My College:
Family Life

Still Emptying the Nest

Wendy Redal

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When my daughter went off to college this fall, she joined her older brother in attaining “fledgling” status, leaving us with the proverbial empty nest. Though I’m awfully tired of that term, since it seems to be the only way my demographic is defined, it functions pretty well as a metaphor for how I’m adapting to this new status.

I remember clearly what I was doing when I felt the first labor pains with her, two days prior to her due date. I started cleaning. Her brother had been two weeks late, so I thought I’d still have time to get the house in order before she arrived.

“Oh, no,” I panicked, recognizing the telltale tightening in my mid-section. “I’m not ready!” By ready, I meant having my house in presentable order for the friends sure to arrive with well wishes and meals once we got home with our new baby girl. I expected I’d have at least a couple more days to pull things together.

Though it was 6:00 a.m., I vacuumed furiously, stopping to brace against the wall when another contraction rose. Soon enough, it was time to stop the last of the nesting and get to the hospital.

The 18 years since have flown by. Our family has moved three times, managing to accumulate an astonishing amount of stuff along the way. Each phase of our children’s lives brought more things into our house: clothing, toys, books, bedding, ski gear, school art projects. My own clutter mounted as I juggled a busy home and work life. And while I’ve purged plenty along the way, too often my refrain was, “Let’s save that for the garage sale.”

The Garage Sale.

That mythical, gonna-happen-eventually, always “next spring” goal that propelled me to keep, rather than pitch, so much stuff.

Once our daughter was out of the house, I saw all of it with new eyes. Half the garage was full, usurping a car's worth of space. The storage shed in the backyard, full. Under the stairs, full. Not to mention plenty of my kids’ clothes, books and other belongings left behind, not making the cut for a cramped dorm room.

As I was warned by friends whose nests had emptied earlier, my house would feel quiet once both kids were gone. And it did. But it didn’t feel empty. Somehow, all this new silence made the stuff stand out in relief. The boxes, piled high, seemed to implore me that a new phase had arrived, only this is not one in which I feel called to make new purchases to replace old things outgrown. What I have outgrown is my status as a daily, hands-on parent, and with that, I have more time to create a simplified, streamlined environment.

Something else has happened in our circa-1960s neighborhood that has added to my new sensibility. In recent months, five homes have gone on the market, each vacated by the original owners. In most cases, they had moved on to a senior living situation or a spouse passed away, prompting a change. At one house, the couple’s adult children hired a firm to hold an estate sale.

Curious, I went inside to take a look. 

And I was haunted by what I saw.

It was as if I’d entered a time capsule spanning the last half-century. Cabinets were filled with multiple sets of china and crystal, drawers overflowed with linens and utensils, closets were crammed with outdated clothes that surely hadn’t been worn in years. What this couple had acquired made my “stuff” problem look manageable in comparison, but still, I was disturbed by the sight of a family’s possessions that had remained largely untouched over decades and suddenly seemed to have no emotional value or purpose.

I did not want that to be us. I did not want my children hosting an impersonal sale someday to get rid of possessions they had no use for or interest in.

My husband and I decided to dive in.

A spell of unseasonably warm and dry fall weather facilitated a string of weekends spent tackling the challenge. We pulled every box out of the garage and shed and investigated the contents. Some decisions were simple, prompting me to wonder, “Why the heck did we hold on to this through two moves??” Others were harder, like what to do with my husband’s monogrammed wool blanket from UCLA when he was a star on the soccer team in the 1970s. It had been packed in a box for years; were we really going to use it now? He decided “No.” We took a photo for memory’s sake, then sent it on to our church’s Deacons Closet, where it could find use by a homeless person on a cold winter night.

So far, we’ve taken eight heavy-duty plastic bags filled with clothes, bedding, pillows and rugs to the Deacons Closet. We’ve filled the Subaru Outback to the brim three times for Goodwill drop-offs and loaded up a utility trailer to haul away a sofa, loveseat, exercise machine, two bikes and four sets of skis and boots.

Of course, I have saved some treasures.

Maybe too many. And of course, I haven’t disturbed my daughter’s bedroom too much, so she’ll have a familiar place to come home to for the holidays after her first semester away at college. But overall, lightening up feels so liberating.

As my schedule frees up, allowing new views on a future filled with fresh possibilities, it makes sense to create the same sort of space in my material environment. The nestlings have flown. It’s time to jettison the extra twigs weighing me down.

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Wendy Redal is a writer, editor and marketing communications specialist based in Boulder, Colorado. She is the editorial director for Natural Habitat Adventures, a global nature and wildlife travel company focused on conservation tourism. Wendy and her husband are the parents of two recent college graduates.
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