A new nest: Kids flown the coop? So can you
My wife and I were New Yorkers for 20 years, attuned to the thrum of the city, its joys and frustrations. For every great show like Hamilton, there was the impossibility of getting tickets. For every terrific sushi dinner there was a $120 tab, for every parade a traffic jam, for every pleasure a poke in the eye. Two decades’ worth of New York minutes enriched our lives and toughened us up. More important, our kids were New Yorkers. They attended the United Nations International School with children from all over the world. They survived Sept. 11 with us, got evacuated with us, and, when the worst was over, returned with us to move even closer to ground zero. They learned to respect differences among people and to eat a slice of pizza the right way: folded.
We didn’t have to hear jackhammers by day, sirens and neighbors’ arguments by night.
We could leave!
Then, last year, we drove our daughter to college in Massachusetts. Her brother had already graduated from Syracuse University and found a job and a place of his own. Driving home to an apartment with no kids in it for the first time in years, we had the same thought: Nothing’s keeping us here.
We didn’t have to pay two to 10 times what everything – a pound of coffee, a round of golf, movie tickets, income tax, rent – costs in other parts of the country.
As it happened, we fell in love with a college town near our daughter’s school. It had the basics we needed: a downtown with good restaurants, an indie cinema nearby, bookstores, a lively music scene. A five-minute walk puts you on a hiking path you could follow to Canada. A kayak puts you in the middle of the Connecticut River.
We started planning our escape. On moving day, I jostled with a half-dozen Brooklynites at the local rent-a-truck place. I came out of the scrum with a 16-foot panel truck that had 110,000 miles on it and a couple of bullet holes in it. A truck that handled like a bulldozer and went from zero to 60 annually. My wife, Pamela, a one-woman Army Corps of Engineers, directed two strong young guys we had hired to load the truck. Then we hit the road. The rearview mirror showed nothing but our cab’s back wall, making every maneuver an adventure.
“I’m changing lanes – hang on!”
We had been rolling for a couple of hours, cranking the radio like Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty in Lost in America, when the truck died. Lost in Connecticut, we reverted to New York mode, taking turns yelling at a rental agency rep on the phone. Three hours later, a mechanic popped our truck’s hood. He jiggled a battery cable. He tried the ignition. The engine roared like a jet. We were back in business, but now we were running out of daylight.
It was dark by the time we clattered into our new hometown. We phoned the local moving companies, hoping to hire a couple of strong young guys to help us unload, but they were all closed. We would have to do the job ourselves.
This led to some weighty decisions. Half our stuff was book boxes, heavy but manageable. Mattress and box spring, ditto. But there were pieces our Brooklyn musclemen had struggled to lift. One was an oak dresser we wrestled to the curb. When it didn’t fit through the door, we lugged it to the trash, followed by a cedar chest. I brought up the rear, picturing my short future as a heart-attack statistic. That left a dining-room table that loomed larger the longer I looked at it. We had left the table for last because we could neither do without it nor imagine how we would get it from the truck to the second floor of our new apartment.
“Twenty-one steps,” Pamela said.
The first few weren’t so bad. She took the lead, lugging the heavy table’s front end up five steps to the front door, around a corner, and into our apartment. From there we went one step at a time. Breathe, lift, rest. The fact that this was the end of moving day made it both better and worse. Better because we were so close, worse because we might still wind up under the table at the bottom of the stairs.
“Lift!” she said. “Ten more steps.”
I knew how Atlas felt, carrying the world on his shoulders, except the world corners better than our dinner table.
“Nine!” I pictured the ice-cold beers we would enjoy when this was over.
“Three! Two!” Reaching the top, we dropped the table and collapsed.
Several beers later, we noticed a strange sound.
“Do you hear that?” I said.
Total silence. The table lay upside down with its legs in the air like a shot deer. Stiff and sore, we limped outside. We looked up and saw stars, brighter and clearer than they ever look in the sleepless city. Like kids, we pointed out the Big Dipper and the evening star.
A rabbit hopped across the street. “I think we’ll like it here,” Pamela said.
That was a couple of months ago. So far, so good. I’ve already got a routine going: Every morning I walk to a market for the New York Times, the New York Post, and the local paper. It’s early enough that the streets are empty, so still that I can hear crickets and spot rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks. My only scare came when a creature of the night sneaked up behind me. I’ve still got my radar for muggers, but that possum sent me running for my life.
Last week I attended my first meeting at the local Rotary club. District 7890 Governor Frank Wargo gave a talk about his travels to war zones, leper colonies, and other trouble spots around the globe. At the end he circled back to the local club, whose members bought gifts for poor families one Christmas. Rotary, he said, helps people right here in town, in the rest of Massachusetts, in New England, around the United States, and all over the world.
I’m planning to join the club. What better way to get involved in my new hometown?
If there’s a moral to this story, maybe it’s that habitats can change as our lives change. Pamela and I miss our kids and count the hours till we see them. There’s something bittersweet to that. But with our own youth in the rearview, it feels right to winnow things down. After 35 years together, we have no more possessions than when we started, but we’ve got as many plans as ever, and more memories. Our nest is anything but empty.
• Kevin Cook is a frequent contributor to The Rotarian whose next book, Electric October, will be published in the fall. See more articles from The Rotarian.