The Empty Nest, Redoux


So here I am again. Trying to make myself into the supportive, happy adult who celebrates the launching of the children. Trying to be happy for them. Trying to embrace the wonderful new adventures that await them.

Trying to silence the woman inside of me who can’t even begin to understand how all of this could have unfolded so quickly. Trying to come to terms with the fact that a baby’s time is the blink of an eye, that the toddler gets to her feet before you can take in a breath, that the little girl can go from taking a bottle to reading a book in the time it takes for her grandmother to turn around.

Six years ago, almost to this very day, I realized that my time as a teacher had to come to an end. I left my classroom and said goodbye to my friends while mourning the change that confronted me. I wasn’t ready to retire, but I did. It was the right thing to do, given the political winds that were blowing.

But it was also the right thing to do because I was in desperate need of something to make me feel useful and wanted and important. It worked out perfectly for me, because my daughter was in need of a safe, secure, affordable child care option.

So Ellie, my sweet first grand child, became my saving grace, my saving responsibility, my link to my nurturing inner self. Even as I mourned the fact that I was no longer teaching a group of children to love learning, even as I missed those moments when I would laugh out loud with 24 young kids, I learned to embrace my role as the “Momma stand in”.

My days of watching little Ellie were the bridge that allowed me to move from my professional career to my retirement life. Her smiles were my pay checks. Her hugs were my lifeline. Her first words, first steps, first solid foods were my reassurance that I remained relevant in this world.

Every time I bathed Ellie, and wrapped her in a towel, I was reminded of my mothering years. I was reminded and reassured that I was actually really good at this nurturing woman thing. Ellie’s trusting gaze, her arms reaching up for me, the way that her parents trusted me to protect and care for her; all of this let me grow into this next phase of my life. It let me move past the grief and anger of my last year of teaching and find a place where I could once again embrace and accept my strengths along with my many weaknesses.

I loved being “Nonni” to my grandchild. I loved the way she looked at me, and the way she missed me when we were apart. I relied on her love and her acceptance as I settled into my retirement life.

And when her brothers were born, it was all of that time with Ellie that let me seamlessly move into my role as Nonni and daycare provider for all three of them.

Because of my time with Ellie, my house now contains more art supplies than any craft store. Due to the fact that I was totally smitten with her, we have three toy boxes, two Pack N’ Plays, a giant box of playdoh and and ten pounds of kinetic sand. We have bibs, and potty chairs and sippy cups and paint smocks.

When Ellie was born, I became the next generation of caregivers. I stepped in to support my daughter by letting her be a teacher while I changed her baby’s diapers and snuggled her girl to sleep.

So.

You can probably understand why I am feeling sad and proud and nostalgic and scared, all at once.

Ellie, my sweet next generation first baby, is about to finish kindergarten. She did this year through remote learning, so she has been here with me for a year longer than we had ever anticipated.

But this crazy, terrifying, upsetting year of Covid is finally winding down. Ellie is one short week away from finishing her kindergarten year. She has learned more than I could ever have predicted. She has gained confidence in her intellect, and is trusting her own ideas and her own voice. She has her own sense of style, and her own preferences in food, fashion, music and art.

She is ready, or more than ready, to take on her next big step in life.

She is ready to go off to first grade, to meet new friends, to learn a million new things, to grow into her own bright and spirited self.

And I am so happy for her.

And so incredibly sad for me.

My nest is beginning to empty once again. My beautiful little fledglings are getting ready to fly.

And it’s good. It is just as it should be.

And my heart hurts just as much as it did the last time I faced the sorrow of the empty nest.

Ah, life.

You really do break our hearts.

Just five minutes


I remember when I was a kid, sometimes my Dad would lean his head back against the couch and say, “I’m not sleeping. I’m just resting my eyes.”

It used to infuriate me. My poor Dad! Father of six very active kids, full time businessman and do-it-yourselfer extraordinaire. He hardly ever rested.

But if we had a chance to spend time with him, we didn’t want him resting his eyes! It used to make me crazy.

Now of course, I completely understand the overwhelming need to “rest my eyes.”

I’m very, very lucky. I spend my days with my granddaughter, Ellie. At 18 months old, she still takes a good, long nap every day.

And she likes me to lie down with her.

Today was a pretty typical day, except that I was unusually tired. Last night I found myself overwhelmed with the fear of our mentally unstable President. I couldn’t get myself to relax and sleep.

I have fibromyalgia, too, and its flared up right now, so most of me hurt last night.

Anyway, I was really groggy today. I had a fun morning with Ellie in spite of my fatigue. We painted, we danced, sang and listened to our favorite band, Upstate Rubdown. We filled the birdfeeders, we played with the dogs, we swept the floor (don’t judge; she loves it.)

Finally, it was nap time.

Ellie and I put away her toys, chose a favorite stuffed animal (Floppy Puppy) and a book (Go Away, Big Green Monster!) and went into the guest room to nap.

Just like my dear old Dad, as soon as I put my head on the pillow, my eyes drifted closed. As usual, Ellie was less sleepy than her Nonni. I did what I often do.

I laid on my back, clasped my hands over my waist and let my eyelids close to the point where I could watch her, but she couldn’t see that I was awake. I thought I had outsmarted her.

Here is what I saw.

Ellie sat beside me, looking at my face. I saw her look around the room. She clasped her own hands together and I could see her lips moving as she sort of quietly mumbled to herself. Her gorgeous, silky brown curls were a halo around her head, with long pieces covering her eyes.

She raised her right hand and pushed the hair out of her eyes, then gave a deep sigh. Her head tilted to the right, and she frowned as she looked closely at my face. I didn’t move.

Ellie lifted her head, sighed again, and looked around the room. The bed has a raised bed rail, and I was lying between it and Ellie. She was sort of stuck. She plucked at her blue and white striped pants, then noticed her socks.

“Hockey!” she said loudly. That’s her version of “socks.” She looked straight at me, but I didn’t move. She deliberately pulled off one sock, still looking at my face. “Oh, Oh!” she cried.

I didn’t react. I’m good.

“More!” Ellie announced, and pulled off the other sock. She looked at me expectantly.

Nothing. I kept my eyes closed just to the point where I could still see her face.

She sighed.

She rested her chin on one hand, still looking at her unmoving Nonni. She touched my nose.

Nothing.

Suddenly, as if there was actually a lightbulb above her head, Ellie sat up straight. She wiggled a little bit closer to me, then suddenly leaned forward and planted a big smacking kiss right on my lips.

I burst out laughing, my eyes popped open, and I grabbed her around the waist.

“You win!” I said, and she giggled in victory.

Then she pushed my shoulder so that I’d lay back down. She grabbed her puppy under her right arm and rested her head on my chest. She immediately fell asleep, and so did I.

And here is what I’m thinking now, as I think back on this day.

If I had never had a single happy moment in my 60 years of life, those five minutes would have made my entire life worth it.

Ellie, you are pure joy.

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Chance Encounters


I took Ellie to the grocery store today. It was a gorgeous, sunny day, and I felt full of energy and strength.

So off we went to the supermarket, armed with an extra diaper, some wipes, a few graham crackers and our grocery list.  I put the baby into the seat in front of the cart, but realized quickly that the straps were too darn small to go around her, even at her tender age of 8 months.

So we went through the store with me carefully holding both of her hands as I steered the cart. When I needed to dash away to grab an item off the shelves, I did it with my heart in my mouth, fearing that she’d topple out and I’d lose my favorite job as “Nonni in Chief”.

We were doing fine, except for the fact that every adult over the age of 19 had to stop us to say how adorable Ellie is. Truth to tell? I didn’t mind at all. In fact, I kind of loved it when strangers would smile at her and she’d look up at me with those deep brown eyes for reassurance.

Anyway, as we made our way through the store we were greeted by two grampas, one grandma, a doting aunt and three young mothers.

I thought that we were on our way out the door when I suddenly noticed that Ellie was staring up with serious intensity at someone off to our right.  I looked over my shoulder and saw a tall, thin man in a tattered black sweatshirt.  He was looking at Ellie with the same seriousness, but I saw that his blue eyes were rimmed with red.  He had a scruffy beard and lank, not-too-clean hair.  His arms were cradled, holding an array of tall beer cans.

When our eyes met, the man quickly looked away.

“Wow,” I said to him as we passed, “She’s really looking at you so seriously!”  I smiled in his general direction, but didn’t think too much about it. After all, I had just spent an hour chatting with various strangers who had paused to admire the baby.

But this time it was a little bit different.  As I made my casual comment, the tall man met my eyes with a look that almost seemed like a  mix of hope and embarrassment. He tilted his head forward a bit, his black hood falling almost over his eyes.

“That is a really beautiful baby,” he said solemnly.

“Thank you!” I replied.

He stopped walking, and I saw that his hands were shaking a bit. He looked me right in the eyes with a sadness and intensity that tugged at my heart.

“No,” he said. “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to say that.”

I didn’t know how to answer him. I had such a clear image of this man, struggling and sad, gazing in silence at beautiful children.

We both moved on, and found ourselves in the same checkout line, where my friend Martha was waiting to ring us up. I caught her eye as the scruffy man placed his beer cans on her counter.  Before she could finish his order, though, he turned abruptly and walked back to Ellie and I.

He reached out his right hand, his fingers stained and bent.  He gently touched the soft hair on the top of her head, and leaned close to her face.

“My God bless you, beautiful baby, every day for the rest of your life.” Ellie looked at him, serious and intent, meeting his gaze.  I was silent, not sure of what to say.

He straightened up, and looked at me.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“I’m Karen,” I said. “What’s your name?”

“Michael,” he answered holding out his hand.

We shook hands, and I was surprised at how strong and sure his palm felt in mine.

“Nice to meet you, Michael,” I said, “Good luck to you.”

“Good luck?” He laughed, and pointed to Ellie sitting quietly in the grocery cart. “I already have good luck.”

I have no idea where Michael is tonight. Whether he is warm, safe, fed, comforted.  But all afternoon, as Ellie and I had lunch and played and sang and as I rocked her to sleep in my arms, all I could wonder was this. Was Michael someone’s Daddy? Did he once hold a baby of his own and gaze at her with love and tenderness? I don’t know.

But I do know that at one point in time he was some woman’s son. He was the beloved baby cradled in someone’s arms.

Whatever has happened to this man in his life, I find it profoundly beautiful that he has kept his gentle spirit intact, and that given the slightest encouragement, he is still able to share that spirit with strangers.

Puttering Around


When I was a little girl, I remember that Saturdays in our house were full of activity. My mom would give all six kids our chores. We’d clean our rooms, vacuum, help with laundry. Mom often did grocery shopping on Saturday mornings, and I remember the kitchen being filled with paper bags and food and noise.

But I mostly remember my Dad, in a white T shirt or an old sweatshirt, a pencil tucked behind one ear. He would move around the house and yard all day long, hammering, sawing, building, taking apart. He planted, pruned, raked, mowed. He was usually either humming or whistling as he bustled around.

I remember trailing after him, asking, “What are you doing, Daddy?”  His answer was always the same, whether he was planting a garden or building a shed.

“I’m just puttering,” he’d say.

“Puttering?”  It sure looked like work to me!

Now the years have passed, and Dad is gone. Today would have been his 89th birthday. I miss him.

I felt a little restless this morning, a little sad and irritable.

I decided to clean out the cabinets under my bathroom sinks, so that all will be safe when Ellie starts to crawl. As I did, I noticed some spots in the bathroom that needed to have the paint touched up. So I did that.

And while I was in the garage finding the paint, I saw that the garden tools were all disorganized and needed cleaning. I wiped them down, placed them in a clean plastic bucket, threw out old rags and bits of string.

When that was finished, I came upstairs to grab a second cup of coffee. But I noticed that my ceramic Easter Bunnies were still out on display. I wrapped them carefully and put them in a bag to go back in the attic. Realizing that I’d be going to the trouble of pulling down the attic stairs and climbing up there, I decided to put away some of the things that the baby has outgrown. Which lead me to pack up my sweaters and winter clothes. I hauled all of it upstairs and moved around some boxes to make it easier to find things.

Two hours later, I sat down to catch my breath.

And looked at a smiling picture of my Dad in my living room.

“Hey, Dad,” I said out loud. “I think I’ve been puttering.”

Beautiful Day


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It’s gray outside. Small pellets of sleet are falling on the frozen mud in the yard. A very cold wind is blowing.

The news is dominated by war, murder, anger, ugliness and fear.

It is a Beautiful Day!

My right hand is typing this, while my left cradles the warm, sweet blanket wrapped bundle of my sleeping Granddaughter.

In the past few days I have received news of a new baby girl and two brand new beautiful baby boys born to people I love.  I have heard news of another little one on the way.

And I am reminded that winter always ends. Political races always conclude. Wars wind down and borders shift. Old fights are ended and reconciliation is always a possibility.

Life continues. Every birth is hope renewed. Welcome, beautiful children! We love you and need you so much!

 

Hearts and Broken Hearts


Sometimes I just want to roll back time.  Just back, back, back.

I have been in love with my husband since we were 17 years old. That’s 42 years.  Holy crow.

Sometimes I wish that I could wind back the movie reel of my life, and see Paul as I saw him so many years ago.  What did I think of him when I met him at the tender age of 12? Did I notice him at all on the first day of seventh grade?  Did he notice me?  What did we each see and feel when we became friends over the next few years? What exactly was it that made us begin to see each other differently, to fall in love? I think I know, but I wish I could go back.

I wish I could go back to see.

I wish I could wind the clock back, back, back.  Back to the time when my Dad was still alive.  Back to when he used to play with my children. Back to when I could hear him laugh. Back to the night when we ate cioppini together and laughed and slurped and dunked our bread into our dishes.

Back.

There are times when I wish I could roll it all back and back and back again.  Sometimes I miss my own childhood. I miss being the little girl who was so carefully taken care of. I would like to see my world through that girl’s eyes once again. I’d like to go back to the easy days.  When finding a little bag of Fritos in my lunch was the most exciting thing in a week.  When my biggest problem was the mess in my closet.

Back to the day when my siblings and I were a pack, like a bunch of puppies. When loving each other was effortless.  Back to when we could give each other “noogies” or “Indian Sunburns” and scream and cry, but be best friends again an hour later.

I wish I could roll it all back.  I wish I could go back to those days with the knowledge and the wisdom that I have now.  I would look at each of those people, my husband, my father, my big pack of brothers and sisters, and I would look each one in the eye and say, right out loud: “No matter what.  I will always, always love you.”

 

 

A Good Kind of Surprise


Now that I have an empty nest, I am used to having nearly complete control over my environment.

I mean, other than the mountains of dog hair and Paul’s habitual pile o’ stuff on my kitchen counters, I have a lot of control of my space.

I now wash, dry and carefully fold the towels so that they are placed neatly on the closet shelves.  The beds are made.  The shoes are either in the closet or neatly lined up by the door. The dishes and cups are clean and dry and waiting in their respective cabinets.

There is very little unexpected and unwelcome mess in my house.

I very very rarely come across a dirty dish on a windowsill.  I am no longer surprised by a pile of muddy clothes in the bathtub.

My life is predictable.

When I open the hall closet, I know which coats and jackets I will see.

Except when I am surprised.

Delightfully, happily, joyfully surprised.

Like today.

I opened the closet to grab my down jacket, planning to step outside to shovel some snow.

And there it was.

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Surprise!

A tiny purple jacket, decorated with pink and blue hearts and circles.  A puffy, warm, cozy little jacket, just right for keeping a baby girl warm.

I must have hung it up there not long ago, when I was sorting through a big bag of hand-me-down clothes. I probably put it on the hanger and nestled it into the pile of coats. Somewhere between my old bulky white coat and Paul’s blue winter jacket, it must have settled in and gotten comfy.

And I must have forgotten all about it.

Until today.

When I pulled open the door and pushed aside the hangers.  And there it was.  Reminding me that my neat, orderly, predictable house is no longer entirely under my control. Telling me that it will soon be overtaken once again by toys and blankets and cast off cups and dirt and leaves and twigs and bandaids and juice boxes.

Thank God!

That pretty little jacket, hanging so sweetly in my closet, reassures me that life continues to go on here.

My nest is not quite so empty anymore.

 

 

Now I lay me down to sleep……


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Time for bed!

So there I was, standing in the bathroom as I got ready for bed last night. Paul was already under the covers with a good book, and the house was cozy and warm.  It occurred to me that I was one very lucky woman, still married to my first love after 37 years of wedded bliss.

I thought back on the many years of getting ready for bed, with my dear Paul waiting for me.

I remembered the slinky negligees, the light floral scents of the lotions, the candles. Sweet memories!

And then I looked in the mirror.  And thought back on the previous 30 minutes.

And I suddenly realized something.  When they tell you how things change when you get old, they don’t warn you about bedtime!

I mean.  Jeez.

I had shut the lights in the living room and headed for the bedroom a full half hour ago.  I thought back over what I had done to get ready to sleep.

Well, first I’d changed into my nice flannel pajama’s.  The ones with the stars and moons.

Then I had washed my face carefully with “Retinol Wrinkle Reduction” or some such thing. I’d dried off and then smoothed on a coat of “Age Spot Reducing Lotion”.  You know, just to keep those little brown smears in check.

I had dutifully brushed my teeth with my electric toothbrush and my “Sensodyne” toothpaste. I had flossed.  I had used mouthwash, not so much because I was anticipating anything romantic, but because I want my gums to stay healthy.

Sigh.

Then I had to use an astringent on my nose.  See, I have developed a certain congestion of the oro-pharynx that can result in a vibratory pattern.

Yeah. I snore.

Like a freakin’ freight train.  I not only wake Paul up several times a night, I wake myself up too.

So I use those nose strips to sleep. And you have to make sure they stick. So, astringent, check. Nose strip, check.

Then I had to rinse off and insert my mouth guard.  The one that stops me from grinding away my back teeth while I sleep.  I cleaned it, popped it in, tested my jaw movements. Check, Check, Check.

And then I had to refill my water bottle and place it next to the bed.  What with the mouthguard and the nose strips, I get pretty dry at night.  Check.

I was almost ready to sleep.  All that was left was to find the menthol patches and stick one on each elbow, one on my right thumb and one on my knee.   All set.  The smell of camphor and spearmint filled the air.

I spritzed a little coconut oil on my hair (its supposed to improve the thickness and make the scalp healthy), ran my fingers through it so that it stood up in greasy gray spikes, and headed to bed.

I had to stop once on the way to smooth cocoa butter on my dry ankles. But eventually, I made it to the bed where Paul was reading.

I pulled back the covers and snuggled against my dear beloved husband. “Night, honey”, I said.  He smiled, kissed me and said, “Night!”

He is one lucky, lucky guy.  Don’t you think?

 

 

To Keep Hope Alive


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Dark Days

These seem like very dark days on earth. We are in the midst of a global struggle that many define as the Third World War. We fear terrorists with bombs. We fear our neighbors with guns.  We fear that the earth is warming beyond reversible limits.

We are afraid.  We are angry.  Our governments seem to be working against us in a frantic effort to hold onto power and wealth.

Worst of all, to me: We are being convinced to turn on each other.  We hurl the most hateful words at each other, sneering, “The libs hate America” and “Those neocons are a bunch of bigots.”

We stand on opposite sides, with a huge dark line between us. We face each other, but we can’t find a way to talk about our fear or our anger.  We can only scream.  “Put down the guns!” “Don’t touch my guns!”            “Keep out the Muslims!”  “Let in the Muslims!”                                         “Liberals suck!”   “Conservatives suck!”

We can’t find a way to look at each other and ask, “What is it that you want from your government?”  or “What is your greatest hope?”

These are just dark days.

We turn on the radio and the TV, and all we can see is that ISIS is coming to get us.  All we can hear is that terrorism is all around us.  We begin to feel doomed. We begin to believe those who tell us that we have to protect ourselves from each other.

One of my sons shared a quote with me tonight.  He said that it is resonating over and over in his head.  He is 25 years old, on the brink of his full life.  And this is what he hears in his mind: “What can men do against such reckless hate?”

So how do we hold onto hope?

We turn off the radio, unplug the TV.  We stop thinking in labels (liberal, conservative, southerner, neocon, Christian, Muslim, white, black, rich, poor).   We stop the shouting.  We listen.

We look at the people in the grocery store. We smile at them and exchange a comment about the weather. We smile at children.  We tell young mothers how beautiful their babies are.

We remember that it is a very big world, and most of it is safe and calm. We look into the eyes of the babies in our lives, and we find a quiet place in our hearts.  We remind ourselves that those little innocent souls carry no labels yet.  We take a breath, and we whisper a promise to those little ones. We tell them that we will do our best to keep the world in one piece for them.  They smile up at us, trusting us to keep our word.

And that is how we keep hope alive.

Magic Words


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Oh, don’t you wish that there were magic words?

Wouldn’t it be just wonderful to have magic phrases that could bring peace, healing, love, rest?

I wish that our world contained real wizards.  Men and women of such wisdom that they could simply say those magic words and hearts would be made whole again.

In a world that seems to have gone so wrong, I wish that there were special words to make things right.  I wish that I could open an old and dusty book, placed high on a wooden shelf in a long forgotten shop.  I wish that I could turn those ancient pages, slowly, and so carefully.

I wish that I would catch my breath in wonder, and run my finger slowly and carefully under those magic words.

Don’t you wish that with me?

Don’t you wish that somehow we could turn to those around us who are in pain, and that we could whisper those special words that would mend the terrible wounds in their hearts?

I do.

I wish that there were magic words.

I wish that I knew them.

Wishing all of you peace and safety and laughter and love. Wishing you a home without strife, a country without war, a kitchen without hunger, a group of loving friends and family to embrace you.

Wishing you magic words to heal you.