Sunday, May 08, 2011

Empty Nester Seeking Nest

by Zinta Aistars

Rising on the Sunday morning of Mother's Day, I contemplate my empty nest. They are grown. They are gone. And yet, the two of them are never far from my mind and always present in my heart. If I feel a bit blue starting my day hearing the echo of my steps in an empty house, my blues pale as I sit down at the table with my first cup of coffee and pull two Mother's Day cards toward me to read. I'd been saving them for several days, since they'd arrived in my mail box.

As soon as I open my son's card, warm tears mist over my eyes. He has written across every possible open space of the card in tight, compact writing ... between the card's bright illustrations, up and over the front and into the inside of the card and over the back and even between the copyright. It is the kind of love letter every mother hopes someday to receive from her adult child. A lot of thank yous, some regrets, apologies for the occasional mistake, real or imagined, sweet dreams of future anticipations. He invites me to go camping with him sometime this summer or fall and writes of how much he enjoyed our last camp-out, last summer.

My blues fade, and fade some more, and I am misty with mama love. I miss both my kids, now long grown into adults, even as I cheer their steps into their independent lives.

My work is done. My parenting ended many years ago. My role in their lives is redefined, but one thing is clear: this nest, the house where the three of us spent so many years, has served its purpose as a family nest. When I bought it, it was very much with thoughts of what would suit them best. Schools, nearby shopping, access to first jobs while Mom was busy at two jobs of her own, so that they would not always be dependent on me. I chose a typical residential neighborhood, a quiet street lined with houses and neatly fenced lawns.

Now an empty nester, I want something different. I've grown curiously fond of this house, and it's come to fit me pretty well. Through renovations, I've gutted the inside and rebuilt it to suit me. My personality has made itself known in color schemes, furniture arrangements, well-loaded book shelves, dim lighting, moody art work on the walls. But two things don't fit me at all: first, the 110-mile daily commute to and from work; second, that quiet, residential street of neighbor side-by-side with neighbor.

When my real estate agent asks me to give her a list of must haves, nice to haves, and totally unacceptables, I know just what to list first. Seclusion. Give me acreage. Give me a taste of the woods. Find me that oasis where I can go at end of day and be rejuvenated from whatever kind of day I've just had.

The past few weeks, our house hunting has been intense. Lunch hours, after work hours, weekends, we meet to go hunting. By now, I can't list the houses anymore. There are too many. Some have become all muddled together in my mind, strange outgrowths of rooms and closets and basements and yards and driveways that wind around and around in my mind until I'm dizzy.

Close calls, some of them. I like one feature, am repelled by another. There was the house that seemed nearly perfect ... until my agent and I realized we had yet to see the basement ... only to climb down into the puddled dampness and find a small waterfall below the house after a few days of hard rain.

Listings so often look beautiful, only to find reality quite different. That picture perfect house that appeared to be sitting on a sweet hillock, surrounded by oaks, might in reality be a few yards from a huge electric tower. Always something. House hunting could be a fun but stressful process.

I measure miles from property to office. Close enough? The honey place might be 10 miles beyond the maximum I've given my agent, or the place just around the corner require so much updating that I would need that extra time at home just to get it up to par.

There was the quirky hut with winding paths through pines and a backyard that docked into a wake-free lake. When I peeled up a corner of carpet, it looked like it was built on a layer of plywood on ground. Pass.

There was the stunning house with soaring ceilings and stone fireplace and gorgeous kitchen with granite counters and slick hardwood floors ... and neighbors so close I'd hear them scratch their noses.

There was the house that promised so much, including the acreage, including the quirky factor, including the perfect floor plan ... and the owner that decided he didn't want to sell after all, now that his argument with his live-in girlfriend was resolved.

I spend my evenings surfing listings. I make lists and send them to my agent, she gets busy arranging showings and collecting disclosure statements from properties of interest.

Meanwhile, I send a second list up north, to my second agent working the Upper Peninsula for me. Both know about the other, and I am committed not to make any offers until I have had a chance to go up north again and do a property search there, too. Will I put my last dime into a house here? Will I go halfsies? Will that northern place be an occasional getaway or the permanent place to go when I retire? I need a fresh dose of Keweenaw before I make any big decisions. This commute is wearing me out but the north makes my heart skip a beat, every time.

And then I walk into a little brown house in the woods. It is up on a hill and surrounded by tall pines and old oak trees. Neighbors are nearly invisible; I see the faint shadow of a roof line through the trees not yet leafy. There, the fireplace I wanted, with a smooth wooden mantelpiece along which my hand slides in easy caress. The kitchen cupboards were made by a woodworking owner with a rare level of quality that shows in every loving detail. Here, in this room might be a study with view of the tall pines. And the quiet ...

I drive from house to office and measure 18 miles. My commute could go from 110 miles per day to 36. That alone makes me nearly weepy. I suddenly realize how tired I am of that long drive, over and over and over again, for four years.

Heart has much to do with choosing a new nest, most certainly, but I must let head rule overall. The importance of this decision is sobering. So many factors to consider. What I did with a snap in younger years, I take on with much more deliberation in my middling years. I will not be tempted with the first flush of romancing a house. I will not. Finding the right place is like finding a long-term relationship ... all the priorities must be in place, the rest can be compromised, but the love must deepen with time, not fade away. Would I regret my decision a few weeks from now? A few months? In another year? Would there be a seven-year itch as I pass another house on a wooded hill and find myself slowing down for a longer look?

One great thing about having adult kids ... I can ask their advice rather than the other way around. I talk on the phone with one, then the other. I send photos. I request comparisons between Choice #1 (little brown house in the woods) and Choice #2 (larger red brick house on sprawling acres). I can sort through their feedback and see how it fits with mine. Do they see something that I don't? Am I really sure I'm not letting emotion cloud rational and sound investment thinking?

I'm not. There's a lot to be said for the vote of the heart. It's the balance that's tricky. I'm also glad I like my house now so well. We've been pals, after all, and have known each other intimately for a very long time. I'm in no hurry to make a bad decision. And a good decision can wait. If someone else grabs it up first, well, then it wasn't meant to be. I have 110 miles of driving up and down the interstate to think it all through.

Feedback is in from my kids. They can't decide between my top two house choices. Very different set of best features. Wait until I toss in the Keweenaw factor.

In the end, it's my nest. My nest that is empty of concerns for the needs of children and deliciously full of options for developing my own interests. Windows for good lighting so I can write and paint. Quiet reading corner. A backyard where I can practice tai chi without an audience.

This is going to take a while.



  1. Anonymous11:11 PM

    I have some city years left in me, but, I think, a little seclusion is where I'll find myself some day. I wish you luck.

  2. A beautiful post.This is exactly what I am going through. We just impulsively bought a brand new apartment, overlooking the Thames and St Paul's, in a completely new part of town. I've always wanted to live by the river. But the house where we raised our kids is being sold. they are adults. One lives near us, the other is on another continent. I miss them every minute, but I think I used to miss myself when they are little. Now I've found myself. It sounds like you have, too.