Christmas in an Empty Nest

Posted by:
Susan Rooke
December 22, 2016

The title of this post may sound like I’m going to whine, but I surprised myself. Turns out the experience isn’t bad at all.

From the time I was 11 years old until Katie was born two decades later, I viewed the Norman Rockwell-ized ideal of Christmas with cynical amusement. I can pinpoint it with such exactitude because that was the year my mother and I celebrated Christmas in a beachfront hotel in Pattaya, Thailand. I remember the locale as tropical and lush, with our very nice room overlooking the body of water still known in those days as the Gulf of Siam. I see that now in Pattaya they cater to tourists by putting up Christmas decorations, but when we stayed there, there was nothing like that. Why should there be? Thailand was, and is, a largely Buddhist nation.

My mother, however, took genuine pleasure in Christmas, and was dismayed that we had no decorated tree for the holiday. Her solution was creative. We scrounged in the hotel courtyard and found a leafy green stalk of vegetation 20 or so inches tall, took it to our room and propped it up in the ice bucket. Then we combed the beach for a pretty seashell to top it with, but were even more thrilled when we turned up a dead starfish. How perfect was that? It was very limp, though, and surprisingly heavy. When we draped it atop the Christmas “tree,” it made our construction sag to one side. Undeterred, we admired it for a couple of days anyway, until it began to smell so awful we had to pitch the whole mess in the trash. I’d never before associated the festive season with rotting echinoderms. We were able to put Christmas behind us so much more easily that year.

Soon after that I embarked on my phase of brittle cynicism. I still enjoyed Christmas—it’s a pretty holiday, and we had some terrific cutthroat rounds of charades when the family got together each year—but I felt no compulsion to maintain an idealized view of it. Until Katie was born, and at that point I morphed into a steaming bowl of indulgent mush.

But eventually Katie went off to college. And once she did, for several years the advent of another Christmas would make Glen and me a bit melancholy. While she was growing up, we had formed and embraced our own family traditions, all because of her. We would have a traditional Christmas breakfast. Traditional mimosas accompanied the breakfast once we judged her to be old enough. There would be a scavenger hunt for presents, with clues left on the tree. Yes, she came home from college for the holidays, but we always knew the holidays would be over soon. Then she’d go back for the spring semester and there we’d be, up a creek without her oddball, snarky, hilarious companionship to steer us.

College was good practice, though. It got us over the hump, so that by the time she married Wesley (who is equally oddball, snarky and hilarious, so he fits right in), Glen and I were used to being by ourselves again. I can’t deny that a little empty-nester gloom still creeps in from time to time, but for the most part, we’ve discovered we have a lot of fun. Kind of like the first four years of our marriage, but with loose skin and arthritis. (Hey. At least I didn’t say “loose teeth.”)

A few years ago we even began our own tradition: a low-key celebration, just the two of us, except for the occasional uninvited guest.

Now we spend our Christmases in a 270 sq. ft. cabin in the middle of West Texas nowhere, on a ranch belonging to good friends Richard and Michelle. The cabin is short on a few modern conveniences. There’s no TV, and only spotty telephone and internet service. (Glen has plenty of music on his iPhone, though.) When it’s bitterly cold outside, we bundle up and go hiking and birdwatching anyway. In the evenings, after a plain but satisfying dinner, I beat him at poker. Unless he beats me. (That sounds wrong, but you know what I mean.)

We enjoy wintry scenery

and sunsets like this.

In other words, it’s perfect.

This Christmas, though, for the first time in several years, we didn’t get to go. But that’s okay; it’s because we’re building our forever home. And it’s almost done.

As for next year, we’ll just have to see what it brings.

I hope everyone reading this has a wonderful holiday, whatever your traditions are. As the song says, “May your days be merry and bright.” Bright’s good. Merry’s good too. But for me, being silly may get me through the holidays best of all.

Yes, I did buy the smiling poop pillow. ^_~


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10 comments on “Christmas in an Empty Nest”

  1. Dear Susan, and Glen, (who I feel like I am getting to know through your blogs, and seems like a pretty likeable guy), best wishes for this holiday season and many more to come. Being a great grandfather five times removed, my version of empty nesting has had several iterations, all, for the most part, a pleasant segue into a new phase of tradition and ritual building. For my money, though it can sometimes seem to be fraught with peril, these changes should be embraced with high anticipation. And, there are some constants to fall back on (you did mention mimosas, did you not?). The trick to it all, according to Sue Lynn, is to not let too much orange juice into that champagne glass. Happy Holidays, John

    1. I so enjoy your take on things, John--always insightful and sensible. As well as spot on! Champagne figures prominently in our Christmas for two! Thank you so much, and Happy Holidays to you and your family too!

  2. Thank you for sharing your holiday 'story', Susan. You have a way of telling it that makes me as the reader feel pulled in and there. I've never heard anyone say that change is easy, now that I am thinking about changes we experience in the life. I know I've always felt change to be difficult and unwanted, at least initially. Sounds like you and Glen have filled the 'empty' moments quite well. The lonelies suck... Happy and merry holidays.

    1. I so agree with your description about reacting to change, Claire. My own initial reaction is often sadness or straight out fear. In this case Glen jollied me out of all that until I felt happy and confident again. Thank God. And Happy and Merry Holidays to y'all too!!

  3. Merry & bright days to you all too! and as much silliness as possible (that is one fine looking pillow!)
    Love the essay.
    yikes on the spider.

  4. Merry Christmas glen and Nita! As always, I truely enjoyed reading your latest blog. I love your artistic contribution to the world. If I don't see you this week, I hope you have a happy new year!

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