Facing the Empty Nest Isn’t for the Faint of Heart

Nora’s room is a minefield of emotions

When our youngest daughter went to college, she left us with an empty nest. I was so unglued, it was a couple of weeks before I could bring myself to enter Nora's abandoned bedroom.

This did not go well.

Nora's room looked like Dorothy's, after the tornado. It had rarely been neat, but the mess now seemed so motionless—not the usual mess-in-progress that constantly changed shape.

It was also unbearably quiet. Nora's never been the silent type. As a child, when she'd run out of something to chat or sing about, she'd whistle, so skillfully and often that I became known in our household as Whistler's Mother.

Now the absence of Nora's noise almost capsized me, but I snapped on the radio and got to work. As I hung up her wrinkled robe in the closet, I found her preschool fairy wings. That's when the tears started.

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Things deteriorated further when I uncovered a tiny handprint in plaster. Then I made the mistake of reviewing the detritus covering the bulletin board over her bed—the dried prom flowers, the Lakers tickets and soccer medals and birthday cards. At this point I had to abort my mission and go find the Chardonnay.

For months, my husband and I found it hard even to walk the hallway that used to be inhabited by our daughters. Tom came to refer to that empty stretch of hardwood as the Bridge of Sighs.

But little by little, weeping only sometimes, I made Nora's room tidy, and by the time she was a sophomore, Tom and I were getting accustomed to the stillness in the house.

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Tom even found occasional refuge in the girls' quarters, where he could watch ESPN at an astounding volume without anybody (me) objecting.

He wasn't the only family member to make new use of Nora's room. Our (possibly demented) dog went there for a strange exercise regimen, walking in circles on the cotton area rug until it became a twisted mess.

I, too, had an idea for the room.

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It started when I got rid of some of Nora's long-neglected belongings, such as a pair of exceptionally ugly stuffed animals. I moved them to the Holding Station. This is a place in the garage where I put things I'd like to get rid of but don't dare toss outright. I wait a decent interval to see if the owner of the object misses it, and if they do not, it goes to the Goodwill.

Of course, in this case, I was testing myself, too. Would I break down again once the Build-a-Bear dressed like a cheerleader was no longer hosting spiders on Nora's bookshelf?

I didn't.

By Nora's junior year, I'd begun to bypass the Holding Station and go directly to the Goodwill. Still, each discard evoked a memory of its place in Nora's history. The old bathing suits: a powerful Cape Cod wave that caused wardrobe failure. The outgrown tennis shoes: all those lessons with an uber-hot instructor named Marcus. Her old calculator: that fancy-pants school that made you buy high-priced tools for your little math-hater.

But I found I could note the significance of these things and move on to disowning them with equanimity. I even gave away the fairy wings, to a pregnant friend. (OK, she promised me borrowing rights, but still.)

By Nora's senior year, I was solid as a rock, stripped of sentimentality. I was redecorating.

I replaced her butt-breaker desk chair with a cozy blue velvet one. I hung crisp, paisley drapes and got an embroidered duvet cover. The room looked so good, I thought of making it into my office. With its garden view, it would be a nice upgrade from the cave I was working in.

One remaining eyesore was that damn bulletin board. The same one that had led me to a wino breakdown a few years earlier, now, with all that stuff stuck to it, looked like wall trash. If I could sneak that thing to the Holding Station and put up a lovely mirror, say, my new office would be totally feng shui!

I thought I should do the mature thing and run it by Nora. Her answer was unequivocal: "Absolutely not," she said.

Two months later, she graduated and decided to move back home.

In Twitterspeak, #rewind.

Nora's room is back in post-tornado condition. Her commencement program is tacked to the bulletin board. My dream of a new office has gone to the Holding Station, but I'm inspired to feng shui my cave.

The dog has taken his exercise to a small but challenging rug in the living room. Tom is in his own kind of heaven, watching ESPN with his daughter on her turf, at her invitation.

We know this is just a temporary reprieve. Nora will soon find her footing, get an apartment of her own and move out again. I dread the idea of re-emptying the nest, but I dread it slightly less than I did before. I guess it's the actress in me: I take comfort from a good dress rehearsal.

Last night, I heard Nora whistling, the pure, sweet sound emitting from the former Bridge of Sighs, and my tears started again. But, this time, they were not the sad kind.

Tags: family