Outward Bound/Homeward Bound

eastbound amtrakAt 9:15 on a Sunday morning, we put our daughter Emma on the Amtrak train that will take her from the West Coast to the East Coast.

Then we sail back home on the freeway, strangely clear of the traffic that normally chokes it.

Less than half an hour after hugging Emma goodbye, I am at my yoga class, my routine barely interrupted by her departure.

When I emerge, all stretched out and relaxed, I wonder how Emma’s doing. Has she gotten up yet to stretch her legs? Where is she now? The train has surely hurtled beyond the bay, beyond the suburbs we consider home turf, possibly beyond the great wetlands near Sacramento that attract millions of migrating birds as they touch down between Canada and Mexico.

Our migrating daughter will touch down in Chicago, then New York before continuing, airborne, on the last leg of her journey to St. Petersburg, Russia, for an artist’s residency.

At home I make salad and grilled cheese, using the leftover bread from the Italian restaurant we went to for our last dinner together the night before. It’s delicious. I wonder if Emma has broken into her stash of salami sandwiches. Her food must last for three days. Has she eaten any PB and Js out of boredom, or homesickness?

It’s not as if Emma’s alone in the wilderness, though. There’s a dining car, vending machines and even cafes at the stations where the train stops. Emma has money—not much, but enough—to augment her supplies.

As I eat my lunch, I pick up my book. Has Emma begun the one she selected for her train ride—Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about losing and finding herself on the Pacific Crest Trail. Strayed really was alone in the wilderness, and ran out of food and money—even her hiking boots! The book’s a good choice for my daughter, who’s about the same age as Strayed was when she made her trek. Emma is not as poorly equipped or facing such daunting challenges in her quest for self, but she, too, seeks something equally elusive and necessary.

At night I go into Emma’s room, relishing the unfamiliar tidiness, mourning the emptiness. As I strip her sheets, I wonder if Emma is settling down for the night—the first of two spent upright in Coach. She might treat herself to a meal in Chicago, but she is too poor for a sleeper berth and young enough still to withstand the price her body will pay for lack of a real bed.

I text Emma, wishing her goodnight as she glides through Nevada and Utah in the darkness. I do not hear back right away, but in the morning Emma’s text alerts us that the snow-covered Sierra was indeed beautiful. No doubt the upcoming Rockies will be too.

I can’t remember when Emma will arrive in Denver; Chicago’s ETA is even fuzzier, Penn Station’s a complete mystery. I am beginning to regret that I discarded the Amtrak brochure with the schedule of all the stops and times—so linear and straightforward, so easy to track.

I am losing track of my daughter. And even if Emma had a smartphone, which she doesn’t, I have not the will nor the desire nor the technological savvy to keep her under constant GPS surveillance. She needs to roam beyond our reach.

We go about our usual lives–dinner, Netflix, laundry, work–as our daughter travels farther away. Soon Emma’s across the mountains, across the prairie, changing trains in Chicago, swept up in the swirl of New York City. We text and talk many times, of course. There are three “Have fun, be safe, goodbye, I love you!” calls alone on her last stateside day. Then Emma boards the plane, lands in Russia. At least Skype and email will keep the connection strong until she returns.

Our forebears, who made this journey in the opposite direction, were not so lucky. The three continents and an ocean they crossed opened many doors, but one closed shut behind them. Home remained as a dream, a memory, a yearning to those who ventured forth—while those left going about their days prayed that their loved ones had enough to eat, a place to sleep, and home carried always in their hearts.



Finch familyLast weekend we loaded up the U-Haul and moved our daughter into her first San Francisco apartment.  Ally had just started a new job—the kind with benefits, including dental. That same day, our other daughter, Emma, moved from home into an artist’s residency a thousand miles away.

Developments were also under way in another family—this one nesting under the eaves on a drainpipe above our back deck. A pair of house finches who raised a brood there last year had returned.

The first time round, I was a nervous wreck about the birds. Would the neighbor’s cat get them? Would the babies fall out of their nest? Crash while learning to fly? Every morning I peeked out the window like a new parent who ventures into the nursery dreading crib death. It was like a time-lapsed sequence of all my anxieties about raising our own children.

But everything turned out fine, as it usually does. So this time round I’ve been calmer, not only with the finches’ launch, but with our daughters’. There’s a pang still, but it’s not nearly as acute as before, when each new step Emma and Ally made away from us left me worried about their well-being and wondering who I would be in their absence. Now I have come back to myself, come back to the marriage pushed to the back burner while my husband and I grew our girls into young women. Just as our daughters are taking flight into their new lives, we are, too.

So it is with our bird family. The parent finches go from patient egg-sitting to cramming food down gaping mouths. Scruffy teens with tufts of down atop their heads soon take over the living space, crowding each other on the edge of the nest.  Dislodged twigs and dried bits of guano litter the deck below. In a few days, they are gone, leaving behind their mess.

Just like Ally and Emma. I sweep the deck, then tackle the debris left behind in their rooms–stray socks, scraps of paper, dirty sheets and towels. As much as we miss our daughters, my husband and I love the return to order, love having our house (and deck) back.

Besides, we look forward to return visits, messiness and all.




W is for Whatever

whateverI had been feathering the empty nest with self-pity and sadness since our daughter Emma left for college. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover at the breakfast table a baby bird not yet launched—Ally, our younger daughter.

Such is the lot of the second child. Even in utero Ally suffered benign neglect as I consumed the occasional Diet Coke or glass of wine.

“Whatever,” I’d think.

After an exhausting labor, I couldn’t have cared less when Ally was whisked away to the nursery and given a bottle. This from the same woman who wrote a four-page letter of complaint to Kaiser when a nurse suggested a little sugar water for my firstborn! The second time around, I was too busy contemplating not so much the miracle of birth as the debacle of my body, which felt like it was filled with concrete.

“Whatever,” I rationalized as they carted away my squalling baby. “What’s the harm in a rubber nipple now and then?”

This was unthinkable when Emma was born. We were warned not to introduce a bottle within the first several weeks lest the baby get confused and reject the breast. Of course, Emma screamed the house down the first several times we eventually tried a bottle. Initially tyrannized by the cult of breastfeeding, we were next tyrannized by an infant who was furious rather than confused about the difference between rubber and flesh.

As for the whatever child, doomed by a mother who preferred sleeping over bonding–she sucked happily at both breast and bottle from the get-go. And she did it wherever, whenever, since she was used to being hauled around to suit everyone else’s schedule.

Benign neglect had further salutary effects. Whenever Emma pitched a fit, I oozed empathy, thus encouraging marathon tantrums. With Ally, I just stepped around her sob-wracked, prostrate body. Whatever. I went on with my business, and pretty soon she went back to hers.

I wonder who suffers more: the subsequent children who are so often ignored, or the firstborn who lives so cozily in an enchanted web of enmeshment? Ally may not be coddled, but she avoids the sticky entanglements of my too-rapt focus. She’s an independent go-getter. Still, she complains that she can’t get enough of my attention.

I took note. While mooning after Emma, who needed to fly free, I had overlooked the one who still relished my company.

So this weekend Ally and I spent a whole day together, just the two of us. I cheered her on at her track meet, then we gabbed over lunch at the Beach Chalet. We chased down ducks with a pedal boat at Stow Lake, then prowled her favorite vintage clothing haunts.

I know it won’t be long before she’s rolling her eyes and saying “whatever” under her breath, ignoring me as I once ignored her. But until then, I’m going to savor every moment.


How’s it been for you as a parent of more than one child on this score? How about as a sibling–either firstborn or subsequent? 


S is for Send-off


I prowl the bulk food aisle at the grocery store, scooping my daughter’s favorite dried organic mango and granola into plastic bags. Ally’s about to leave for college, and I’m in charge of provisions. Scanning the shelves for the chai tea she loves, I find myself thinking of the King Tut show that came through town a few years ago.

At the exhibit, case after case contained wondrous artifacts that kept the Boy King company on his journey to the afterlife: a whimsical child’s chair; a model boat fashioned from papyrus; clay vessels for his favorite food and wine; an inlaid board game to while away the eternal hours.

I imagined Tut’s grieving courtiers and family members busying themselves by accumulating the little treasures of everyday life. What did he prefer to eat?  Remember how he crowed triumphantly every time he won this game! Don’t forget his boat, complete with oarsmen to help him cross over. This little clay animal will remind him of the pets and people who still love him when he is lonely in his journey to the afterlife.

My daughter, still very much alive, is simply starting college. But I feel a kinship with the ancient Egyptians as I place the mango and chai into the box next to the toothpaste and family photos I have been stockpiling for Ally’s send-off.  After all, she’ll need to be prepared for the new life that awaits her far from home.  Who knows if they have proper provisions in the world beyond known as college?

I add Scrabble and a deck of cards to the cache of treasures. When Ally’s homesick, they’ll help her conjure up nights of laughter with those who love and miss her. For good measure, I tuck in her old stuffed dog, whose soft pink plush Ally long ago caressed into a colorless, misshapen bundle. The mundane accoutrements of home will provide succor for the uncharted passage ahead.

We moderns marvel at the golden funeral masks and ornately painted sarcophagi unearthed from the royal tombs. Yet it is the relics of domesticity used in the ritual of farewell that captivate us. Several millennia span the time between King Tut and today. But the impulse is timeless to send along a bit of home, a bit of ourselves, in the hard task of saying goodbye.


What tokens of home help you or a loved one when far away?


N is for New Nest, Spiffed up with Cleanser (and Love)

cleaning suppliesI am down on my hands and knees in my pajamas, scrubbing my daughter Emma’s bathroom floor. The one-inch hexagonal tiles were clearly not installed with college kids in mind, to say nothing of the Deco light fixtures and grooved wainscoting. Every nook and cranny is caked with grime.

Emma is asleep upstairs in the bed abandoned by the previous tenant. She’s exhausted from yesterday’s 12-hour drive and the thought of setting up her first home outside the dorms. But I’ve been up since daybreak.

It’s been years since I’ve cleaned my own bathroom. I replenish the empty bottles of Soft Scrub and Windex that Maria leaves on the counter. That’s the extent of my exertion. How do I instruct my daughter in the lost domestic arts?

“Make enough money so you can hire a housecleaner” is my usual advice. But Emma at 20 is years away from a good paycheck.  What was I thinking when I let Maria scrub the toilet?

Emma may have grown up with Maria, but I grew up without hired help, under the tutelage of a mother who swore by Peg Bracken’s I Hate to Housekeep. When I was just a few years older than Emma, I shared an apartment with my friend Jane, whose mother’s domestic Bible was more Lutheran than Peg Bracken. Their credo was “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.”  Jane once surveyed the bathroom I had just scoured and asked in a despairing tone, “Didn’t your mother ever teach you about cleanser?”

My mother did teach me about cleanser, but she imparted a different lesson. She associated housework with the humiliation her own mother endured scrubbing floors for a sadistic boss during the Depression. My grandmother humbled herself for a pittance so her daughter would not starve. Maria, albeit with a kinder employer and higher wages, does the same. I am lucky to escape their desperate need. But here I am, another mother engaged in the sacrament of love through sacrifice, down on my hands and knees scrubbing the floor for my daughter.

By now my back is aching, so I pause to stretch. Chrome faucets, mirror, and light fixtures gleam. Stripped of encrusted layers of filth, the wainscoting and baseboards are blindingly white. I survey my efforts with pride, grateful that years of paid help have not stripped away my ability to clean, limited though it may be. For the grueling labor that is basic to love cannot be hired out.

Emma is awake at last. She comes downstairs, yawning and stretching as she stumbles into the bathroom. Her delight is a balm for my sore knees and stiff back.
After breakfast, we search out provisions in Emma’s new neighborhood, emerging from the hardware store with a Swiffer Sweeper Starter Kit and several other weapons in the war against grime.

Back at the house, Emma and I tackle the kitchen together. We work side by side, scrubbing the Formica counters, polishing the cabinet fronts. I remember a moment years ago, when baby Emma kept me company in the kitchen, her luscious neck folds spilling out of the collar of her cotton jammies. As I sat on the floor polishing with the cleaning rag, I glanced to my side. There she was right next to me, vigorously wiping circles on the cabinets with her blankie. Baby Emma grinned with delight as we swooped, cackling, into one another’s arms.

Now Emma spritzes Windex on congealed spills atop a glass table in the living room. We ooh and ahh over the house’s multiple charms—the elegant bathroom, soft pine flooring, built-in window seats. Emma and I scheme about getting rid of all her housemates’ junk. I think, If only we could get rid of them, I could move in here with you, and we could really fix it up nicely! But I keep this sentiment to myself.

The next morning I must head for home. Emma is content to stay behind, running her Swiffer under the sofas and across the honey-colored floors.

I go into the gleaming bathroom one last time. Pausing in my morning ablutions to admire my handiwork, I see that I have missed some spots. The window is streaked, and stray cobwebs dangle from the upper molding like Spanish moss. But overall, the bathroom cleans up nicely. It has good bones.

I’ve missed a few spots with my daughter as well: how to budget, how to scrub a toilet, the uses of cleanser.  But Emma, too, cleans up nicely. She has good bones.

My aching bones remind me again of my gratitude for Maria. I’d still advise Emma to earn enough money to hire a housecleaner. But I would impart some additional wisdom as well: Learn how to clean, so that someday, if you are lucky enough to be moving your daughter into her first house, you can know the sheer joy of scrubbing her bathroom floor on hands and knees while she sleeps.


What was it like moving into your first home away from home? If you have children, what’s it been like helping them set up in their newly fledged adult lives?

K is for Kitchen Table

tableMy youngest daughter, Ally, who had our old kitchen table at college, wanted to sell it before studying abroad for a year. I, however, insisted on storing the table during her absence, certain she would need it upon her return.

But it was really my need: for Ally to still want to keep a part of home, and for her to remain with us, “in storage,” during the temporary absence that foreshadowed the permanent separation of growing up. Although the table would be cumbersome to move and store, I wasn’t ready to let go.

After all, it was so much more than a table. I remembered how my future husband set it with yellow roses and homemade spaghetti soon after we met, and the subsequent family dinners once we had kids. I recalled the homework, the crafts, the cookie decorating, how the table contained the overflow of books, mail, and all the stuff of family life throughout the years. I had held on to the table to forestall feeling the loss of these cherished times, the ache of the empty nest.

Transitional objects are not just the loved-to-bits blankies and stuffed animals of childhood; they help us cope throughout life. We hang on to them until we do the work of integrating and grieving what they signify, and can relinquish them once they become just the thing itelf.

So after remembering, and mourning, I called Ally and said, “Sell the table.” It had become just a piece of furniture to me, and a ratty one at that. I could bear its loss, and even look forward to what might open up in letting go.

In the end Ally decided to keep the table. Perhaps she still needed a token of home while growing up. Or just a place to eat dinner and throw her books.


What have you hung on to, and what has helped you relinquish it?

B is for Boomerang


“Bite your tongue.”

That’s advice I’ve been taking to heart ever since our 26-year-old daughter Emma moved back home right before Christmas. Emma spent two years as a starving artist in Brooklyn after college and a temporary job in Russia—she loved living in New York City, except for the starving part. And the weather. So now our little fledgling has come home to roost.

Just as Brooklyn is the thing for young adults to do, so is boomeranging back.

For someone who spent as much time as I did mournfully anticipating the empty nest, then moping around once I actually had one, you’d think I’d rejoice at Emma’s return.

But it’s surprising how quickly you can fall in love with a clean house. Not to mention the husband you’ve neglected over the past couple of decades.

Just as Emma had grown fond of her independence, so had we. Now we’re all like not-quite-roommates who are trying hard not to engage in nagging and eye-rolling. (Guess which habit matches which generation!)

There’s nothing really wrong, exactly. Emma is sweet, and definitely more mature than when we packed her off for Adventures in Young Adulthood. She tells us that she was the one in her Brooklyn household who always turned off the lights and kept the place clean (I’d really hate to meet those other housemates).

But it’s true that she now leaves smaller debris trails than she used to. Emma also cooks dinner for us once a week, chips in for gas and groceries, has found work, and takes her art seriously. She seems to be following some inner plan, although what it is and on what time line the plan will unfold is anyone’s guess.

Still, having Emma back is a tough transition—for all of us. She misses coming and going as she pleases without parents wondering if she’s lying dead in a ditch somewhere. I miss turning off the radar on that particular nightmare. On a more mundane note, I also miss being able to get into the car knowing that NPR will come on instead of some horrible noise from a different preset. I miss dishes done on my timetable. I miss towels that hang neatly from the towel rack. I miss not feeling like a control freak who is constantly resisting the urge to nag. I miss my unbitten tongue.

In the meantime, I keep reminding myself how lucky we are to have a child we love and who loves us, and who feels secure in the knowledge that she has a home to come back to.

Two children, actually: Emma may soon have company. Her younger sister, Ally, has been living in Barcelona, but she, too, plans to move back at the end of the summer while she figures out what comes next.

I used to say (and even mean it!) whenever the girls visited for holidays, “There’s nothing I like more than having everyone here under the same roof again!”

Be careful what you wish for.


 Anyone boomeranged back into your empty nest? How have you weathered the transition?

Empty Nest Projects

Picture of nestFrances McDormand, speaking recently at City Arts and Lectures about Olive Kitteredge, referred to the HBO miniseries she stars in and produced as her empty nest project. Already mourning her son’s not-quite-imminent departure when he was 14, McDormand cast about for something to take his place. She bought the rights to Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, shaped it with screenwriter Jane Anderson and director Lisa Cholodenko­­­, and insisted that Richard Jenkins be cast as Olive’s “tyrannically cheerful” husband. When McDormand’s son left for college, she left for Gloucester for three months of filming.

I, too, dreaded my kids’ departure long before they left home. My empty nest project was writing. I had dabbled in words before, but aside from churning out a clever holiday letter every year, my oeuvre was pretty non-existent. Writing was the one thing I looked forward to, not just to fill the void, but as something just for me after years of tending to others–my consolation prize for the planned obsolescence of motherhood.

It was also good therapy, as writing usually is. I poured my anxiety and grief onto the page. “Soon we’ll be leaving the emerald hills and spring-soft skies of the Bay Area to visit faraway New England colleges, icy sirens that entice my baby away from home,” I began. This turned into my first Perspectives piece. Like most things that well up from the heart, the words came spontaneously, easily. They struck a chord for many listeners, though one felt compelled to write that my daughter was lucky to escape my neurotic clutches!

Olive Kitteredge was accused of much worse. But where would be without our neurotic clutches? They are the wellspring of creativity. Equanimity does not hold one’s interest for long. Nor does it provide good copy. The bulk of my personal essays are about the empty nest—anxiously awaiting it, grieving it, then enjoying it. I knew I was through the mourning process when I began to tire of writing about it.

On to new things. Now that Emma has moved back home after being gone for so long, perhaps my next endeavor will be the Boomerang Project. And looking forward to seeing what comes next for Frances McDormand.


How have you transformed your struggles with creativity?

Dinosaur Extinction

Dinosaur plateThe plate is at the top of the stairs, where we put stuff we’re ready to donate.

“That’s odd,” I think to myself. But things have ended up in stranger places when my husband unloads the dishwasher. Jonathan forgives my never remembering how to use the flash drive, and I forgive his never knowing where anything goes.

I put the plate back in the cupboard. Jonathan takes it out again.

“Do we really need this anymore?” he sighs.

“Yes! ”  I reply, a little too adamantly.

“See if you can move it somewhere else. It’s in the way.”

Smiling dinosaurs in bright colors chase each other around the plate’s rim. Three separate compartments enforce the First Commandment of Children’s Food: Thou Shalt Not Touch. Smooth melamine ridges segregate the applesauce from the mac and cheese. Suspicious interlopers like spinach are safely sequestered in their own tiny corral. The brave toddler who stomachs the two-bite portion is rewarded by uncovering twin baby triceratops frolicking with their delighted mom. She, no doubt, is also encouraging her offspring’s herbivorous adventures.

My wary toddlers are now 23 and 26. They favor fusion foods and can be trusted with dishes that shatter.

Still, I need this plate. The dinosaur era is one of the sweeter pleasures of parenting. What other passions appeal to both sexes, all ages, inspire awe, and transform a trip to the museum from torture into an adventure? Besides, I have packed so much away in packing my children off to adulthood; I’m not yet ready to say goodbye to the little green creature hatching out of its eggshell. Maybe our grandchildren will eat from this plate someday, discerning T-rexes from brontosauruses as they diddle with their vegetables.

My husband’s ready, though. He wants to clear out the cupboards to make room for what the children’s needs have obscured. What might we assemble together without all the clutter?

With one last fond sigh, I put the plate on the donate pile.

Cleaning Up Our Act

SolesIt’s time. Past time, actually. Emma is 26 and has been living in Brooklyn for the last 18 months. She’s graduated not just from college, but to full independent living, not counting the occasional Trader Joe’s gift cards I send her. I do this when I become too anxious that trying to make it on $12 an hour in the Big Apple may force Emma into dumpster diving. (Possibly it is not the threat of starvation that might drive her to this, as you will see.) Also, Emma’s still on our Verizon family plan. I am convinced that when the stages of human development are revised for the current era, getting your own phone account will replace marriage, mortgages, and having children as the signposts of adulthood.  Still, aside from these minor caveats, Emma’s grown up. Gone.

Her stuff isn’t gone, though. True, she did a major purge to mark her graduation from college. But I might have been a tad too optimistic when I chronicled the demise of Emma’s hoarding days. She really just scratched the surface. One thing unearthed during that earlier excavation was that I am a hoarder by proxy, and I didn’t demand that Emma dig deeper. I believe that closets and basements were invented for hanging onto things until we are ready to let go.

Apparently, I haven’t been ready. Although I’ve professed a desire for a guestroom for years, Emma’s partially denuded bedroom has retained its status as part shrine, part dumping ground. The one thing we did get rid of after she left is her loft bed, so now even nimble guests (or returning daughters) have no place to sleep.

My husband and I finally got a new mattress, which provided the impetus to move the old one into Emma’s room and turn fantasy into reality. It is not quite the guestroom of my dreams. In fact, it bears a striking resemblance to a dumping ground with a bed in the middle of it, surrounded by junk. Emma’s junk.

I wish I were the kind of mother who could just start tossing, confident that the appropriation of kids’ former space no longer induces trauma once they are old enough to fall off your health insurance under Obamacare. But I can’t. I’m an enabler.

It would probably be better, I think as I riffle through high school term papers and ugly glass figurines, to adopt a version of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Don’t tell Emma about that mysteriously disappeared fake hand we got for Halloween one year, and she won’t ask. Or care. Or even know! But perhaps I have never gotten over the box of stuffed animals my mother tossed. More pragmatically, I regret that the baseball Jackie Robinson autographed for my husband when he was a boy did not survive a major move by his unsentimental (and financially unsavvy) parents.

I don’t want to make such mistakes, or make Emma’s decisions for her.So I hit upon the brilliant idea of taking iPhone pictures of stuff, then sending them to her so she can decide. Plus, if I succeed in the time-honored trick of substituting photos of stuff for the stuff itself, we’ll already have the photos! Cyberspace is such a vast new wasteland to clutter up, our humble collection will barely make a dent.

Hopeful, I arrange scarves, trinkets, purses on the bed, and send off my first batch with the subject line “Keep or Give Away?” I am careful to avoid the word “discard,” which sounds so dismissive and final. Maybe “give away”  might stimulate some deeply buried philanthropic urge.

“Save!” Emma emails in response, the act of hoarding itself apparently a rescue operation. This is not working. But then, a different response to one of the four pictures arrives: I am allowed to get rid of—sorry, give away–two hats.

So I send another photo, this one containing a pair of shoes and a pair of cowboy boots with holes that the Marlboro Man could ride his horse through. I’ve appended a message: “HUGE holes! Be brave!”

Emma writes back, “I really like the strange compositions of these photos you have been taking! But unfortunately I will have to ask you to retain this pile (it took me so long to find cowboy boots—I will get them resoled).”

And I will need to get re-souled into a different kind of mother, if I ever hope to have a guestroom.


Where are you on the spectrum from minimalist to hoarder? How do you deal with your grown kids’ stuff? How did your parents deal with yours?