Folded over the back of the sofa in the front living room is a pair of men's cargo shorts. They are too big for anyone who lives (or even used to live) in this house. No one knows how they got here. It's usually the kind of thing that irritates me to distraction, especially since I pass by them dozens of times per day and no one else here seems to be interested in locating their owner. Or (for the love of God!) moving them.
However, in a kind of koyaanisquatsi-sort of way, those shorts make complete sense now that our home has devolved into a kind of staging area/launching pad for children who are on the precipice of leaving. Nothing is where it is supposed to be, but there's plenty of crap just sitting where it shouldn't. A drawer of flatware and a bedside table in the front living room. Lamps and an entertainment center in the garage. Bags of clothes and a desk in the spare bedroom. I gave up doing any kind of deep cleaning a couple of weeks ago. It's more than clutter...it's bordering on filth.
The cat's multiple bottles of heart medication are placed dangerously close to our own vitamins and there's a wet sock that someone dropped into the cat food bowl en route from washer to dryer. The odd and lumpy sacks of school supplies leaning sadly against my office doorway that will accompany me when I return to my nightmare job in a few weeks. Laundry--both done and undone. Stacks of mail and books, bins of paints for two art projects (admittedly mine) in the middle of the living room floor. I found a cobweb hanging from the ceiling of the boys' old room that looks exactly like an internet cable. One of the dogs ate aluminum foil yesterday and now we're counting the moments until we discover a canine yard bomb that sparkles like a disco ball. Precious memories!
Welcome to Slumdog Trailerpark 90210.
And that's just the part you can see with the naked eye, Jed Clampett. There's some emotional stuff here as well. In 20 days we'll officially be empty nesters. And I am so conflicted. I'm torn between wanting to gather all of our kids here for a giant do-over because I miss having boys who aren't so tall that I can't smell the tops of their heads without standing on a ladder....and reveling in the fact that my husband and I are still young enough to understand that a house with no offspring in it for more than an hour is code for something that typically requires a locked hotel room in another state. (Kids, if you're reading this now, I apologize. The bleach for your eyes is in the laundry room.) I desperately want both. I hope it's clear that the last sentence wasn't about bleach.
I spent a hot Saturday helping the oldest find estate sale items to furnish his house. The sale was held at a former neighborhood couple's home who were elderly until...well...until they weren't...and now we'll be making brownies in one of their old Pyrex dishes. I had a lump in my throat the entire time as I realized that--as expectant parents--you buy a bed for your baby to sleep in and a place to store their tiny clothes so they can come to live with you...and then years later you buy them another bed so that they can move out. To do some of this while standing in the middle of someone's former living room and seeing a stranger pay a dollar for what might have been a beloved vase snagged on a vacation or that front door Christmas wreath I saw for the past 17 holiday season made me realize how one could be sad and happy at the same time. It was confusing. I wanted to huddle up in the corner and cry, but instead I bought a paperweight painted like a clown (because my sister is terrified of them and I thought it might be a fun birthday surprise) and kept moving.
In June I published a guest column in my city's paper regarding the prospect of one's children leaving for the great unknown. From all accounts it was equal parts poignant and true for parent readers. It was a cathartic exercise for me and I think I was able to work through the sadness while making my readers laugh. After that my husband and I went on the road for a week--Marfa, Santa Fe, Aspen-- and we sort of discovered what we were like before the kids came. I think that's called adjusting.
Shortly after that two of our three sons--and all their stuff--moved back for the second half of the summer. Hence the ever present feeling that the Joad family has been living here without my knowledge. Or that I'm Loretta Lynn and I've time traveled back to my birthplace in "Butcher Holler" wearing a feed sack dress and newspaper shoes. I wish I could say I was exaggerating.
Anyway... now our sons are moving out again...at least...the two who haven't already left. For one wallet-busting semester we'll have three in college and exactly one year from now...we'll only have one. Meanwhile I'll start teaching again in the same unhappy place where I was last year. I'll use my personal time to get my classroom ready and then my own money to buy supplies. I'll print up enough "Welcome to 5th Grade" information for every prospective parent and student knowing that only a dozen or so will actually come up to meet their child's teacher. Regardless of the preparation time, I'll drag a wheeled cart out into the heat and load it into my car, already overburdened with paperwork and expectations and parental excuses for why they didn't do blah, blah, blah.... And in that single moment, the restful summer where I read 13 books, lunched with friends, finished two art projects, watched countless movies, discovered a junk shop and one new gallery in town which serves those who love "found art", renewed my love for yoga, saw a friend/colleague get married in a mountain pasture, celebrated my wedding anniversary on a crisp night in Aspen, cleaned out my office and bedroom closet (not enjoyable but very necessary)...will recede far into the distance.
Tonight at the grocery store I saw the aisle which features all the summer items like cheap flip-flops, chip/dip platters, canisters for making sun tea, water pistols and swim goggles is about to be replaced by crap commonly associated with the beginning of school. As if I needed a reminder. I'm pretty sure that I'm not the only one who sees the prospect of that change and becomes upset enough to throw a clot. Luckily, it's on the same aisle as the wine and candy.
Coincidence? Probably not.