Top | First Person

The empty next

(article, Natalie Serber)

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There’s an empty bird nest in the tree outside our living-room window. I find it depressing. The twigs, dead leaves, and bric-a-brac which seemed charming and inventive when housing baby birds now seem tattered and useless, abandoned and sagging in the crotch of a tree.  

When our youngest packed her boxes and suitcases last August and flew across the country to college, I worried about feelings of emptiness overtaking me. After all, a huge slice of my raison d’être pie chart went missing when she took flight. 

For the previous two decades, my daily life had been defined largely by my children’s needs: a ride to piano lessons or art classes, a glue gun and poster board for a project, help with an essay or SAT prep, multiple text reminders that curfew has come and gone and where r u?  


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Our comfy home is well-proportioned for a family of four. But with just two of us left living there, I worried about being swallowed by the empty rooms and the swaths of free time. Driving home from the airport — despite our atomic-level joy that things had turned out so well, that the fruits of our planning and saving and parenting had been realized in sending two great kids off to excellent schools — my husband and I were both feeling a bit empty-nesty. Sad and saggy. 

I was determined, though, that the melancholy a real-life empty nest evokes would not overtake us. One thing advice-givers often suggest for empty nesters is room conversions: turning those now-empty bedrooms into something you’ve always wanted, such as a man cave, a meditation den, or a home gym. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Dinner these days is pasta in a bowl, with the remote handy."]

Well, my husband, who puddles up in front of '"Downton isn’t the man-cave type, and I don’t meditate. And since we both have home offices, the notion of a home gym seemed horrific. Working at home and then working out at home would turn our house into a hermitage, and the two of us into old hermits. We have to commune with other people somewhere.

One blogger suggested creating a library, a hobby room, or a dream dressing room: "Floor-length mirrors, a chair, a make-up table, and a couple of wardrobes are all you need." These ideas just didn’t resonate with us. The idea of a DIY sauna cabin was also DOA.    

Finally, the blog advised, “Many couples opt for a second sleeping room to accommodate a snoring partner. In many cases it is then later converted into a care room for the elderly.” Oh, please. While this advice is probably very wise, and falls into the same category as saving up for college tuition, it did nothing to reduce my melancholy.  The notion of room conversion was supposed to be freeing, not a reminder of my mortality.

Luckily for me, you can find anything you want to believe on the Internet. A different article admonished me for even considering converting the rooms. Where will your children sleep when they come home to visit? What if your children need to live at home for a time after college? (In this economy, after all, there are many '"boomerang) The article declares, “Immediately changing your child's bedroom into a room that is anything other than a bedroom may cause your child to feel as though they no longer have a safety net.”  

Needless to say, our children’s bedrooms remain intact, awaiting their home visits during winter and summer vacation.  

Yet I decided to embrace the core meaning of "room conversion" in our empty nest. This phase of our life would be a freeing time, full of possibility and potential. I’ve taken to calling it our "empty next."  

A big change for us has been around weeknight dinners. We used to be a family of four at the table. Not always chatting happily, of course; we had tense meals, quiet meals, hilarious meals, delightful meals, and combative meals. The common theme, though — the four of us at the dinner table — happened frequently.  

Now, with just two of us, it feels more than a wee lonely. As I mentioned, my husband and I both work out of our home. We see each other All. Day. Long. We have micro-conversations at the coffee pot, the mailbox, and the refrigerator. By the time we get to the dinner table, there isn’t much left to say. 

Plus, it took a while for me to get the portions right cooking for two rather than four. Just us at the table quietly eating leftovers two or three nights a week was empty-nest depressing. We needed to create a new routine.

And so, I give you the bowl. We have begun eating nearly all our dinners out of bowls. Pasta variations, stir-fry, lamb chili, chicken fajitas, curries, all steaming in cozy white bowls from which we often eat — are you ready? — in the living room.  

Sure, as empty-nexters we could do exciting, enhancing, spur-of-the-moment things: tango lessons, catching a film or a play midweek, going to a reading, taking evening constitutionals, playing the ukulele. The world is open to us. But what do we do? Stay home, happily eating from our full bowls, in the living room with Jon Stewart.  

Well, we don’t always invite Jon. Sometimes it’s Stephen Colbert or Don Draper, or the Crawley family.

Yes, we’ve taken to eating in front of the TV. I would hang my head in shame, except we really enjoy it. 

Certainly I would not have allowed it when the kids were home. Google "eating in front of the TV" and you get about 145,000 results, most of which list horrible consequences: poor food choices, mindless munching, couch-potato syndrome, conversation killing, creating bad dietary habits, a rise in childhood obesity, and increase in time spent before a screen. 

I can’t argue with any of it. O Magazine warns that caloric intake balloons 71 percent if you eat in front of the TV, because you aren’t paying attention to how much you consume and you generally eat until the show is over.  
But I’ve got to say, for our downsized family meals, it’s really nice. I cook up our one-bowl meal (never popcorn), my husband opens a bottle of wine, and we have a leisurely hour of dining and laughing with Jon or Stephen. We talk over current events. We admire the Dowager Countess’ sharp tongue. We relax, together. And then, after eating and cleaning up, we do go for that constitutional. Sometimes I serenade my husband with my new ukulele.  

It looks as if we did convert a room. Our living room has become our dining room.  

p(bio). Natalie Serber is author of Shout Her Lovely Name,_ a newly published collection of short stories. She lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.

reference-image, l