I’m not quite sure who first used the metaphor “nest” to refer to one’s home, but that wise soul was really spot on. We’d often come across nests poking out from under the eaves of our house. If we were lucky, we’d see the papa bird getting it ready for his lady, leaving and returning from a bird’s version of Home Depot with just the right materials in his beak. Only when he was done would the mama bird show up, and eventually, tiny eyes could be seen peeking out from above the shreds. At the end of the season, without even a goodbye, the family would be gone. Their nest would be left behind for some other family or depending upon the dad’s building prowess, it would fall and eventually be blown away.
The pastoral image of little ones being sheltered by any semblance of a home is comforting. But when those children are no longer little ones and the time comes for them to leave, that homespun visual of a warm embrace and cuddle up in bed cuteness gets altered. And what was once a “nest” has now become an “empty nest,” and the visual for that is quite different–stark and spare, and a lot less comforting.
Adding insult to injury, some other wordsmith came up with the “Empty Nest Syndrome,” a phenomenon that occurs when the nest one has so lovingly built gets emptied by the ones for whom it was created. “How can these guys and gals do that to us?” we ask. We gave them love and shelter, and they leave us with twigs and bits and pieces of string.
My younger son was still with us on a short summer break when my husband and I moved into our new place just three weeks ago. Although a lot of his things are still here, he’s now gone; this is really our place. For the first time in twenty-eight years (practically our entire marriage), we are living closer to more family and old friends than ever. They’ve been coming by to visit and chat, and fill up the spaces that my son left behind. So, it’s not exactly “empty.” And considering we occupy the top three floors of a brownstone, most metaphoric types would consider it, not a nest, but more of an aerie. Especially when you look out through the top skylights and see nothing but blue and the random bird flying by.
My son’s bedroom will now become a guest room and his “desk” in the kitchen will now become a baking station–things they were intended to be when we first looked at the space. This has never been a place where two little boys wrestled and played so loudly with many other little boys that you thought they would fall through the ceiling. No birthday parties with cakes made to look like pizzas and baseballs and dinosaurs have ever been thrown here. The two beautiful wooden and glass front doors welcome you when you walk up the stoop (yes, we have a stoop!), but they’re not the doors that my boys stood in front of for their annual first day of school photo.
So, I am left to wonder as I walk by my son’s/my guest’s bedroom, did this place ever function as a “nest?” And if not, do I have the right to feel even the least bit of Empty Nest Syndrome here? The question is similar to the one I often asked during the early days of being far away from two boys to whom I had been virtually tied at the hip for so long. Are you still a mom when it seems like it’s been ages since you’ve seen those you’ve mothered? (Did you really mother anyone at all?) Are you still a mom when the “mom-ish” tasks you have been doing for so many years are no longer necessary…or are just different?
Years ago people stayed put, and the family home often got handed down. Generation after generation could feel the same feelings and live amongst the ghosts of the past. The impression of Great Grandma’s footprints had worn a distinct path from the kitchen sink to the stove. And the wooden bench in the shed still bore the indentation of Grandpa’s tool box. If you closed your eyes and concentrated, you might be able to hear your young aunts laughing in the bedrooms up the stairs.
The Baby Boomer credo is not to plod the same path often enough to wear out the floor, but to forge new paths. Midlife men and women are reconnecting, reinventing, and like my husband and myself, relocating. We are not our grandparents or even our parents.
This has not been the first move we’ve made from the original “homestead,” and the “heirlooms” have long since found other homes. The emphasis is on turning, not to things, but to experiences that will have legacy value. As we all grow older and age, a mom task can be done via Skype or during a text. And a nest can be made not only in a tree high in the sky, but high in the sky in a row on a plane as you sit next to your son and talk about his future and the dreams and hopes you have for him.