The author with her daughter, Cleo, on graduation day

How I Became an Empty Nester at 43

When I was busily raising a human being, I didn’t have time to consider she would eventually be raised. And here we are. My 16-year-old daughter, Cleo, will live in India for a year and attend her senior year of high school while staying with a host family. When she returns, Cleo will head off to college. Well-meaning friends and relatives ask me what I’m “going to do” when my daughter leaves. I’ll be alone for the first time since I married her father when I was 24.

My answer: I don’t know.

When Cleo was a newborn, her father and I moved to Kansas “temporarily” so that we could live near relatives and I could start my career. When I pictured my future, I saw myself standing in fields by a picturesque farm. I envisioned living in a cute little white house with a porch swing, big garden and a pygmy goat named Piglet. Instead, I’m divorced. To be exact, I’m twice divorced. (Even worse, I divorced not one, but two bald drummers.) And I’m a renter with three cats, two dogs and a 16 year old who can’t wait to move as far away as she can from her only living parent. Seriously, she told me that’s why she chose India, which I’m sure is nowhere near Kansas.

As she packs boxes to take to college, a suitcase to haul to India and bags to donate to thrift stores, I start packing, too. Cleo isn’t the only one leaving the comfort of our nest. As she heads off on her own, I’m painfully reminded that I’m alone now, too, and I can sit here in my empty borrowed nest … or not.

In reality, my nest is far from empty. I’m surrounded by treasures, collections, mementos and bedazzled kitsch I’ve collected over the years. I come from a long line of accumulators and relatives who happily contributed to my loot. For example, when I was about my daughter’s age, my aunt gave me “his” and “hers” hand-embroidered pillow cases for my hope chest. I never actually had a hope chest, and I think I ditched those pillowcases after my first divorce. Since then, I’ve collected about a dozen other hand-embroidered pillowcases, crocheted afghans and other miscellaneous treasures. Other aunts, grandmothers and crafty friends crafted fiber masterpieces that later wound up in yard sales and thrift stores until I rescued them.

I blame my genes — my grandfather died in his 90s and hadn’t gotten rid of anything since my grandmother passed away in 1972. Her old tubes of lipstick still sat on bathroom shelves, and her retro aluminum Christmas tree hid in the back of a closet behind the unfinished quilt tops. After my grandfather, Grandpa Jr., died, my dad and I split a bunch of grandpa’s treasures, which explains why I have a threadbare DX gas station jacket from the 1940s that says “Endsley” on the front and my grandmother’s old Chet Atkins LPs. And, of course, I called dibs on the glorious silver Christmas tree, which my daughter calls tacky.

I can’t imagine parting with inherited family treasures, such as handmade quilts sewn by my grandmothers. But I’ve also accumulated quilts sewn by the grandmothers of complete strangers, vintage suitcases that traveled the world with people I will never know, dozens of pieces of Frankoma pottery and hundreds of souvenir plates, spoons and snow globes from places I’ve never visited. All of these treasures were supposed to fill my little farm home, but now they surround me, gathering dust in my rental house.

Oddly, I don’t feel sad about not getting my country house and pygmy goat, and I honestly don’t miss either of my unhappy marriages. The 43-year-old me now wonders why the 20-something me wanted to live in the country with a husband, garden and a Piglet, anyway. I don’t even like gardening, and you can’t get pizza delivery outside city limits. Although I no longer have this urge to nest, I’m surrounded by what I collected with nesting in mind.

A therapist once told me, “You take your baggage with you.” Although my therapist was referring to our tendency to hold onto grief and grudges, she could have been talking about my collection of vintage suitcases, which I’ve filled and hauled around from house to house over the years. This next move, I’m losing the baggage, luggage and all. When I consider what to keep and what to leave behind, I ask myself whether each item has a purpose for me now. Or is it sentimental baggage I can leave behind?

Becoming an empty nester at 43
Some of Rikki’s “baggage”

“Let go,” I tell myself as I take my treasures off the walls and pack them away. A few pieces of favorite art go into storage, and the rest will be sold or donated or given away to whichever friends beg me the most. I’ll keep the quilts my grandmothers made, but bid adieu to ones made by other grannies.

Maybe I’ll go to France and learn more French than “adieu.” Maybe that’s what I’ll do.

I bring home countless boxes salvaged from hardware store trash bins and share them with my daughter. She carefully stacks up an entire Manga series and old CDs of artists she’s embarrassed she liked. Whereas other clothes are stuffed into trash bags to be donated to a thrift store, the formal dresses worn once to high school dances lay across the coffee table. The dresses will be set aside in our favorite thrift store so that when school starts in the fall, they can be offered to cash-strapped teenagers eagerly preparing for a winter formal or getting a jumpstart on prom.

I fight the urge to pick each dress up, bury my face in it, and weep. She wore this one when her hair was long and she still had braces. Her hair was shorter and she was taller when she donned the red dress. I want to keep them all, but remind myself that what I really want to keep are those moments that flew by much too fast.

As I pack, I look for signs and meaning in everything. I think about the man who sold me the 78 player and record collection. He was moving to Mexico. Was that encounter a sign? Perhaps the Frida Kahlo paintings that spoke to my daughter and me at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City were a cosmic hint.

So maybe I’ll move to Mexico and write a novel on a beach while drinking fruity beverages.

But, there are the three cats and two dogs. I shudder at the thought of hauling them all to Mexico. I certainly can’t let them go. And Cleo will need a place to land, even briefly, when she returns from India and then flies off to college. Maybe I’ll return to Austin, where I attended college. Or maybe I’ll move to Key West and write poetry inspired by the sunset. I think about these things out loud to friends, family and my offspring. Cleo shakes her head and assures me that I’m having my mid-life crisis, and maybe she’s right. But I don’t think so.

In many ways, I feel like the enthusiastic, fearless 17-year-old me heading out into the world for the first time. Back then, I flew the coop with 200 bucks in the bank and a $3.35 an hour job working at a record store. Now I have two degrees, bank accounts, credit, a portable writing career and endless options.

First I’m going to purge. Then I’ll pack. Then I’m leaving my empty nest and flying someplace new. I’m about to embark on a remarkable journey, and I can’t take all my luggage with me.

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3 Responses

  1. Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

    And no more bald drummers, right? RIGHT??!

  2. Lori

    Great article by the best treasure collector I know!

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