Jim and I were married 25 years ago, on a day when it rained in biblical proportions. A canopy of umbrellas hovered over me and my wedding gown as I was swept over the puddles by a protective entourage of family and friends. They covered me from my home to the church, from the church to the limo, and from the limo to the reception. From there on, it was Jim’s job. This was not to be the last time in our marriage that I required shelter from the storm, but I certainly stopped worrying about getting wet. Rain, after all, brings the promise of new life, as it did on that day 25 years ago.
I had met Jim just a year earlier, and within six months we were engaged. His heroic arrival at a party one night signaled the end of a romantic drought in my post-collegiate life. He was a rising young executive with a promising future as a taxation planner for nonprofit organizations. As a PR gal, I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I was drawn to his casual charm and comfortable confidence―qualities that would remain the hallmark of his demeanor. Instantly, Jim and I fell in love with each other and with our vision of a future together.
That vision materialized into three robust sons, who became my full-time occupation, affecting dramatic changes to both my life and Jim’s. At the end of my first pregnancy, my feet had permanently grown from a size 9 to a size 10, rendering my premarital collection of Charles Jourdan shoes obsolete. That was just the beginning of my transformation from a sharp and polished professional babe into a slightly sloppy domestic worker with the faint smell of throw-up. But in those early days of being parents, Jim and I happily recognized that we were revealing our true selves to each other. I was Mom, and he was Dad. We were comfortable being a family, and our sons became the driving force in our lives. Frank arrived first, then Nick, and finally Charlie; each boy was distinctly different, and yet together we five became one.
While we were not obsessive about our children, Jim and I were obsessive about being a family. We entertained as a family, went out as a family, traveled as a family, and felt most complete as a family. Was this unhealthy? Modern thinking encourages husbands and wives to demand time apart from their children, escape to romantic hideaways, and schedule weekly dinner dates for two. We never felt that calling. Sure, we enjoyed a few anniversary trips alone and went out with other grown-ups, but we never forced it or felt deprived by a lack of it. Was I dull to think that a perfect date was the five of us huddled on the couch with a take-out dinner and a good movie? Was it wrong that Jim’s idea of heaven on earth was mustering his wife and sons into the Suburban and heading off to find a remote fishing hole in Wyoming? It suited us.
But somewhere between the last bout of chicken pox and the first beer, the boys grew up. And one day, Charlie, my baby, nearly six feet four, came to me with his college applications. Jim and I were fast approaching the dubious status of “empty nesters.” While car-pool lines formed in school yards across America and soccer moms reported for duty, arms laden with snacks, I started to stew about what Jim and I would talk about at dinner that night, just the two of us. Or how we would fill our weekend without the boys’ games or friends or companionship to occupy us.
What began as a nagging little worry gradually evolved into a storm front that clouded my quiet days. The term “empty nester” echoed in my head. Have you ever seen empty, abandoned nests? They are sad, wretched little things, caked thick with droppings and shell fragments. An empty nest is home to no one. The mother bird, disgusted at the mess of poop and feathers her children left behind, bails out, and the father bird has no reason to come home.
I do not feel like the jilted proprietor of a dirty little empty nest. It thrills me to watch my bright and handsome sons take flight for colleges in other states or jobs in distant regions. This is how we raised them: to be independent and curious. They will find their way back home.
But their absence from our house does beg a question I didn’t see coming: Who are Jim and I without them? We are surely not the newlyweds we were 25 years ago, expectant and unknowing. And we are not a couple of retired grandparents, sage and settled. We are too young to be old and too old to be young, like two formed apples still ripening on the branch.
So now I am learning to sit and watch football next to Jim (silently), and he is learning to sit and talk movies next to me (verbally). Together we are learning to play tennis and plan trips to adult destinations, like New York City and the Napa Valley. We are discovering who we have become in these 25 wonderful years together. Occasionally my bare foot still finds the sharp edges of a stray Lego piece, abandoned by the little boys who once played here. A quick jolt of pain, then it’s gone.
Not long ago, in the middle of the week, Jim called and asked me to meet him for dinner at a new restaurant in town. We lingered luxuriously at the table, with no concerns about who was expecting us at home on a school night. It was a simple and satisfying act of independence for a husband and wife, and I thought to myself, Yes, I could get used to this.
And there it was, the silver lining that promises a light behind the clouds. Jim and I are on our way into the next season of our marriage. And, as we did as bride and groom so many years ago, at the end of the day, we’ll stand and face the elements together.