The Happy Chaos When Grown Kids Return Home

I had begun the letting go, the leaving in increments a few years ago: The brave good-byes in college dorms, followed by tears. The last-minute hugs before Uber rides to the airport.  The packing up of stuff left behind.

When grown kids return home houses feel full again.

I taught them to leave, but I was left with almost empty rooms where memories lived like ghosts. Old baseball jerseys shared space in my son’s closet with a box of golf trophies and a Coach’s Award for Excellence. Yoga books shared shelves with figure skating medals in my daughter’s room, each a reminder of hours spent in cold, drafty ice rinks, waiting for competition results.

Time capsules from different lives, theirs and mine, from days gone by.

I should be used to the quick weekend visits of my three 20-something adult children. Why then, did this weekend feel different?

Maybe it was the occasion—my father’s 85th birthday celebration—and the thought of my dad reaching such a milestone. In my mind, I had frozen the image of him around the age of 60, close to the age I am now. I pictured him holding his first grandchild—my oldest son who is now inexplicably 30—with a look of wonder. I pictured him sitting on the floor with my daughter, holding a pretend stethoscope, listening to her doll’s heartbeat. I wondered, how did this happen? When did time start to go so fast?

This weekend felt temporary, a transient passing of moments, grains of sand tipped upside-down in an hourglass. I didn’t know when or where we would all be together again. I didn’t know if my mom or dad would have another “big” birthday or if age or illness would finally catch up with them. I didn’t know if my kids’ job obligations or financial circumstances would make travel from California to Buffalo impossible. It had taken endless text messages, airline changes, and organized flexibility to get everyone home.

For the first time in almost two years, though, my three-bedroom townhouse was complete.  My daughter was curled up in her favorite soft blanket. My youngest son was in his usual place on the floor near the couch. My oldest son and girlfriend were in the kitchen. No more empty bedrooms gathering dust. No more overly neat, unlived-in spaces. No more museum-like silence.

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In a matter of moments, happy chaos reigned supreme. I stepped over half-opened suitcases in the living room and tripped over a golf travel bag that graced the small back hallway leading into the kitchen. I chased Frankie, my oldest son and girlfriend’s puppy, up the stairs. I found my daughter’s cell phone plugged into my charger, replacing my own phone, which was at a mere 12% battery power. I even found a bag of dirty laundry on the washing machine. No matter. They were home.

But then it hit me, an epiphany that felt like shards of glass shattering my already uneasy acceptance of my empty nest. I wanted them to stay, even though I knew they had to leave in two days. I missed the messy signs of real life—the excess toothpaste that somehow ended up on the bathroom counter, the clothes strewn over a chair, the half-eaten bowl of spaghetti left in the sink. I missed the quick carpool conversations during the high school years and the late nights waiting for the garage to open, knowing they were home safe after a party. I missed the month-long Christmas break between college semesters when they were home for more than a weekend and I could pretend they were home for good.

Milestones had replaced moments.

Why wasn’t there was a guidebook for this stage of life and its unexpected emotions? I was happy they were home, but special occasions were no substitute for daily life together. Maybe I had done my job too well, encouraging them to take risks and move away. I never imagined they would all end up in California. They were truly on their own—a good thing, I know, in this era of young adults living in their parents’ basements—but at the same time, I was envious of friends whose kids had left home but had come back.

There was a time when I couldn’t imagine being without my children every day. Now time was measured by the three-hour difference between East coast and West coast, making it difficult to answer the phone at 11 p.m on a work night. Time was measured in missed phone calls and early morning text messages that were sent while I was asleep.

I wondered about a future where my someday grandchildren lived 3,000 miles away and Thanksgiving was shared on Facetime.

With that realization, my empty nest became even emptier.

However, as the weekend came to a close, my father’s birthday celebration a success, I realized how the opportunity for making memories was forever changed, but not gone.

Before they left for the airport, I went upstairs to see if they had left anything behind. In typical fashion, my daughter’s room spelled messy disaster. That made me happy. I never minded cleaning up as long as it was a reminder she had been home. Random socks and purses were scattered on the floor, bed unmade.  She had left her collection of skating figurines, old jewelry was left on a shelf, a Miami University t-shirt was on the bed.

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I wondered, what should I do with the leftovers? Should I pack them up and take them to Goodwill? Should I save things in boxes in case she wanted them in a few years? Should I leave them as they were, mementos with more meaning to me than to her?

My son’s room looked almost empty except for a red Lou Gehrig baseball jersey on his bed. That was something tangible I could get rid of. After all, what would he ever want with an old baseball jersey?

At that moment, however, he walked into his bedroom. I held the jersey in one hand and closed the closet door.

“Wait,” he yelled. “Whatever you do, don’t throw away that jersey!”

I was confused. I was allowed to donate clothes he might actually still wear, but I could not toss a worn, number #21 travel baseball jersey that had seen better days?

I asked him why he wanted to keep it.

He replied, “Just never throw it away. Ever.”

Laughing, I said, “Would you like me to frame it?”

“Yes,” he said.

I didn’t frame the jersey, but I kept it.  #21 was his forever number. It had seen him pitch and hit a home run or two. It had absorbed more than sweat, a reminder of moments.

And so, #21 will have a permanent place in my son’s bedroom closet, for those times when he is home for a visit or in case he ever changes his mind about coming home for longer than a weekend.

My nest may be empty, but it is not uninhabited. Memories live in baseball jerseys where time is frozen.

Related: 

21 Things You’ll Love About the Empty Nest

8 Things To Remember On The Lonely Return to the Empty Nest

Gifts For College Kids and Teens: We Love These 

Amy Rumizen is a freelance writer and teacher with three adult children (23, 27, 31). I have written for the “Women’s Voices” column in The Buffalo News, Buffalo Magazine, and Motherwell.com. Amy was also the Dance Critic for The Buffalo News. She is currently writing a series of essays about mothers and daughters.

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