The Nest Is Truly Empty
My kids would be fine without me, which highlighted my new irrelevance.
Posted Sep 18, 2018
As my daughter, now 20, goes back to university nearly 3,000 miles away, the emotions that come with separation remind me of how I felt three years ago when I left her and her sister, a continent and an ocean away in Sydney. She had only just finished high school. One evening, without previous thought or discussion, I said to my husband that I wanted to take a sabbatical to honor the end of raising our three children—it took 23 years. While fully recognizing that without him and our large loving extended family of friends, this would have been impossible. His answer as always was a joyful “of course!” As if it had always been assumed.
In Wikipedia “shmita” is a Hebrew word for sabbatical, from the Old Testament. It is a requirement that every seven years a farmer leaves his field fallow for a year, nurturing it only a bare minimum for the next planting. It is said that a bountiful harvest is supposed to come from observing “shmita.”
I wanted to lie fallow for a while and find ways to nurture the woman I had become, a 50-year-old who had continued to grow in ways I never imagined, but who now needed time alone, finding some freedom from the roles of “mother” and “wife.” Once, my brother, a professor of English literature, affectionately called me Mrs. Dalloway; I wanted to know who Mrs. Dalloway would be when she wasn’t being Mrs. Dalloway.
On the morning of the day I was leaving for three months, the first part of my yearlong sabbatical, the dog’s leash was not in its usual place. The night before, I had put it in the basket at the outer door, as if I was introducing the idea of change to Tofey, our 10-year-old Cavoodle. She was disoriented as she stood by the inner door waiting for her tethering. Although she was excited to go out, there was no bullying her into going any further until I had leashed her. She refused to move, as if she could feel my hesitation. “Let’s go,” I said with more joy than I felt.
In my bedroom, my clothes had been lying in piles on the floor for a week. I had pulled items out of the piles only to put other ones back several times. Books are especially hard to choose, as their weight limits choice. My father, who I see only once a year, had given me two of his favourite books at Christmas, which were sitting on my bedside table. He had inscribed them:
Marguerite Duras’ Barrage contre le Pacifique, “Authentic portrait of colonial misery, or autobiography and fiction interwoven, I loved this book. Papa.”
And Albert Cohen’s Livre de ma mere, “A wonderful and startling book, a portrait of a mother who lived only for and through her son, like my own mother. This book challenged me enormously. Papa.”
There is so much more that could be said about the inscriptions and my relationship with my father, but for now the guilt felt for not having read either of these books meant I needed to make a choice.
As I walked up the road with Tofey, past the neighbor’s house with its manicured trees, like lollipop sentinels, two boxers who usually greeted us were not there. Yet, Tofey, as was her nervous habit, walked the semi-circle away from their house; something about her vulnerability touched me and opened my heart to the reality of my decision to leave my two daughters, 17 and 20, (our son 22 had already left home), our dog, our cats, my friends, our house. Tears began to flow.
I knew the girls would be OK; they kept reassuring me of this. But knowing they would be fine without me was not as comforting as I would have hoped. Instead, it seemed to highlight my new irrelevance. Of course, I know this isn’t true, but it is also true and it is also important that it be true. As the children learn to manage life on their own, I feel a slow erosion of relevance tearing at the fabric of my ego—for so long I believed I was their world. As I look into that tear, I see my own illusion; the tear is surprisingly as much about newfound freedom to make selfish choices, as they are about loss. This personal joy came with a heavy heart and made me think Albert Cohen would be the right companion for me. My father can make the journey with me, despite his dislike for traveling.
I was going to meet my mother in a little hotel off the rue des Martyrs in Paris. The last time I was in Paris, at age 21, I had a beautiful affair with a New York lawyer, who had small hands and a persona that could have been shaped and accessorized by Peter Falk in Columbo, a show I loved to watch with my father.
When I arrived in de Gaulle, I hailed a taxi driven by a Tunisian named Saleem. He asked me what I was doing in Paris. I told him I was joining a group of people; we were going to write for three weeks.
“What are you writing?” he asked.
I hesitated to put what I had been thinking into words, “I am thinking of writing about long-term marriage and how to keep it interesting. How long have you been married?” I asked.
He said proudly, “18 years!”
“What is the secret to a happy marriage?”
He paused, “I don’t know what the secret is, perhaps because I don’t want to jinx it, but I will tell you something because we won’t see each other again, I see my wife as my mistress.” He told me the story of how he had met a woman he was attracted to, very briefly, years before, when he was visiting his uncle. She had been staying across the hall but because she was in a relationship, he had forgotten about her. Seven years later, she made contact. She had spent years searching for him, based solely on his first name as well as his uncle’s name. Saleem married his wife three months later.
“Have you heard of Omar Khayyam?” he asked. “Philosopher and writer of the 12th century who wrote in Isfahan.”
The only time I had heard the name Isfahan was in one of my favourite poems, “Full Moon” by Vita Sackville-West.
“Read him,” he said. Then he gave me a quote, which I wrote down, asking him to repeat it several times. This conversation with Saleem felt mystical and if there was something to be learned, I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss one word.
“Le temps a deux visages, il a deux dimensions, la longueur est au rhythme du soleil, l’epaisseur au rhythme des passions.”
“Time has two faces, two dimensions, the length is with the rhythm of the sun, the density (or thickness) is with the rhythm of the passions.”
We arrived at the hotel where my mother had invited me to stay. Saleem got out of the car to get my bags from the trunk. “Regardez,” he said laughing and pointing at a sign, the hotel across the road was called “Amour.”
I found my mother sitting in an upholstered armchair chatting with a handsome man at the reception desk. My mother flirts with everyone, including life itself, she is 78 on this trip. I take my bags up to my room and come back down.
“Listen,” my mother says, her arms out as if doing a pirouette; from years of ballet, her feet move as if she were dancing with a partner. “It’s Petite Fleur…cheek to cheek music,” she said dreamily, “we used to dance to this during the thé dansants.”
We walked together down rue des Martyrs to buy two tartes aux citron from Gaudard, famous for its patisseries; and if you have had the pleasure of tasting their tartes you may understand, perhaps, why my mother began to talk about orgasms. “Do you think more young women orgasm now because they are more sexually confident?” We were sitting back in the hotel, a pot of tea between us. She answered her own question, a habit I have just begun to recognize in myself. “I don’t think so, men are still going to ejaculate quickly.”
A day in Paris, free from the inevitable binds of parenting and work, my imagination is already inviting magical moments. Bringing Albert Cohen is a reminder of how fortunate I am to have had my mother, a mother who continues to live her life with love, adventure, joy and sensuality, giving me permission to live that way, too.
“It’s not only children who grow. Parent’s do too. As much as we watch to see what our children do with their lives, they are watching us to see what we do with ours. I can’t tell my children to reach for the sun. All I can do is reach for it myself.” –Joyce Maynard