Hitting Home

Jessica Leigh Lebos explores what happens when the empty nest fills up again

Back in the tail end of 2019, I booked a trip for four on a Caribbean cruise.

Freelance work had been lean until that autumn, when a windfall gig made up for the months spent twiddling my thumbs and refreshing my LinkedIn page. I decided a chunk of that paycheck would go toward a family trip, the first one in a long time that did not involve escaping a hurricane or road-tripping to a mountain cabin with two stinky dogs.

As I entered my credit card number, I felt somewhat addled when I realized I was paying for four full-grown adults. This, it suddenly occurred to me, could be the last family trip the four of us might ever take.

Our youngest was eyeballing her driver’s license, eager to explore the world, or at least Broughton Street, unsupervised. Our eldest was a sophomore at the University of Georgia, excited about the prospect of a summer internship in another state, perhaps even another country. After that, he’d be busy studying for upper-level classes and applying to medical schools thousands of miles away.

Memories of just the four of us were falling farther behind in the rearview mirror: the long, lazy days making lopsided sandcastles on Tybee Beach; surprising the kids with a trip to Disney World after telling them we were just going to “test out” the new Truman Parkway; the time the minivan’s radiator cap exploded in a deep North Carolina holler, an issue my husband mitigated with a folded pair of underpants.

Illustrations by Hannah Agosta

I’d spent the last two years moping around my son’s empty corner of our nest, wondering if I should turn it into a craft studio as I refolded his old baby quilts and dusted off Harry Potter books. I missed him so, but I told myself to be practical: Children grow up and find their own lives. Best accept it and try to lure them back occasionally with adventures and treats.

The cruise, which set sail in December 2019, was spectacular. We sunned ourselves on the lido deck and snorkeled in sparkling, turquoise waters. We snickered at our fellow cruisers’ fashion choices and celebrated the season each evening at the giant electric menorah near the atrium bar. The satisfaction of having our little family all together was worth every penny I lost in the casino slot machines.

We returned to Savannah tan and happy, full of rum and gut-busting inside jokes about wearing cargo shorts to dinner. We all wandered back to our routines, and it was easier to watch my firstborn bounce back to Athens to bury himself in his studies (even if one afternoon I went into his room to see if my sewing table would fit and ended up arranging his stuffed animals into a cocktail party).

Then, the world went wild.

By the end of March 2020, pandemic life separated every family into primal pods, isolating some and crowding others. Toilet paper panic and PPE shortages consumed us. Grandparents were cordoned off as if bubble-wrapped. College students who thought they were swinging through town for spring break realized they would be wearing the same pair of pants for four months. Everyone’s summer plans dissolved into goo.

For our foursome, those wondrous first weeks of quarantine produced a tremendous amount of unexpected family time after our last cruise hurrah. The entire house morphed into a slapdash office where the kids virtually schooled themselves side-by-side on the couch like they were toddlers watching “Blue’s Clues.” We even reprised a few lopsided sandcastles once the beaches were back open. My mother-heart hadn’t felt so fulfilled since the two of them sang songs in the bathtub and fell asleep in my arms.

To stave off cabin fever, we conducted daily masked bike/ skateboard parades through Ardsley Park with our two rescue dogs, who had no idea why suddenly everyone was home all the time but couldn’t have been more thrilled about it.

As the months dragged on, however, being together all the time began to chafe at everyone’s nerves. Why did the dishwasher look like it had been loaded by monkeys? Who ate the last chocolate chip cookie? How do you sleep with all the sheets bunched up in the corner, and when is the last time you washed them?!

There were other challenges: my husband’s business flooded in a freak storm, adding to the stress of closures and lack of work. My dear father passed away in Arizona in June after a long, non-COVID-related illness, and sitting shivah — the Jewish mourning tradition — with our far-flung family over Zoom did little to ease the grief. Add that to overburdened WiFi, dirty-sock farms under the coffee table and braving the grocery store for a week’s worth of food only to have it disappear in two days, and the domestic bliss began to fray like the hems of a pair of work-from-home sweatpants.

When our son announced he would be returning to college to start the new semester and continue quarantining with his roommates, I felt sadness as our precious bubble time came to a close — and terror that even their careful planning could not keep away the virus.

But I understood that navigating the “new normal” was going to be a long game, and no 20-year-old wants to play it indefinitely with his mommy peering over his shoulder. I was also relieved that I’d be able to finish my morning tea before someone started asking me what was for dinner.

COVID life helped me through the bittersweet inevitability that motherhood means moving on. Loosening the laces of a tight family bond aches, but there is heart-swelling joy in watching what our children will become as they find their own partners and move into their own careers and adventures.

And I’ll admit to enjoying a quiet house again, especially now that it’s laden with a wealth of new memories that will last far longer than any fancy vacation.

As we enter a new year, isolating at home has given way to a tentative normalcy, albeit still masked and distanced. The weird novelty of stocking up on groceries and skating on empty streets is fading into the past. The nest is half empty once again, our son’s room tidy and staying that way. Sometimes the dogs and I go in and mess up the bed, just to remember.

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