The other day, our daughter Allison announced over the phone that she wouldn’t be home for Thanksgiving. She’s 25, so this wasn’t, or shouldn’t have been, a bombshell headline like “Dewey defeats Truman,” or the ultimate Berkeley horror, “Romney upends Obama.” As I pointed out to my wife that evening, even while we sat slightly stunned on the family-room couch, “Come on, what’s the big deal?” Our son Parker, after all, wouldn’t be home to eat turkey either. He was off studying at the Sorbonne (France in fall—bummer), so he’d be surround-ed on Nov. 22 by Parisians smoking cigarettes, drinking wine, and being thin, possibly never having heard the word “pilgrim” unless someone once uttered it in a Jerry Lewis movie.
So the upshot was going to be our first Thanksgiving without the kids. “But when you think about it,” I suggested with unassailable logic as we sat there on the couch, “we had seven Thanksgivings with just the two of us before Allie was born.” So actually we were, you know,
Thanksgiving no-kid veterans. We should be able to take this one in stride.
At least, that’s what I told myself the next day, wobbling back and forth on a ladder, scooping leaves out of the gutters at the front of the house while bending under the branches of the ornamental crab-apple tree—the one that wasn’t supposed to bear fruit but each fall litters the sidewalk with a bonanza big enough for a dozen pies. Allie’s apple pie, now there’s a Thanksgiving tradition to remember. Each year, she pulls one from the oven to wild acclaim, fruit and juice bursting through a top crust pieced together with an entertaining array of mismatched leftover pastry parts. Frankenpies, we call them, and Parker never leaves a crumb.
I pulled a handful of withered leaves from the gutter and thought about another day, an afternoon not scraped by the dry fingers of an East Bay fall but brushed with a moist spring breeze drifting in through the kitchen windows. The day the letter arrived.
I hadn’t planned to be talking with Allie that day until she got home from play rehearsal after school. But around lunchtime, she called me about something and I told her that the first envelope from a college admissions office had arrived. Did she want me to open it? Yes! No! Maybe. Sure. No, wait! Okay, yes. So I did. Thumbs up, I said, and the wild eruption of cheers among friends was the last thing I heard because when our daughter rang off, she forgot to say goodbye.
I was smiling as I started across the kitchen to hang up the phone, then suddenly found myself collapsing onto the floor, awash in a feeling I was too surprised to immediately identify, although I was pretty sure it wasn’t mirth. Our firstborn was going to college? She’d be, like, moving out? And what catastrophe would then follow—our secondborn, our son? Both of them—leaving?
And leave they did, sort of. Allie finished her undergraduate work, then was back home again, just like the scary economists said she’d be. For two years, she trooped off five mornings a week to a job in Walnut Square. Then she was gone again, up north to grad school. Meantime, Parker may be in Paris, but he’ll return soon for his senior year in New York, at least halfway back in our direction from the Sorbonne. And then, come the December holidays, we’ll all be together again, at least for a couple of weeks.
Turns out, ours isn’t the first empty nest, nor, I guess, will it be the last. As I scooped more leaves out of the gutter, I reminded myself that, before our birds had flown, we’d seen plenty of snow-haired (or, like me, no-haired) couples, parents of grown children, I was willing to wager, walking around town on weekdays, weeknights, any old time, on their way to the movies maybe, wreathed in their own laughter like a pair of blythe spirits at the holidays. No kids for Thanksgiving? Maybe we’d take off for the movies. Or, for that matter, take a nap. Seems like even now, we never have time for either one.
Meantime, we wander around the house saying things like, “Where’d all these extra rooms come from?” The whole front part of the house hardly ever hears a footstep, unless it’s coming through on its way out the door. We live back in the family room now because it’s not full of kids anymore, that’s where the movies are, and (according to my house-cleaning theory, anyway) if you stay in the back, you don’t have to vacuum the front. We’re so oblivious to the sound of the doorbell, even the Jehovah’s Witnesses have given up on us, so there is that.
This past summer, when Allie was home between road trips to L.A. and Oregon and God knows where, my wife and I got to talking about where we might go when we sell the house, the one Allie and Parker grew up in. Home. “Sell the house?” our daughter exclaimed. “You’re going to move? Leave?”
Robert Menzimer is executive director of the nonprofit WriterCoach Connection program, which provides writing support to students in East Bay public schools. He’s also a freelance writer and English tutor. He and his wife live, for the moment anyway, in Albany.
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