Columns

A toast to the expandable house

The Great Toaster Debate revealed the reality of our shrinking household.

When our sturdy four-slicer with extra-large slots for bagels began burning bread on a regular basis, we knew it was time to replace it.

“Buy a two-slicer,” Derek said. “I’ve cut back on carbs, and we’ve only got one kid at home.”

Shocked, I sputtered, “But what if Sam and I both want toast for breakfast and you decide to indulge!?”

He raised an eyebrow.

“When is the last time you actually ate breakfast?”

I started to reply, but he held up a hand.

“In the morning.”

I would’ve asked him to define “morning,” but I knew where that would lead, so I moved on to more pressing concerns.

“What if all the boys come home for Christmas and they all want a bagel at the same time?”

At this, he did his patented eye roll-snort combo, and I knew I’d lost the debate. I also knew I was suffering a bout of Empty Nest Denial Syndrome.

The affliction began last spring when Zachary, our third born, prepared to move to Nashville. He’d been scrimping and saving for the move since he’d earned his associate degree. He didn’t want to continue his education in a university setting. He wanted a real-life immersion music education in the Music City.

I managed to put his departure out of my mind. Then one day he packed up his room, with the exception of his G.I. Joe toys, which still stand sentry around his closet molding and window trim.

That night I found myself on the kitchen floor surrounded by pots, pans, mixing bowls and Tupperware.

Now, I haven’t actually purchased any Tupperware for over 25 years, yet every time a kid moves out, I seem to have plenty to spare. Tupperware is the rabbit brood of household items.

This is the third time I’ve raided the linen cupboard, setting aside towels and washcloths, each item liberally sprinkled with tears, as I help feather a fledgling’s new nest.

This letting go thing doesn’t get any easier.

But in April, Zach loaded his Ford Explorer with all his worldly goods and drove across the country to his new home.

I studiously avoided his empty room. The cats claimed Zach’s bed and windowsill, but I didn’t enter the room until last month when he came home for Christmas.

Then I finally cleaned and dusted it, moved in a chair and a lamp, put fresh bedding on his bed (which made the cats happy) and gladly welcomed his return.

It felt wonderful to have two sons under my roof again. Many nights I fell asleep to the sound of brotherly laughter echoing from downstairs.

“I’ve missed this,” I said to Derek one night as we listened to the raucous noise two Hval boys can make.

Zach plans to return to Spokane in April, having given Nashville a year of his life. He’s not sure what’s next, but his room is waiting for him.

“You know he won’t be staying here long,” Derek cautioned. “Don’t get too used to it. Once guys have a taste of independent living, they’re rarely happy in Mom’s basement for long.”

Which is how the Great Empty Room Debate began.

Actually we have two empty rooms, because after Alex moved to Texas, Derek planned to make a home office for me. That was five years ago. Currently, that room houses all the things that had to be evacuated when Derek built a walk-in closet in our bedroom. The closet isn’t finished, and work on the office hasn’t begun.

“I could use Zach’s room for my home office,” Derek mused, as we settled into bed.

Office space is a sore spot, so I brought up a more pressing point. Our first grandchild is due in March, and I really want Alex to bring his family home for Christmas next year.

“Where will our kids and grandkids sleep when they come to visit?” I asked. “We need a guest room.”

Derek agreed and we began talking about futons and sleeper sofas.

“We should probably buy bunk beds, too,” Derek said.

My heart leapt. A house with bunk beds again!

I fell asleep smiling.

Like a beating heart, a home contracts when kids leave, but it also expands to welcome new arrivals.

And I just may buy a four-slice toaster after all.

Contact Cindy Hval at dchval@juno.com. She is the author of “War Bonds: Love Stories From the Greatest Generation.” You can listen to her podcast “Life, Love and Raising Sons” at SpokaneTalksOnline.com. Her previous columns are available online at www.spokesman.com/staff/cindy-hval/. Follow her on Twitter at @CindyHval.

Columns

Looking Ahead at an Empty Nest

Strains of ragtime music float through the house as I write. Zach’s learning a new tune on his banjo.

Nearby, explosions and machine gunfire flicker from the television while Sam advances in “Gears of War” on his Xbox. It could be “Call of Duty” – I’ve long since given up trying to identify video games.

I’ve also long since given up on having an office with a door. Ninety-five percent of all columns have been written in our unfinished basement family room. Family being the operative word. No matter how hard I try to carve out an empty house to write in, someone always comes home early. Or leaves late. Or brings a friend over. You get the picture.

Milo’s plaintive meows escalate as he tries to convince someone that he’s near starvation. Thor yawns while shifting his bulk onto my feet. He’d prefer to be reclining on my lap, but I’ve scooted my chair under my desk, so there’s no room for him. His thunderous purrs add to the cacophony.

It’s hard to imagine an empty, silent house, but one day soon these rooms will echo with memories instead of noise. Next month, Zach is moving to Nashville to further his music career. Our family that once numbered six (not including cats) will shrink to three, and sometime in the next few years Sam, too, will fly the coop.

Those empty-nest years I’ve both longed for and dreaded are fast approaching, and the feedback from friends who’ve walked this path ahead of me hasn’t exactly been encouraging.

You won’t have anything left to talk to your spouse about. You’ll be at greater risk for divorce.

Look out! Menopause and midlife crisis happen at the same time as empty nest.

Your finances will be more stressed than ever.

They’ll call all the time, yet never listen to a word you say.

They won’t call at all.

Don’t worry, they’ll come back. The hard part is getting them to leave again.

What empty nest? Those kids will never leave and still be living in your basement when they’re 30.

I take these dire pronouncements in stride, because I know plenty of folks who are reveling in their child-free homes, embracing this natural sequence of parenting with gusto and gumption.

Most days I think I’ll be one of them. In fact, I’ve already got my eye on a ’65 candy-apple red Mustang convertible. It’s my midlife crisis insurance policy.

I’m fine with the idea of my sons being out in the world, making their own lives, buying homes, building careers, and starting families. Honestly, I can’t wait to be a grandmother. “Nana Cindy” has a lovely ring to it.

We’ve done the best we can to equip our children for life outside the cozy cocoon of home because we’ve always understood their presence here was fleeting at best.

But much like giving birth, the reality of the experience rarely dovetails with research. So, I do the best I can to prepare. Like stockpiling for a snowstorm I shore up friendships, knowing I’ll need the company of others to help ease the silence that will remain in my children’s absence.

We invest in our marriage with date nights and weekend trips, remembering what it was like when we were a family of two.

We have work and volunteer opportunities. We have siblings and extended family. We have cats. An empty nest doesn’t have to be lonely.

Yet as much as I long for silence, I’m glad our home is emptying slowly. Each son’s departure offers an opportunity to learn how to parent from afar, and ultimately how to parent less and friend more. And I’m profoundly thankful for the unexpected blessing of our fourth son. Sam’s presence has served as a bridge between so many parenting milestones, including this one.

And this I know; however far my sons soar, their homing instincts will occasionally guide them back to the nest – a place where they will always be safe, welcomed and loved.

Contact Cindy Hval at dchval@juno.com.