly independent and free as a bird, it doesn’t seem to have landed yet that his freedom really means he has picked up 190 pounds of responsibility, whereas I have just shed that very same load. In all of my getting ready for this transition, no one told me how much I would love it, that I would be the one who came out the Free Bird, my responsibilities light as a feather.Maybe it’s better they didn’t. As much as I’ve loved raising my children, and I really have, now that everyone is responsible for their own lives, I’m loving mine even more. Or maybe it’s just that I’m loving mine differently. Because our child rearing years were so widespread–Stone was born when I was almost 43–the empty nest for me has come about the same time as retirement. Getting to do exactly what I want to do everyday rather than racing cleats to football practice or stocking up at Costco for teenagers or reading through school emails is heady. William Wallace’s cry of “FREEDOM!” rings. I feel like I should be taking a class on “How to Be an Empty Nester Without Dying of Pure Joy and Missing All the Fun” at the community center.Don’t tell my kids.
Before I knew how much I would love this season of my life, and in anticipation of feeling inconsolably lost and alone once September hit, I began redoing our home this past January. And while our home has needed it, it’s also been a great distraction to the Empty Nest Life I feared was right around the corner. After 22 years of raising five-kids-plus-friends in this house, along with our last four bonus years with three grandboys and their parents under our roof, we needed a redo: the walls were ding’d and dirty, the floor finish worn off and the bare wood exposed. The whole thing needed a good shaking out and stripping down–a reorganization, a resurrection.
Midyear and in the home stretch with the home makeover, the basement came into my sights. I’ve loved having the basement space for our kids–big-wheeling, skating and scooting to their hearts’ content when it was too wet to play outside, using the concrete block walls like a backboard for tennis and soccer practice, scrawling their names with their friends with sidewalk chalk, the letters now smudged and fading. A broken ping pong table in the corner reminds me of ‘Round the World tournaments with youth groups, which is what finally broke the table in one epic finale.
But it’s also creepy-crawly in the basement with its colonies of spiders and scorpions; centipedes as long as pencils slide along the floors. What feels like the ghosts of our children’s childhoods lurk there, too, looming among the rusting camping equipment and the roller blades in every size. Their tongues loll like dehydrated ghouls, lifeless where they lay, randomly tossed to answer a call to come up for supper. Baseball card albums, abandoned art projects, broken bikes and bar stools along with everything else I haven’t known what to do with for the past 20 plus years “but might need one day” have collected and cobwebbed, a fine white layer of mildew sprinkled over all. But this hasn’t been the worst part.
The water that’s seeped in around the edges and occasionally flooded after a hard rain was the worst part, giving it a dank smell you could almost taste and a blackish mold you could certainly see. I wondered if what looked like black mold actually was black mold, since a spongey whiteness mushroomed within it, and this along the bottom edge of the plywood wall that supported the house. An occasionally waterlogged supporting wall didn’t help me sleep at night and neither did the lingering question about the mold. I just didn’t know, and I was afraid to ask anyone who did, as if finding out made it suddenly toxic rather than confirming that it already had been. And maybe for years?
So while the mold, the mess, and the memories have delayed the basement’s focus in our home’s remodel, it really should have been first. It’s the foundation of our home. But it’s easy to forget what you don’t want to see, and I deliberately didn’t want to see the basement, even when I was in it. The corner I turned the blindest eye to was the one that held the sentimental relics among the refuse, the paper-and-paint monument to my mothering.
Here were stacked the spilling boxes and drawers of drawings, letters from camp, “best” and “most” awards, and other mementos from five childhoods. There were also boxes-times-boxes of clothing, turned over time into Nike swooshed and ruffled mice nurseries, hole-y and wholly unusable with their dry rotted elastic and scratchy, non stretch fabric. The clothes and the mice droppings were easy to toss as I went through them.
But the papers?
In an effort to save every child’s significant souvenirs, I had made the mistake of saving every single scrap and shred, unable in the moment of memento-making to judge and cull as I went. My plan to spend my grandmother years turning these items into memory albums had taken a bad turn: I had somehow saved up enough stuff to reproduce their entire childhoods, nearly week-to-week. But now that I’m actually in these grandmother years, they feel incredibly short and dear. I’ve already devoted the last 36 to my kids. How many more will it take me to collate and catalog?
And maybe the more relevant question is, who the heck wants to do that?
Even if I did, could we relive the past and relish it? Could we return and make it right? I mean, there are grandbabies to enjoy now. There are things I’ve been waiting 36 years to do, and they have nothing to do with my kids. Besides, “mistakes have been made,” and since I’m afraid they’re mainly mine, I’d rather not rub it in. Whatever my reasons for stockpiling Cub Scout badges, dot-to-dot books, and friendship bracelets, deep calls to deep, telling me there’s enough emotional ammo here to break my heart wide open and sink my ship. I’m kind of hunkered down against that. I barely survived the first go ’round.
As if all that weren’t enough, along with the regular stuff of childhood, I also saved everything from home schooling to prove we had actually schooled every one of our required 180 days for four of five kids, grades K-8. (Baby bird wasn’t about to home school once everyone else was done). The weekly assignment charts that proved my school-marm righteousness now rise up from their warped clipboards and judge me for stealing so much time away from all of us to school instead of to savor.
Even now, I squirm. (Regret and guilt always know where to sucker me.)
The basement with its bugs, its blackened baseboards, its seething slurry of memory and abysmal smells had become for me such a dismal, dank hoarder’s lair of childhoods and mom fears that I just couldn’t face it. And so I didn’t even consider it–until this year. But the thought of rattling around all day in a house with a basement of bad joo-joo and judgment once baby bird flew finally got me motivated and moving. This Free Bird can change, as it turns out.
Redoing the upstairs, I had cleaned out closets and drawers, even entire bedrooms, for use by our grandboys when they visit or by everyone else when we gather for holidays, tossing enough stuff to stock a Goodwill. Getting rid of what we no longer wanted became easier the more I practiced, and I began to think I could do it in the basement, regardless of my demons there. At some point after the dust settled upstairs, I started to see the basement with a steadier eye, saw the enormous waste of space it had become, and disentangled myself a bit from the blame.
And I dreamed.
I imagined how we could transform it into a man cave and grandkids’ zone, a place to make memories with the new generation growing up right under our wings. But it would require a 1,650 square feet purge to do it. I could hire someone to build it, but I couldn’t hire anyone to come in and haul it off. No one else knew what I wanted to toss or keep–I didn’t either, really–but I did know I couldn’t leave it for my kids to do one day. Time was ticking. So while there might be a great, big, healthy sigh of relief in paying someone to purge it, the nagging guilt that I’d dumped my kids’s entire lives in a landfill would give me no end of agony.
In an effort to fix the basement water problem, we had replaced our gutters and regraded the foundation dirt around the house over the last couple of years, yielding a nearly completely dry space ever since, and though the mold had persisted, it was no longer blackety-black, more like an agreeable-and-non-toxic-gray. (I say nearly because there is one tiny trickle we are still trying to figure out.)
This summer, I hired a carpenter to begin in three weeks’ time, just the motivation I needed to haul out trashbags-turned-truckloads for the dreadful landfill. I donated at least as much to Goodwill, consoling myself that if I ever needed any of it, I knew just where to find it. The carpenter came and the floor guys were next. When I scheduled them, I gave myself just one week for Operation: Mom Meltdown, as the sacred sentimental monument was still untouched, even after my three week, pre-carpenter purge. This time, the floors had to be completely clear, the basement totally empty, so the concrete could be sanded. Would one week be enough time? I didn’t know, but it was all the time I was willing to give it.
The week before, I requested prayer from my prayer group. I made a plan to work certain hours each day with regular breaks so that I wouldn’t panic and quit, or lose contact with the outside world. The weekend before, The Cowboy and Cody finagled the ping pong table and heavy items out that I couldn’t. Mom Meltdown Monday came, and I went to exercise class and came home literally pumped, set the timer, and began. And while I had rejected as inconceivable the idea of hiring someone to haul off my kids’ stuff, I ended up choosing the infinitely saner option of going through my hoard one piece at a time, reading every word as I went.
I realized as I pulled out the first box that doing this had become an enormous thing in my head. It wasn’t so much that I dreaded seeing my kids’ stuff; I knew that I would actually love that part. I dreaded having to make decisions about what to keep and what to save for the one-notebook-per-child I’d decided would be a reasonable end result. But there were also darker forces at work, and I didn’t quite know what they were, but I was sure of this much: I was afraid I had done a bad job with my kids, and I was afraid the monument held the evidence.
I was going through one of Jed’s boxes, our firstborn. There was his first attempt at writing his name, his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle sketches, his art project with Toby in kindergarten, still his friend today. He had lots of drawings of soldiers and explosions at age 6, which made sense as it was the year Desert Storm began. There was his first poem, his first journal, the list of books he read in 6th grade. I had planned to spend one day on each of my kids, but by the time I finished going through all of Jed’s boxes, it was late Tuesday afternoon, and I hadn’t even gotten to his file drawer yet.
This isn’t going to work, I thought.
I felt sick, my heart heavy. “God, please help. I can’t do this,” I prayed. It’s too hard. I’ll never get it all done before next Monday. It’s a beautiful day, but I’m stuck down here in the dark away from everything except all this stuff that I cannot toss and I just cannot handle.”
I laid down the pile of papers I was working on. There were two, 55 gallon drum trash bags bulging right beside me. Jed’s five boxes had dwindled to two stacks of papers, but even that was too much to put into one notebook. I would have to go through the stacks again, and there was that danged file drawer. I hadn’t put one thing in the notebook.
I sighed and stood up.
Riding my bike is often the best break I know. It gets me outside and moving and that day, it was away from the house where everything was dark and dismal. Darlin’ danced when she saw me getting on my bike and raced ahead, stopping to turn ’round and ’round, delighted. Was that a smile? I swear, sometimes I think she smiles at me. I definitely saw teeth.
I remembered the tiny bottle of baby teeth I’d found of Sadie’s in one of Jed’s boxes. And the lock of Josie Love’s dark curls in a pink envelope. I felt embarrassed. God! I’m drowning in mementos I can’t even enjoy. I’m not only a hoarder, I’m OCD, too? Why have I saved so much blamed stuff? And the tears I’d been pressing down finally rose and fell.
I wiped my face as I pedaled, pushing my hair back, and I thought how God has the hairs of my head numbered, how he saves my tears in a bottle. My heart squeezed. You’re a sentimental, hoarding parent, too, God? Really? And then other thoughts came, like how he has my name written in his book, and how he’s recorded the number of my days there, too. Talk about OCD. You’ve already got the books done, for crying out loud?
My shame lifted a bit, at least the shame of going overboard, of saving so much, of being so nuts about my kids. God’s nuts about me, I thought. He’s got my tears in a bottle? My name’s written on the palms of his hands? Sheesh. Even I didn’t do that. And I felt a little better.
I watched Darlin’ race away to chase the horses. The size of an average cat, she’s actually a dog but she goes after those horses like she’s hell-on-wheels. Somehow she’s convinced them, too, because they kicked as they bolted to get out of her way. I was afraid she might get hit this time and called her back.
She came and ran alongside me again, her tongue hanging out, working hard to keep up. We needed new gravel; the bigger rocks were all that were left on the driveway after the last downpour, and it was a challenge to ride it. The gravel’s gotta be hard on her paws here, I thought. And she looks thirsty, but she won’t stop unless I do. And I remembered how God has more loving thoughts toward me than there is sand on the beach. Way more than I have about Darlin’. I pulled up to the garage and let her drink.
“Thanks, God,” I said. Thanks for reminding me what you’re like. Thanks for being sentimental, too. Thank you for loving me even when I’m upside down in the dungeon I locked myself in.
I parked my bike and went inside for water. The sun was streaming through a new window we’d had put in our back stairwell that very day, the workmen already gone. The light was playing off the walls, playing up the texture of the woven seagrass rug in the kitchen. We’d recently moved our big farm table out to make room for grandbabies to play on the floor who like to be where everyone else is. There was a lot of room there now.
“Yep, great idea,” I said out loud, and I ran down the basement stairs and grabbed a file drawer and brought it up to the kitchen. Thirty minutes later, I had all of the drawers and boxes and papers stacked against the walls. The light streamed in on them, too. And hallelujah, there it came. The Joy.
You got me out of the dungeon! Thank you for the idea to bring the mess upstairs where it’s light and smells good. I’m ready for the floor guys, and it’s only Tuesday!
The next day, I was eager to dive in again. The kids’ papers and crafts no longer made me feel like a loser; instead, they became a portal that took me back to some of the happiest days of my life. I found more joy remembering plays and piano recitals and so many people who had come through our lives over the years. I realized I wouldn’t have to devote my weekend to this work, something I’d dreaded just the day before. I had Oak and Roan’s soccer games to watch, and there was Stone’s football game Saturday. Josie Love wanted help Sunday with a paper for grad school. My nest may be empty, but I’m still booked.
And when I think about it, I’m not a free bird and I don’t want to be, at least not like Lynyrd Skynyrd sings it. Van Zant’s lyrics feel disconnected and selfish now that I’m hearing them as a grandmother and not as a teenager. His “Free Bird” was determined to fly away, unable to commit or love or grow. “Lord knows, I can’t change/Lord help me, I can’t change.”
What’s free about that?
I finally got through the school stuff. It was overwhelming to see, heaped up in several of those 55 gallon bags. I saved a few papers for each child, but the majority of it, the proof that we had done enough school and that I had done my job, suddenly didn’t matter. In fact, I couldn’t wait to set it out for the trashmen who would pick it up the next day. It was just trash, after all.
Somewhere in all the mess of the basement, I had feared I would find proof of my failure as a mom. I was afraid that going through all of the kids’ stuff would take me back and that I would judge myself as I always have, but this time, with my 61-year-old eyes, I would see even more ways I had failed.
But instead of judging myself as I sorted those papers, I found kindness and my own heartfelt, Attagirl! With refreshed eyes, I saw a young mama who tried too hard, who loved her kids, and who doesn’t need any paperwork to prove it. I fed them and taught them and helped them and nursed them and a thousand other things that all mamas do, and I had a ball doing it, even when we were overdoing the school part. Thanks, God, for letting me out of mom-fail-jail. Wow! How long has it been?
And I found a better reason why I saved my kids’ stuff: I’ve wanted them to see themselves the way I saw them, through adult eyes. They had experienced their lives as children, but now as adults, they will be able to look through their notebooks and see, as I do, how utterly endearing and delightful they were. No longer was what I saved proof of anything about me. It was proof of them, and I had as much proof as they needed. (Of course the notebooks haven’t been started yet.)
Thanks, God. We did it! They’re alive! They survived! And they’re all doing well, carrying on with their own lives.
Thanks for letting me be a mother with wings that hover
…and wings that soar.
Quotation is from
Free Bird, song by Lynyrd Skynyrd, lyrics by Allen Collins, Ronnie Van Zant
Proof that God is nuts-over-us is from
Luke 12:7 NIV
Psalm 56:8 ESV
Revelation 21:27 NIV
Psalm 139:16-18 NIV
Isaiah 49:16 NASB