mothers and daughters and the empty nest

Memory flooded my mind these weeks. Perhaps leisure during Labor Day Weekend allows that for some of us. This holiday, a century old acknowledgment for those who labor around us, building and mending our structures and infrastructures, three days that neatly divide summer from fall, freedom days from the job-filled days, a weekend when 35 million people hit the road or take to the skies for one last fling, or in the case of many travelers, bring their college students to their respective college; regardless, that long weekend filled me with images. It wasn’t all that long ago that I too drove the highways for that task, and although I would say I eventually got better at those goodbyes, I am reminded of a first one, many years ago, made easier by the wisdom of my mother.

Mothers and their daughters. I do suppose one might say, fathers and sons, but for me, as a daughter and a mother, these two relationships have loomed large. If fact the complexity is still unfolding for me, the relationship I had with my mother, the one I still forge with my daughter. Some of my mother’s finest gifts took years to appreciate. Remembering a Labor Day weekend, years ago, me with a SUV packed full with my daughter and her ‘bare essentials’ as a Freshman entering college, and my mother waiting for us in a five star hotel, is certainly one of those gifts.

My daughter’s first day at college was a scheduled work day for me. As a high school teacher, first days are important to set the stage for all that follows, so I struggled on how to get my daughter to a school 10 hours away by car while missing the start of my own classes. My mother suggested we rendezvous at a central point, me taking the first leg and she getting her into her dorm, and my returning before my first day. But my mother’s subtle genius didn’t stop there, because really, how could that plan make me happy? I mean, I got the convenience, but not helping my daughter set up her space, not there to make sure she had what she needed, not meeting her three roommates, all that would feel like a loss. But before I could even begin to entertain those thoughts, she suggested that we meet at a sacred spot, one that would be a healing tonic, one that filled us all with such joy, this whole goodbye thing would be secondary. Yes, you got it, a sensational resort, with a fabulous spa, on a delicious lake, where every meal became a gourmet extravaganza, all in a favorite location we seldom visited anymore. She was so swift that it was literally years before I fully realized her cunning. Literally. Years. 

As confessional as my blog posts lean, this is yet another. I didn’t even realize how she was still mothering me. Protecting me. Thinking of me. Sure it would be fun for her too, but it was centered around minimizing my loss, one that she understood far more than I could even imagine. I left home at 17. Grabbed a high school diploma and never looked back. For years she watched as I made one bad decision worse. Taking a daughter to college was a dream she never realized. But here we were, decades later, all three on a different course, one that might bring about something fruitful, and together, she made it possible for me. Not painless but less so than I even knew.

It happened just like that. Pilling into the car, with everything she held dear, my daughter and I drove the 5 hours with anticipation and excitement. There were lake swims and hilltop hikes and lingering meals. Time to just walk together in silence, and others when we couldn’t stop talking. Two days later, after transferring all those belongings into my mother’s car, I began my journey home, feeling relaxed and cared for, instead of only the loss and longing I might have felt. She ferried my daughter down to college, helped with the registration process and with the detail and elaboration my mother is so known for, filled me in on everything once she too returned home.

Before I drove back north she also gave me one very powerful piece of advice: don’t go in her room, she told me. Forget the dirty clothes or bed linens, forget the dirty dishes piled on the floor, forget the trash, just shut the door and don’t open it again, for as long as you need. After my drive home I did just that. As I crested the staircase and came to her room, I quickly pulled the door closed, and left it just like that. Even that split second of spying a half empty space, with many of her kooky and colorful decorations gone from the walls, teared me up. I could not have appreciated that advice more. 

Last week, as I thought of all the folks carting their college kiddos that memory came to mind. It hit like a brick. I realized that my mother not only witnessed her whole brood ship out, but that Labor Day weekend we met was only a few short years removed from my father’s passing. Her whole household of eight now just a quiet her. This advice came from someone who faced aloneness head on, and she filled it with her own interests, with new adventures, and with a vibrant joy. I never remember my mother feeling bad for herself. Sure she cried as I drove off. Actually I have no idea how she endured those tough years when she knew I was headed straight into risk. But she did. Holding me for as long as she could and then letting go. Perhaps it was her prayers that kept me alive and her believing I’d turn around, I will never know, but I am grateful my three are far more concerned with living than I at their age. Tough years we all encounter. Advice from the core.

I offer this story to all of you who are encountering an empty nest. In the emptiness, you will find your way back to your own life. Three children have left, three times I kept those doors shut, until I settled into a new routine that didn’t revolve around them, until I felt I could open the door and be grateful that their life had taken them beyond my walls. You will too.


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