by Joan Mills
Remember when the children built blanket tents to sleep in? And then scrambled by moonlight to their own beds, where they’d be safe from bears? And how proud and eager they were to be starting kindergarten? But only up to the minute they got there? And the time they packed cardboard suitcases in such a huff? “You won’t see us again!” they hollered. Then they turned back at the end of the yard because they’d forgotten to go to the bathroom.
It’s the same thing when they’re twenty or twenty-two, starting to make their own way in the grown-up world. Bravado, pangs, false starts, and pratfalls. They’re half in, half out. “Good-bye, good-bye! Don’t worry, Mom!” They’re back the first weekend to borrow the paint roller and a fuse and a broom. Prowling the attic, they seize the quilt the dog ate and the terrible old sofa cushions that smell like dead mice. “Just what I need!” they cheer, loading the car.
“Good-bye, good-bye!” implying forever. But they show up without notice at suppertimes, sighing soulfully to see the familiar laden plates. They go away again, further secured by four bags of groceries, the electric frying pan, and a cookbook.
They call home collect, but not as often as parents need to hear. And their news makes fast-graying hair stand on end:
“…so he forgot to set the brake, and he says my car rolled three blocks backward down the hill before it was totaled!”
“…simple case of last hired, first fired, no big deal. I sold the stereo, and…”
“Mom! Everybody in the city has them! There’s this roach stuff you put under the sink. It’s…”
I gripped the phone with both hands in those days, wishing I could bribe my children back with everything they’d ever wanted—drum lessons, a junk-food charge account, anything. I struggled with an unbecoming urge to tell them once more about hot breakfasts and crossing streets and dry socks on wet days.
“I’m so impressed by how you cope!” I said instead.
The children scatter, and parents draw together, remembering sweet-shaped infants heavy in their arms, patched jeans, chicken pox, the night the accident happened, the rituals of Christmases and proms. With wistful pride and a feeling for the comic, they watch over their progeny from an effortfully kept distance. It is the season of the empty nest.
Slowly, slowly, there are changes. Something wonderful seems to hover then, faintly heard, glimpsed in illumined moments. Visiting the children, the parents are almost sure of it.
A son spreads a towel on the table and efficiently irons a perfect crease into his best pants. (Ironing board, his mother thinks, adding to a mental shopping list.) “I’m taking you to a French restaurant for dinner,” the young man announces. “I’ve made reservations.”
“Am I properly dressed?” his mother asks, suddenly shy. He walks her through city streets within the aura of his assurance. His arm lies lightly around her shoulders.
Or a daughter offers her honored guest the only two chairs she has and settles into a harem heap of floor pillows. She has raised plants from cuttings, framed a wall full of prints herself, and spent three weekends refinishing the little dresser that glows in a square of sun.
Her parents regard her with astonished love. The room has been enchanted by her touch. “Everything’s charming,” they tell her honestly. “It’s a real home.”
Now? Is it now? Yes. The something wonderful descends. The generations smile at one another, as if exchanging congratulations. The children are no longer children. The parents are awed to discover adults.
It is wonderful, in ways my imagination had not begun to dream of. How could I have guessed—how could they?—that of my three, the shy one would pluck a dazzling array of competencies out of the air and turn up, chatting with total poise, on TV shows? That the one who turned his adolescence into World War III would find his role in arduous, sensitive human service? Or that the unbookish, antic one, torment of his teachers, would evolve into a scholar, tolerating a student’s poverty and writing into the night?
I hadn’t suspected that my own young adults would be so ebulliently funny one minute, and so tellingly introspective the next: so openhearted and unguarded. Or that growing up would inspire them to buy life insurance and three-piece suits and lend money to the siblings they’d once robbed of lollipops. Or that walking into their houses, I’d hear Mozart on the tape player and find books laid out for me to borrow.
Once, long ago, I waited nine months at a time to see who they would be, babes newly formed and wondrous. “Oh, look!” I said, and I fell in love. Now my children are wondrously new to me in a different way. I am in love again.
My daughter and I freely share the complex world of our inner selves, and all the other worlds we know. Touched, I notice how her rhythms and gestures are reminding of her grandmother’s or mine. We are linked by unconscious mysteries and benignly watched by ghosts. I turn my head to gaze at her. She meets my look and smiles.
A son flies the width of the country for his one vacation in a whole long year. He follows me around the kitchen, tasting from the pots, handing down the dishes.
We brown in the sun. Read books in silent synchrony.
He jogs. I tend the flowers. We walk at the unfurled edge of great waves. We talk and talk, and later play cribbage past midnight. I’m utterly happy.
“But it’s your vacation!” I remind him. “What shall we do that’s special?”
“This,” he says. “Exactly this.”
When my children first ventured out and away, I felt they were in flight to outer space, following a curve of light and time to such unknowns that my heart would surely go faint with trying to follow. I thought this would be the end of parenting. Not what it is—the best part; the final, firmest bonding; the goal and the reward.
Isn’t that a wonderful thought given to us by Joan Mills? After years of sharing struggles and joys with your kids, of celebrating every triumph and agonizing over every disappointment, the best part of parenting is yet to come. Scripture tells us that “Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from him” (Psalm 127:3). Part of that reward is the experience of watching your boys and girls grow up. Yes, it’s tough at times, yet I would give anything now to relive a few of those golden days. Most parents of grown kids would say the same thing.
But another part of the reward of parenting—and according to Joan Mills in the story above, the best part—is what happens after your children mature and strike out on their own. Though your relationship with your kids changes when they reach adulthood, you may indeed find yourself falling in love with them all over again.
For our last week together, let’s talk about the rewards of parenting.
- James C Dobson
“Season of the Empty Nest” by Joan Mills. Reprinted with permission from the January 1981 Reader’s Digest. Copyright © 1981 by The Reader’s Digest Assn., Inc.