School Bells Inspire Empty Nester to Start Fresh

Back to school time signals a change of seasons and a creative way to beat the blues.

I have a hunch that fall is arriving early. Maybe it’s the angle of sunlight on the last of the black-eyed Susans in our perennial garden. Or maybe it’s the sound of berries and acorns crunching under our tires when my husband and I bicycle around .

Whatever triggers it, I can’t ignore the maternal instinct to shop for back-to-school supplies — even though I don’t have a student anymore.

My son did exactly what most parents hope their kids will do: He grew up, earned a degree from the university of his choice and started a job shortly after. His dad and I helped him load his worldly goods into the back of his SUV, then crammed our sedan with the rest of his clothes and followed him on I-94.  After helping him unpack, we waved a tearful good-bye in front of a small flat in Chicago and drove back home to Royal Oak. Just the two of us.

That was three years ago, yet I still struggle to get my mind around the fact that I’m an empty nester now.

Reinventing vs. retiring

Watching the younger moms in my neighborhood — the ones buying new Crayolas and lunch boxes — I recall the exhilarating sense of freedom I'd get when my little boy started school each year. 

I’d even thank the Blessed Mother every time I dropped him off at , believing it was a miracle to have six quiet hours a day to meet deadlines and run errands all by myself. In those days, the calendar on our kitchen wall was a never-ending list of music lessons, Cub Scout meetings, school conferences, home-room baking marathons and rotating carpool schedules. (And I was the mother of an only child.)

Even now, I can’t fathom how any mother finds the time to juggle it all, no matter how many children she has.

I’m also surprised at how long it took to adjust to the void my son left when he first departed for college. His bedroom at home looked so eerily clean and empty that I made a habit of keeping its door shut.

Up until then, I hadn’t fully realized that the vocation I'd enjoyed most — more than writing or publishing or teaching — was mothering. The epiphany caught me off-guard, like the tears that roll unexpectedly when you catch the lyrics of a sentimental tune on the radio while you're driving.

Determined not to become a long-distance helicopter parent, I had to figure out where to devote my maternal energy during this uncharted phase of my mid-life. I needed to explore something different — something just for myself.

Was it time for a puppy or a brand-new hobby?

The inner artist emerges

The late-summer ritual of buying school supplies provided my first clue.

The week before his big move to college, my son and I headed for in Clawson. While he made a beeline for the computer supplies, I was magically drawn to a rainbow display of felt-tipped calligraphy pens, colored markers, glitter glue and drawing pads.

That’s when my inner artist — who’d been banished to a corner of my psyche after I graduated from college — finally reasserted herself. I had no idea what she planned do with all the tubes of glitter glue and Magic Markers she tossed in our shopping cart, but she refused to leave the store without them.

I think author John Updike explained it best when he said, "What art offers is space — a certain breathing room for the spirit." Which is exactly what I needed at the time.

A month later, I shopped for real art supplies at Michaels, where I also discovered several art magazines featuring how-to articles on mixed-media collage and altered books. I couldn't learn fast enough. By the end of that fall, I’d started clearing space for an art studio upstairs above the garage. While my son studied (and partied) through his freshman year at college, I happily painted, cut and pasted a whole new path of my own.

No matter how old we are, school bells signal a change of seasons and inspire us all to start something fresh. We might be tempted to try a cooking class, redecorate the kitchen, or learn a foreign language.

For me, it’s time to put the garden to rest and head back indoors to discover where art will lead me next. I've already started making notes on some creative projects I'd like to try. In preparation, I swept the floor of the studio last week and made a list of the things I'll need to get started. I can hardly wait to shop for my new supplies.

Cindy La Ferle's award-winning story collection, Writing Home, is available at Amazon.com and locally at the Yellow Door Art Market in Berkley. For more information visit Cindy La Ferle’s Home Office.

Pam Rusinowski August 31, 2011 at 03:04 PM
As always, you have touched a spot in this mother's heart and caused me to ponder what life will be like in three years when the last of three girls leave for college. Instead of dreading it, I would be better off to look at this as a time of transition for the new adventure that awaits me. As always, another great article from Cindy LaFerle! Thanks Cindy. Pam
Judy Davids (Editor) August 31, 2011 at 03:37 PM
Great column Cindy! Brilliant!
Cindy La Ferle August 31, 2011 at 05:33 PM
Thanks so much, Pam and Judy. Judy, I know you just dropped a son off at my alma mater recently, so you're on the same path :-)
Sheryl August 31, 2011 at 05:50 PM
Cindy, A friend forwarded this to me and I'm glad she did. I am also a writer who is also an empty-nester. And I have toyed with the idea of art projects - exactly like those you describe - ever since my two sons moved out. Alas, the raw materials still sit in the garage, waiting to be torn into. You have given me some inspiration! I wish I could find a group to do these projects with, to spur me on. Writing is so solitary, as is art, and it would be fun to do one of these with some company :)
Cindy La Ferle August 31, 2011 at 05:57 PM
Sheryl, keep in touch with me if you live in the area, as I am thinking of starting up a crafts group. Would be fun to do some easy collage projects with a creative group of local women. Ideas are percolating. (You can e-mail me through my Website: www.laferle.com)
Sheryl August 31, 2011 at 06:16 PM
Oh, I wish I did live in your area but I have a feeling I don't, since the friend who sent this lives in Oregon (is that where you are?) I live in southern Connecticut.
Lynne Cobb August 31, 2011 at 06:29 PM
Cindy, what a wonderful article. I'm kind of an "in-between," with my older two married and on their own, and my younger two still in high school, but I can relate to a lot of what you shared. I miss being a room mom! Truly loving the idea of a crafts group - do let me know if you decide to start one.
Cindy La Ferle August 31, 2011 at 06:35 PM
Sheryl, I'm in Royal Oak, MI ... wish it were closer to southern Connecticut. :-)
Scott Newport August 31, 2011 at 08:09 PM
Even though my children have a far reaching array of ages, one being 12 and the other 28 and one who lives in heaven and from what I have heard they have birthdays there too. So as you can imagine I am at the age most parents are seeing their last kid move on. Cindy I am not sure if it is an empty nester thing that can bring new venture in your life it may be just an opportunity to grow after many years of doing the same thing and wanting to find new ways to explore gifts that have been buried and now ready to bloom.
Joanna Jenkins August 31, 2011 at 10:25 PM
I feel the same way about the start of school and I don't have any kids! But it's a time when the weather cools and hobbies move ahead of bbqs and summer fun. For, it's a trip to the fabric store and a chance to dust off my sewing/quilting projects. Terrific article, Cindy. jj
Cindy Hampel September 01, 2011 at 12:33 AM
I was wondering what inspired you to start your beautiful mixed media art! This time of year does inspire me to try new things, too. Thanks for a touching column, Cindy.
Jane Gassner September 03, 2011 at 05:35 PM
Cindy, Thanks for sending me this link --oh, wait, i bet I can subscribe to all your Patch columns! Never sent a kid off to school, so never had that empty nest, but I totally relate to the art supplies. I have a room full of them and I too love that space that happens when I'm working on a project.
Carla Temple November 10, 2012 at 11:40 PM
Hey Nin~theia . . . I'm just reading "facebook" stuff and somehow landed on this article of yours . I can so see you shopping for the pens and markers. That would be me as well. I LOVE that aisle at Office Max :D Great story. You're such a good writer ~ and friend. xox


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