John Kelly
John Kelly
Columnist

With the children gone — and not really children — the subconscious checks in

Wong Maye-E/AP - One of three 2-month old Oriental Pied Hornbills feeds on a dead mouse at the Jurong Bird Park's Breeding and Research Center in Singapore, Friday March 8, 2013. These three birds were hatched after a successful artificial incubation at the bird park after their eggs were rescued on an off-shore island in Singapore. This is all part of the park's efforts in preserving and educating the public about its wildlife and wildlife reserves.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

It was a dream. Because it was a dream, it was equal parts reality and fantasy. And like all good dreams, it revealed to me something I didn’t even know I had been thinking about.

In this dream I was working on an article that I needed to send to my editor. For some reason, the only place I could find with WiFi was a corner grocery store. I sat cross-legged on the floor of the produce section, my laptop open on my lap. My dog, Charlie, was with me. (In a dream, the owners of corner grocery stores don’t mind if you bring your dog in with you.) I glanced at Charlie and saw that he was eating a cucumber. He had it upright between his front paws and was studiously gnawing on one end as if it were a bone.

I felt glad that Charlie was eating but then was startled by the sudden sound of a baby crying. I looked up and saw my 6-month-old daughter Beatrice resting in a pile of leafy green lettuce. “I’m hungry,” she bleated. “I’m hungry.” It did not strike me as odd that an infant would be able to speak.

I suddenly realized it was late in the afternoon and not only had I not fed Beatrice lunch, I hadn’t fed her breakfast, either. No wonder she was starving.

Beatrice is 19 now and lives in London. Wouldn’t it be amazing if it turned out that at the exact moment I was having that dream she had been knocked into a bed of arugula at the Spitalfields produce market?

Of course, that didn’t happen. Dreams are about the person dreaming them, not the person dreamed about. So what does mine mean?

It means I still don’t know how to answer a question people keep asking me: So, what’s it like to be an empty-nester?

Beatrice has been away at college for a year and a half. Her older sister, Gwyneth, will graduate from college in June. You’d think that by now I would be able to formulate some articulate opinion about a time in our lives that My Lovely Wife and I spent years, well, dreaming about — the time when it would once again be just us.

Instead, all I want to say is, “I had this dream where my daughter was a baby in a bed of lettuce . . .

Okay. With the kids gone, we eat out in restaurants more often, my wife and I. We drink more wine at home. But it’s not like we forget we have kids just because they’re not physically around.

The weirdest things remind me of them. I spent the inauguration shivering in long underwear on Pennsylvania Avenue. When I came home, I stripped off my clothes and flung them in the hamper.

The sight of it — the socks and long johns and underwear all balled up together — gave me a sudden flash of my daughters’ laundry, the way their striped Hanna Andersson tights would be wrapped up with their skirt or pants, as if the girls had been Raptured and had left behind a chrysalis of clothing. I used to think, “When will my kids learn to turn their stockings inside out?! To separate whites from colors!? To pre-treat stains?!”

I think of my children whenever I’m vacuuming and I hear something like a penny or a paper clip ping up the nozzle. When they were young I was forever sucking up cast-off bits of their little girl lives: earrings, earring backs, barrettes, Barbie shoes, Polly Pocket accessories . . .

“Serves them right,” I would mutter, righteous with tough love. “Maybe hobbling around on one kitten heel will teach Barbie to be a little more careful with her possessions.”

What’s it like to have an empty nest? After more than a year, I still don’t know. Or maybe I do: The nest is never really empty. Those little birds come flitting back on magic wings, infiltrating our dreams when we least expect it.

Gonna fly now

Are you a recent empty-nester? What insights have you gained now that your kids have flown the coop? Share them with me. Send your thoughts — with “Empty Nest” in the subject line — to me at kellyj@washpost.com.

Bushy tail tales

Can you believe it’s almost time once again for Squirrel Week, my annual celebration of those cute little critters? If you have questions about squirrels, please send them my way. I may address them in my upcoming Squirrelapalooza, which is scheduled to begin April 7.

kellyj@washpost.com

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

 
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