When our two kids went off to college, I didn’t transform their bedrooms into a man cave for my husband or the office I always dreamed of. I left like them perfectly intact, with the exception of dirty clothes on the floor, like shrines for when they’d return home for the holidays.
Each time I went upstairs and walked past the startlingly immaculate and silent kid’s rooms I ached a little. Yet, that wasn’t the toughest room for me.
I felt sad about my kitchen.
It was pale yellow and faced a window overlooking tall grass and a laughing Buddha. Flooded with light, it was the center of our universe. It was where we ate and baked, colored and painted, and where I experimented and burned most of our dinners.
Now, my sweet baking partner and favorite cookie batter tester were thousands of miles away, eating in their dorm cafeterias or a nearly Chipotle. For me, having dinner at home stopped being a source of joy.
Since our evenings were no longer scheduled around having dinner with the kids and helping with homework, we were free to go out. My husband was thrilled to finally have a good meal. So we ate out almost every night. The noise and bustle comforted me. Take-away menus that my kids helped me cultivate over the years (out of necessity) became a reliable back-up.
Even breakfast was hard, with just the two of us, at our big rectangular well-worn honey wooden table that sat like an anchor in the middle of the kitchen. Even though we relished being able to read the paper and have a conversation without being interrupted, the lack of chaos and noise was deafening.
Finally being able to enjoy my Raisin Bran and steaming soy latte without jumping up to fetch something for someone should have been a treat. Yet for twenty years I shared spoonfuls of cereal with my sweet babies. I missed their smiles, sleepy faces, yawns and morning kisses starting my day. Even their endless requests for juice refills or more maple syrup were deeply missed.
Our kitchen has seen it all. When we first moved into our home, our little clan spread around the table, one baby at a time, with high chairs, sippy-cups, and teeny-tiny bits of soft chicken. I served warm bagel bites and grilled cheese sandwiches without crusts cut into triangles, sliced strawberries, little cartons of chocolate milk. As they got older they developed new favorites: lamp chops, carrots and roasted potatoes.
Our happy kitchen was where we hosted Batman, Barney the Dinosaur, Barbie and Powerpuff Girls birthday parties. Our poor table, practically destroyed by glitter and glue and Star Wars action hero battles and sugary butter cream frosting. Twenty years worth of living and loving shown in every scratch and groove on it’s wood finish.
Soon it became their favorite place to play, complete their homework, and eventually tackle SAT prep while I toiled with some otherworldly concoction at the stove.
The highlight of my day was when their father came home from work in time for dinner. The four of us gathered together at our table, our circle complete.
I remembered the laughter and silly talk, even the tantrums. Just the two of us felt empty. Nights were the worst. I was reminded that my children would never live at home again, and it stirred something inside me.
Growing up, my childhood table of 5 went to 4 when my father was diagnosed with Stage 4 Pancreatic cancer and given only weeks to live. What little he ate was taken in bed. Then it was just my mom, my older brother, sister, and me, family dinners at our white Formica table turned silent. The only noise was the clang of forks touching our plates or an occasional “Please pass the potatoes” or “Dad slept a lot today.” There was little to say as our father lay dying.
While my kids going off to college was different than death, thank God, I couldn’t help but feel an absence as sudden and shocking as when cancer stole my father from us too quickly. My kids were just a little older than I was then. And even though more than thirty years had passed, the loss was fresh again.
Counting off the days until holiday break, I ran to the grocery store where I loaded up on red grapes, blueberries, licorice and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Filling their bedrooms with clean towels, fluffing their pillows, and placing mail addressed to them on their desks. I did everything but place a chocolate mint on their pillows. Basically, rolling out the red carpet.
When my son surprised me a few days early and walked though our front door with suitcase in tow, I bear hugged him and cried tears of joy. Going into full mommy mode, I asked, “Are you hungry?” Then I led him to the kitchen where we belonged.
Linda Wolff lives in Los Angeles and is the proud mama of two grown kids. She writes at Carpool Goddess, where she proves that midlife, motherhood, and the empty nest aren’t so scary. Her work has appeared on the The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, Scary Mommy, and more. Follow along on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.