• Melanie Wilson

From Crayons to Passports: An Empty Nester's Back-to-School Thoughts

I wrote this essay for my Melodrama column in August 2019 when my youngest began his semester abroad in Barcelona. Reposting here.

It's the excitement that a new notebook brings, and the smell of crayons, even though most of the people I know are well past the Crayola stage.

New beginnings and possibilities.

It's in the air...can you feel it?

It doesn't matter if you have a first time preschooler, a high schooler, are sending your oldest off to college, or are preparing for the dreaded Empty Nest.

September means Back-to-School even if you don't have kids.

Some people look to January 1 as the time to start afresh. Not I. I am all about the new school year.

If your Facebook timeline looks anything like mine, the past week or two has been filled with tearful goodbyes from first-time college parents, and mournful farewells from the really sad--the Empty Nesters.

This week, it will be filled with the first-day-of-school photos, particularly those from parents whose cherubs are starting kindergarten for the first time.

I get a huge lump in my throat just thinking about it.

In our family, we did back-to-school at the local Summit schools for 18 years straight, and I have the requisite backpack pictures to prove it.

But then something changed. My tribe graduated high school, and went to college. I don’t know which was worse, the anticipation of saying goodbye or the actual goodbyes. I admit it, I tortured myself. I read essays from the moms and dads who had the gift of eloquence, and were able to translate what they were feeling into words. Several websites are completely dedicated to it, and they have enormous followings.

I always knew it would be bad. Back when my oldest was a baby, I was part of a wonderful babysitting co-op where we watched each other’s kids. I was watching a child I barely knew one night. He handed me a book, one that I was unfamiliar with--it was “Love You Forever” by Robert Munsch. This poor child. I sobbed on him. Really sobbed.

This laid the groundwork for a lifetime of over emoting at even what others perceived as the most innocuous of sentimental moments. It didn’t take much--even the end scene in the otherwise-forgettable “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2” when the daughter grows up and has her own family set my friends and me off in the theatre where we watched it.

We wallowed in it. We sent each other links to the most difficult-to-read essays. They were like a drug; we were addicted and we couldn’t tear ourselves away.

Can we talk about Toy Story 3? Okay, can we not.

Then there was that cartoon that floated around comparing the first day of school in kindergarten--where the child wraps his arms around a tree and the mom tries to pull him off-- with the first day of college-- where it’s the mom hanging on to the tree using her feet for leverage as she holds back her kid heading to college.

Yup, could be me.

This year there is a new form of torture. Have you heard the new song “Forever Now” by Michael Buble? The words are bad enough--it starts, “I just met you, It seems like yesterday; you opened up your eyes, and I recognized your face.” From there it only goes downhill. “I tuck you in at night, another day has passed. Every week goes by a little faster than the last. It wasn't so long ago

We walked together and you held my hand.”

But, as if the words weren’t bad enough, the video shows dozens and dozens of still photographs of the child’s bedroom and its contents, from a little crib with infant toys to the room of a teenager with books, balls, and backpacks. I would try to write a more descriptive synopsis of the video, but I just can’t bear to watch it again.

For my friends with younger kids, they see us, the Empty Nesters, and they feel bad for us. They watch us try to find creative ways to fill the void that the kids left. They see us try retail therapy. We take cooking classes. We even get puppies. But mostly, we count the days until Fall Break, and Thanksgiving, and Holiday Break, or in my case this year to when we fly over to visit my youngest who we put on a plane for a semester abroad.

I remind myself that their going off is exactly what is supposed to be happening. But if it’s all part of the plan, why do we miss them so much?

So, I will go out to the local CVS and I will shop the back-to-school aisle. I will buy a new notebook for my to-do list because there is no satisfaction greater than crossing out an item on a paper list. Maybe I’ll even buy a new box of crayons. Perhaps I’ll give it to the neighbor with the little kids.

But first, I’ll open it and take a big whiff of new beginnings. Good luck on your first day.



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