Why I’m (Finally) Done with Nostalgia

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I’ve sometimes wondered if I’ll spend the rest of my life missing my sons as the little boys they used to be.

Though it’s been years since I reminded anyone to look both ways, the sight of a mom crossing the street hand in hand with a little guy with sleep-tufted hair and rolled up jeans can still fill my eyes with tears.

Arriving at an elementary school to give a talk one morning not long ago, watching parents bending low to kiss their children good-bye, observing the sea of bobbing back-packs, the bright art on the walls, the exuberance of six-year-olds beginning their day, I was so overcome with emotion that I had to slip back out to my car for a few minutes to compose myself.

Still, standing up at the podium in that room full of young mothers, I wasn’t quite sure I could trust my voice.

“Do you know,” I wanted to say to them, “how quickly this will all be over? Do you realize how sweet and rich your lives are right now? How fleeting?”

Of course, this is what older people have been saying to younger ones since time began. And no one wants to hear it.

Busy, distracted, wondering how to transport the kids from point A to point B and pick up some food for dinner and get the homework done without too much of a fuss, an over-stretched, over-tired parent isn’t worrying about the end of childhood so much as how to survive the hours between 3:00 and bedtime.

I know that. I’ve been that mom, too.

But my sons are 23 and 20 now. It’s been a while since I had two boys living at home full time. And what I’m most aware of, looking back, is not how endlessly long those days could be, but how quickly the years flew by.

At times my nostalgia for our family life as it used to be -– for our own imperfect, cherished, irretrievable past –- is nearly overwhelming.

The life my husband and children and I had together, cast in the golden light of memory, seems unbearably precious; what lies ahead, darker and lonelier and less certain.

Adjusting to my new empty-nest reality, after over two decades of 24/7 mothering, has been a slow, bittersweet process.

Even as my days fill with new joys and occupations, I live in the shadow of that darker, lonelier future. With both sons grown and gone, I wonder if any as-yet-unwritten life chapter could ever feel quite as right, quite as challenging and fulfilling, as those years of intense, day-in-day-out togetherness.

It is such a raw, relentless business, motherhood.

How many times have I been brought to my knees by the sheer intimacy of tears and blood and poop, fevers and sweats and strange skin rashes, sibling battles and wild nightmares and crazy, irrational fears?

And then, within the same hour sometimes, I’d be lifted right up again, exalted and turned inside out by wild laughter or a whoop of glee, a whispered confession, a cuddle, an imponderable question, a kiss delivered to an elbow or a knee (why there?), some random joke without a punch-line that made us all giggle anyway.

When all that ended, when first one son and then the other had the audacity to grow up and leave, I was pretty sure our family life would never again be quite as good.

Last weekend, both boys were home. We didn’t have much of an agenda –- watching some basketball on TV, a couple of family dinners. The guys did laundry. I made chicken potpie from scratch.

On Sunday, between basketball games and my marathon in the kitchen, my husband, the boys and I took the dog for a walk, our favorite loop through the woods.

Gracie trotted ahead, glancing back every few steps as if she couldn’t quite believe her good fortune. For a border collie, heaven is having your entire herd in the same place at the same time: ideally, outdoors and sticking close together.

I knew how she felt. I was happy, too.

In fact, as we tramped along the path it suddenly occurred to me, for the very first time, that I wouldn’t turn the clock back now even if I could. Not for one hour, not for one day, or for one year or ten. Not for anything.

It hit me with the power of epiphany: this sudden, unexpected end to the nostalgic longing I’ve carried like a bruise on my heart for so long that I’ve nearly forgotten what true ease in the here and now feels like.

Who we are, what we are, where we are at this moment is different from what was, absolutely. But it is in no way less than.

And the surprising thing is: I wouldn’t trade our beautiful, complicated, ever shifting and fleeting present for any simpler golden-hued yesterday.

Instead, I’m struck with wonder at who we are right now: four still-growing human beings, each of us irrevocably, mysteriously connected. Each of us finding our own way in the world.

And at the same time, each of us gratefully returning to this hallowed place called home: this piece of earth, this house, this dinner table, this history, this tangled web of us-ness.

 

Image credit: AugustPark on Etsy

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