empty nest

The last first day of school

emme_typewriterAs published in the Providence Sunday Journal, September 18, 2016.

My daughter sat in our driveway behind the wheel of a charcoal gray SUV, eager to set off for her senior year at Syracuse. She had borrowed the Highlander from her girlfriend because neither of our family’s two cars was big enough to transport all her stuff.

“Roles reversed, Pops,” Juliana said playfully as I joined her in the front seat. It was true. For three years, I had always been the pilot on our excursions to and from upstate New York. This would be the first time my wife, Deb — nestled in the back seat amid duffel bags and pillows — and I would make the five-hour trek with our 21-year-old at the helm.

Julie is the youngest of our three children. For two decades, at the end of each summer, we have been stepping up to the academic starting line. With Julie’s graduation in May 2017, the marathon, in all likelihood, will be over.

Deb will never forget our son Peter’s first day of elementary school. In late August 1996, the two of them stood on our front porch looking up Peirce Street for the bus that would take Pete to kindergarten at Frenchtown School. They waited … and waited … and waited. The offices of the East Greenwich School Department are directly across the street from our house, and on that momentous morning, the superintendent eventually came out of the building.

“There’s been a mix-up,” he called out. “Can you drive him?”

Deb looked at Pete for signs of distress, but he just turned to her and smiled. “It’s OK, Mommy,” he said. “I like driving with you.” His disposition remains as even-keeled to this day.

Our son Evan’s temperament was more individualistic; conformity was never his thing. He rebelled against the training wheels on his bike and the bumpers at the bowling alley. And when I suggested over breakfast one morning that he’d have fun at preschool because it was his birthday, he was unconvinced.

“It’s a day like any other day,” he said, eyes fixed on his Fruit Loops. “They just give you a stupid hat.”

As the start of kindergarten neared for Evan, Deb and I worried about his willingness to even get on the bus. Transitions could be agonizing for him. On more than one occasion during preschool drop-offs, he had clung to Deb’s leg, prompting her to nickname him “The Human Barnacle.”

And yet, when the bus pulled up the first time, he jumped on with his friends Aidan and Wil, and never looked back. It was unforgettable because it was so uneventful.

Juliana couldn’t wait to go to kindergarten. At an orientation for families the week before classes began, she stood right up when the Frenchtown principal invited the children to take a practice ride on their school bus.

“Parents, feel free to join your child if you’d like,” the principal added.

Julie held up her hand to Deb, a 5-year-old traffic cop.

“Don’t move — I can do it myself,” she said, displaying a self-confidence that would only deepen in the years ahead.

Now, as Julie navigated the Highlander through Albany, Robert DeLong surfaced on her Spotify playlist, singing about how “a few years make a difference.”

“Appropriate,” she said, turning up the volume with a smile.

In Syracuse, we hauled Julie’s stuff up three flights to her sorority room and then said our good-byes, mother and daughter sounding their familiar refrain:

“Love you!”

“Love you more!”

In the driver’s seat again, I pulled onto the New York State Thruway with mixed feelings. I was relieved to have only one more tuition check to write, but reluctant just yet to put another family milestone in the rearview mirror.

Crossing the Hudson, Deb and I reminisced about no-show school buses, “stupid” birthday hats, and a little girl who once told us “I can do it myself” — a succession of family videos never taken, growing more vivid with each passing mile.

My debut on NPR: “The Fence”

Click here to listen!

NPR

On fences, children, and letting go

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, September 20, 2015.

Twenty years ago, when my wife, Deb, and I had a fence put up around the perimeter of our backyard in East Greenwich, a line from Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” came to me:

“Good fences make good neighbors.

But our fence was less about neighbors than about children. We had two boys, ages 4 and 2, and a new baby was on the way. With our house smack-dab in the middle of town, half a block from busy Main Street, we needed to make sure our kids didn’t wander off.

Good fences make good barricades.

Our lot sits on a hill, and the backyard slopes precipitously. That didn’t seem to concern the burly, good-natured guys who did the installation. They navigated the tricky terrain masterfully and, after two days, the cedar fence gathered our boys in a fragrant embrace.

Over the ensuing years, within the fence’s confines, our children ran through sprinklers and built snow forts; chased our dog and tried to dig to China; tossed Wiffle balls and played manhunt.

At the same time, northeasters slammed the fence’s flat boards and squirrels gnawed on the arbor above the gate. When frost heaves left four or five sections askew, I had to call the installers back to re-set the posts.

As our kids grew older, the backyard gave way to the front door in their daily comings and goings. Out they bounded to music lessons, basketball games, drama rehearsals, or to just hang with friends. Somehow, seemingly overnight, the fence’s containment services were no longer needed.

Good thing.

The first break came when Hurricane Irene whipped through Rhode Island in 2011. I watched from my kitchen window as one of the fence’s back sections listed awkwardly, a wooden sail in the storm.

I rushed down with clothesline rope to tether the flailing section back to its post. Irene scoffed at me with a whoosh of wind and rain. Afraid the next gust would hurtle the rack of wood onto a neighbor’s car, I laid the section flat on the ground, hefted six cobblestones onto it, and prayed.

The cobblestones (or my prayers) did the job. But after the storm, the fence wobbled badly on either side of the missing section. The entire back run needed to be replaced, the fence guys told me; most of the posts and crosspieces were rotted. When I heard the price — and thought of pending college tuition payments — I asked the guys to simply take the battered back run away.

Miraculously, the fence’s side runs held on — until Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Two sections on the northern edge of the yard fell, and those that remained upright were now more vulnerable than ever. Storms no longer needed a name to pose a threat. The mere mention of heavy winds had me peering outside with trepidation.

One blustery Saturday morning, I looked out my kitchen window and, again, noticed a gap in the fence — this time, a section was breaking ranks on the southern property line. I grabbed my drill and headed out to the yard. I pulled the straying section back in line with its post-mate; a fifty-cent brace from Benny’s would reunite them.

But when I leaned into my churning drill, it pushed right through the mushy wood. The brace and the screw fell to the ground, and the fence resumed its tilting.

As I searched for the screw in the leaves below, I thought of my children. My older son was in Los Angeles, chasing pop music dreams. His brother was on a train to New York, trying to kick-start his own path in the recording industry. And my daughter was asleep upstairs, perhaps dreaming of a college campus far away from the backyard of her childhood. In less than a year, she would leave, too.

A different line from Frost’s poem spoke to me now:

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.”

I abandoned my mending and went back inside.

Scenes From An Emptying Nest

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In my mind, the scene plays out like a bittersweet Bill Forsyth movie. My sons Peter and Evan are set to depart for Los Angeles to chase pop music dreams. The car is packed and idling in the driveway. Soft breezes wash through the trees outside our house. Birds chirp.

As Deb gives the boys her good-bye hug on the porch, she speaks with the wisdom and love of every mother who has ever lived. I hand the boys an envelope. It contains my epic poem on the eternal bond between fathers and sons, surpassing Homer and Joyce in its insight. And now a car pulls up. It’s Juliana, making a surprise early return from her Martha’s Vineyard getaway because she can’t let her brothers get away without a sister’s kiss.

Cue the music for the final scene: Mark Knopfler serenades the boys as they drive down Peirce Street and into their future. Dolly back, fade to black.

Of course, it doesn’t happen this way – just ask National Grid. On departure day morning at 7:00 sharp, they show up right outside our house with a mountain of dirt and a whirling Bobcat. A backhoe doubles as the boys’ alarm clock, pounding Peirce Street and shaking the house. No birds are chirping now.

Inside, the mundane and the practical trump my cinematic visions. Do you have clean towels? Where’s your shaving kit? Anyone seen the phone chargers? Did you get to the bank? For the hundredth time, I tell Peter and Evan to make sure they take 287 West for the Tappan Zee Bridge. Eyes roll. And then the rain comes – torrents – forcing the National Grid guys to stop their banging and huddle under a tent. We continue to load the car in the downpour – the boys are on a schedule.

Finally, at the moment of departure, disaster strikes – a family fender bender in the driveway threatens the trip before it even begins. We survey the damage in disbelief. How do you open the hood? Where’s the manual? This morning, we are more Griswold than Greek poetry.

But somewhere the gods are watching over us. The driveway mishap is more ding than disaster. With the car’s front grill popped back into place, the boys depart at last.

And just like that, a milestone Thursday turns ordinary. I go to work. Deb arranges to pick up Julie at the Fast Ferry. The Red Sox beat the Mariners. National Grid patches the road and moves the orange cones to the next block.

When Julie leaves for college in August, the flight will be complete. Deb and I will be empty nesters, though that’s a misnomer. Memories will fill the house. Remember the time the Christmas tree fell over? The first night with Moxie as a puppy? Basketball games in the basement between the Celtics and the Monkey Team? Midnight breakfasts? Talks about what you want to be when you grow up?

In my mind, these scenes play over and over – a family movie never taken, still in development, based on a true story, already a classic.

For Peter and Evan, somewhere between Columbus and St. Louis.

On Fences And Letting Go

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Good fences make good neighbors. Those words from Mending Wall by Robert Frost came to me seventeen years ago when we had a fence put up around the perimeter of our backyard at 112 Peirce Street. But the fence was less about neighbors and more about children. We had two young boys, and a third child was on the way. We needed to make sure the kids didn’t wander down to Main Street when they went out back. Good fences make good barricades.

Putting up the fence wasn’t easy. Our lot sits on a hill and our backyard slopes precipitously. The two side runs of the fence had to be stepped down before connecting with the long run of sections across the back. But when it was done, the fence was a thing of beauty. It gathered the boys in a cedar embrace.

The fence marked time with its color, going from toddler blond to adolescent brown. Within its walls, the kids ran through sprinklers and built snow forts, played with our dog and tossed Wiffle balls. At the same time, squirrels gnawed at the posts and moss crept up the flat boards. Wisteria strangled the arbor, lifting its posts from the ground. In random places, the fence lurched from frost heaves below.

As the kids grew older, the backyard gave way to the front door. Out they bounded to music lessons, basketball games, play rehearsals, or to just hang with friends. The fence’s containment services were no longer needed.

The first break came in August 2011. As Hurricane Irene whipped through Rhode Island, two sections of the back run listed awkwardly, wooden sails in the storm. I rushed down to secure them by wrapping a rope around the post they shared and tethering it to a nearby tree trunk. No luck. Afraid they would hurtle onto the cars parked nearby, I laid the breakaway sections on the ground, weighing them down with cobblestones.

After the storm, the back run – minus the two fallen sections – wobbled from end to end. I called the guys who had done the original installation. When they told me the price to replace the run, I hired them for a fraction of the cost to simply take it away.

The two side runs remained… until last October and Hurricane Sandy. More sections fell, and those that didn’t were now more vulnerable – even storms without names posed a threat.

It’s early Saturday morning. Sipping coffee, I look out my kitchen window and notice a new gap in the fence – another section breaking ranks. I grab my drill and head outside. I pull the straying section back in line with its post-mate; a fifty-cent brace from Benny’s will reunite them. But when I lean into my churning drill, I push the screw right through the rotted wood. Grabbing nothing, it falls to the ground and the fence resumes its tilting.

As I search for the screw in the snow-covered leaves, I think of my children. Peter is in Los Angeles, chasing big music dreams. Evan is on a train to New York, trying to kick-start a business career. Juliana sleeps upstairs, perhaps having REM visions of a college far away from the backyard of her childhood. Soon she will leave, the last one.

Frost speaks to me once more, seventeen years after the fence first went up. It’s the same poem that I remember, but now a different line resonates: Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.

I abandon my mending and go back inside.

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