When you raise children, you grow accustomed to an urban landscape. There are people marching in and out of your house at all hours of the day for almost two decades. They speak strange languages, exhibit odd mannerisms and wear unfamiliar clothes. Your house is a virtual New York City - honking horns included.
But that all eventually ends and suddenly you are living in a house that more resembles Kansas, and you turn to your husband and politely ask him when his hair went grey.
Once, back in the day - when my house was still a blinking, vibrant city-my husband and I snuck out to see a movie. It was a horrible night to be driving and after we'd bought our tickets, we realized that we were the only people in the theater. And as if we were suddenly 10 again, we giggled, chomped our popcorn and never turned our cellphones off. We were unexpectedly, happily alone.
Another time, when my husband and I were traveling in Peru, there was a train strike and we were the last two people to score a rare but golden ticket to Machu Picchu on a squeaky, antiquated helicopter that even Evel Knievel would have shunned. The beauty was when we got to Machu Picchu we were virtually the only people there. We sort of wandered around in a daze like the last people in Saigon. Toward the end, I missed the dirty dishes and the kids and my laundry room, but I won't forget the feeling that for a time, we were virtually the only two people in that mountainous world.
But no moment can prepare you for the empty nest.
A house full of children is like a stage set for the Waltons. You've got all sorts of props: two sets of dishes, 50 mismatched forks; a cupboard filled with fraying towels, and a basement full of Valentines etched in grade school. And what happens is that the lights go up and you're standing there with $10,000 worth of Sears appliances and Bon-Ton dishes and there is no one there to use them. Everyone's packed up and moved on except for you.
There were times when I raised my children that I prayed to be alone-if only for an hour. I wanted to know what it would be like to take a bath without the yellow rubber duck floating in the water; to be able to find the roll of scotch tape or a pair of scissors in the same drawer I had left them; or to refrain from fine-tuning my ability to be in six places at once. Danielle Patrick had nothing on me.
I now have enough scissors to outfit a grade school, but I'd trade every pair to have my children here, cutting out triangles on pastel construction paper and smelling of glue.
My husband is a whole lot less sentimental than I am. His schedule doesn't allow him to contemplate our empty nest much. I asked him recently to consider helping with our children's plane fare so they could visit us for the holidays. It is his job, of course, to hum and haw any request having to do with his wallet, and so I told him this:
"Honey, I don't know how it happened, but we're a half century old. One day, our kids will all be married and have their own homes for the holidays. Just how many celebrations are there left?"
And so, our Kansas-like home shone like New York for a whole five days over Thanksgiving, with footsteps on the stairs, the lights on at night and cars honking in the driveway.
When the last day arrived, my husband brought the kids to the airport and then left for a business trip, and I found myself standing alone in the kitchen with the dogs again. As is customary, I peeled an avocado over the sink and set the table for one.
That's how it is these days. But what you do is cherish the memories-those brief and shining moments when the twinkling lights of the city come inside and make themselves at home again.