Almost exactly 21 years ago this week, I sat on the steps inside the home we’d just closed on in Pittsburgh. We had just two kids at the time, and this house, with four bedrooms on the second floor and an unheated third floor that could be used as additional living space were we to adopt a couple of Eskimo children, seemed empty, echoey and more than big enough for our family.
This week, after successfully raising five children, two dogs and a whole series of invited rodents, such as hamsters and gerbils, and uninvited ones, including at least 10 generations of pantry mice, we saw the last of our kids, our twin 18-year-old daughters, off to college. We have officially entered the next-to-last stage of adulthood, the empty nest years.
For my wife and me, this will be a big transition. In the past 20 years, we’ve gone from what seemed like a slightly too-big home, to what felt like a big but crammed closet, and now suddenly back to what’s starting to feel like a too-big house again.
I have no script to work from here. My own parents did not suffer from empty nest syndrome. They had nine children, and neighbors used to joke that our house ought to be a big shoe. I was near the end of the line, so by the time I finished high school, I got the feeling that I was more of a squatter than an offspring. Pop, in particular, wanted me gone, and he was not all that particular about which direction I took on my way out the door. He suggested, once or twice, that I could see the world if I just returned the regular messages left by the local Army recruiter.
And my parents didn’t hesitate at this tipping point in their lives. The minute my youngest brother left the nest (I think he came home one day and found his clothes and bedding on the curb in a suitcase, with a note that said “Bon Voyage!” on it) they moved into a small condo, bought all new furniture and took visitors only reluctantly. When I asked my mother why they had waited so long to get nice things, she looked at me for a long moment before she explained they didn’t want to spend money on furniture until all the people who would destroy it were gone.
And I learned pretty quickly that you can’t go home again. When I was 30, I called Pop to say I was coming through town and wanted to crash with them. There was a pregnant pause on the line before Pop cleared his throat and asked, in a suspicious voice, just how many days I was planning to be there. House guests, Pop believed the old adage, were like fish. After three days they stunk up the place.
This past week, I sat on the steps in our nearly empty house while my wife and daughters packed the car with college stuff. Partly I wanted to avoid the responsibility of packing two small cars with the small mountain of unnecessary items that two teenage girls find completely necessary. But I also wanted to take a moment to sit in the same spot I’d been in more than two decades ago, and say thanks to our house.
For 21 years, it’s been a place filled with laughter, tears, fights and reconciliations. There were years when it seemed so crowded that I would go out to the garage just to get a little time to myself. It’s been filled with the noises of parties, video games, electric guitars and kids tearing down the stairs on Christmas mornings. For years, when we watched TV, I sat on a wooden chair at the other end of the living room because all the good seats were taken.
When I sat in this same spot on the stairs all those years ago, I was trying to picture all the things that might happen inside these walls. All those things did happen, and more.
Our empty nest is likely to be pretty quiet for the next few years. We might go out and buy some new furniture and maybe some rugs. We won’t run out of milk, hot water or toilet paper like we used to. I can sit wherever I want to watch TV.
But then, it’s likely to get noisy again, from time to time, as kids return, maybe even with grandchildren, and the house fills up again. I will welcome them back with open arms.
As long as it’s just for a few days at a time. As I get older and wiser, I’ve come to realize that Pop wasn’t just cranky, he was pretty smart.
Peter McKay is a longtime Ben Avon resident and syndicated columnist. He can be reached at his website, www.peter-mckay.com.