Notes from Claudette from Tumbleweeds Spring 2008

Claudette Sutton - May 14, 2008

The Chicken-Wing Bowl

I was cranky all day on Super Bowl Sunday. You can safely assume this had nothing to do with who was or wasn't in the game. I'm so much not a football fan that I had to ask my husband the day before which teams were playing.

"Wait, let me guess," I said. "The New England Patriots and the Green Bay Packers."

"I'm sorry, that's wrong," Charles said in an encouraging, first-grade teacher tone. "But I'm going to give you a C+ for effort."

A C+ for 50 percent correct? No way! I thought I deserved extra credit for the right first letter (G for Giants/G for Green Bay). Charles cut me no slack.

It wasn't until late that Sunday afternoon that I finally figured out what was making me crabby. The week before, Parade magazine had an article called "Super Bowl Best Eats," with three recipes for chicken wings. Three. Chicken wings are one of my son's favorite foods. He's far away, in his first year of college. Charles and I don't like chicken wings, not enough to justify making three kinds just for us. So my urge to make something yummy and comforting for my only child had nowhere to go.

I thought of picking a fight with Charles-why don't you like chicken wings?-but that just felt stupid. So I was left with the company of my own thoughts.

Life in the empty nest, to use that old cliché, has a strange and capricious force. There's much to love about this phase of my life. I sleep better than I have in years. I savor the flexibility I have now when deciding how to spend my free time. But at times-our birthdays, Jewish holidays, other holidays and special occasions-our son's absence leaves a big hole, in which I wander dopey and dazed.

Who would have guessed one of those heart-tugging moments would be the Super Bowl, a game I never watch? But I remembered making a tray of chicken wings for Ariel and his friend Henry, three or four Super Bowl Sundays ago. The memory of the two hungry teenagers standing by the stove inhaling chicken wings before the bowl reached the table carries so much joy for me that it almost crackles.

What does a parent do with the locomotive of parental energy once the kid leaves the house? Charles and I are reacting differently. Lately, Charles has become the ultimate homebody, responding to our family's changes with a hankering for stability. Asked in Spanish class to name his favorite place on earth, he answered, "mi casa." I, on the other hand, feel insatiable wanderlust. I look up train schedules and cool places on the Internet in my spare time. I guess this is my reaction to release from responsibilities of warming the nest for the little bird.

Other responses to empty nest catch me by surprise. At times a wave of doubt crashes over me about whether I was a good enough parent. Did I say no too often? Did I squash my son's spirit? Does he like art museums? Should we have gotten the dog he wanted? This kind of thinking has a cold, clammy grip and a timetable of its own; it doesn't listen to reason. I suspect it's another face of sadness: guilt as a stage of grief. Because while I still have my dear son, I've lost that magical, child-oriented phase of life, when he reached for my hand walking from the car to the preschool door, when I pushed him on swings, when I helped with book reports. I'm realizing the truth behind another cliché: it goes by before you know it.

The week after what I now call Chicken-Wing Sunday, we met some friends for Sunday breakfast at the Guadalupe Café, with their utterly charming 3 ½-year-old son, named Joshua. As we talked, Joshua ate his scrambled egg with a tiny bit of red chile. He chimed in from time to time, and otherwise watched with patience and curiosity.

Halfway through the meal, realizing the talk had been centering around the adults, Charles asked Joshua about the Band-Aid on his finger. The little boy explained, with apparently equal parts fact and fabrication, about the gash on his pointer.

Charles leaned across the table toward him. "You know, last week I got a blister on my big toe that was so big that I had to put two Band-Aids on it, one on top of the other."

"You mean, a double-decker?" Joshua asked, eyes lighting up like sparklers.

"That's right," Charles said, then turned to Joshua's mom. "Perhaps I shouldn't be saying this?"

"That's okay," she smiled. "Band-Aids are inexpensive."

My heart was warmed by the picture of a new crop of children coming along, fascinating us and motivating our best actions: buying Band-Aids and cooking chicken-wings, tending to them when they're sick and playing when they're well, voting for the candidates who will act in their best interests, caring for the planet because it's their planet, too.

I look at the crop of articles in this issue and imagine the wealth of experiences they'll inspire: filling a house with pets, attracting backyard snails and lizards, reading to babies, snuggling a grandbaby, better understanding a child with Down syndrome (and her parents), visiting museums, planting gardens, signing up for sports, singing in a choir.

It's easier for me to take the long view now that I'm post-childrearing, if not post-parenting. Life is far from over, even the good part. Like Joshua, I've got worlds to explore. Even though I just turned 50 and don't have as many worlds before me as Joshua, I've still got plenty, and I intend to explore them. Something tells me I'll keep you posted.