A few weeks ago, my wife and I drove our son to college. All went smoothly after the initial disagreement about how to mount the new rooftop cargo thing so it would neither fly off within a few miles nor cause the car to hydroplane out of control on the Interstate. Our boy - young man - resolved the conflict by withdrawing to chill at the dining-room table, hoodie pulled snug over his entire head, except for a little breathing hole. Since it was about 87 degrees at the time, "chill" may not be the right word, but we soon hit the road, an American family off to college in a station wagon with stuff on the roof.
The evening found us in the hotel's restaurant with its award-winning salad bar and, my wife and I can attest, excellent martinis. Preposterously early the next morning, we drove to the campus, found the dorm, unpacked the car with the help of several sweet and sleepy young people, made our goodbyes and left. It was all too quick and strange for tears, and in the ensuing days the two of us have held wistfulness at bay by noticing good things we'd never anticipated, such as these:
1. Road Music - We can listen to whatever we want to in the car as loud as we want to. Perhaps we could have done as much during the drear college visits of the past eighteen months, since our son was continuously plugged into his iPod and apparently asleep during those trips. When asked, however, he insisted he was not asleep, only trying to sleep. Now it's hootenanny time. On the way home, we played "Blue," Joni Mitchell's finest hour, to which we both know every single word. One of us has a tuneful voice; the other, not so much. We harmonized (sort of) with raucous abandon all the way through "met a redneck on a Grecian isle who did the goat dance very well" to "Richard got married to a figure skater."
2. Different Dining - Meals with our growing boy usually involved a hunk of protein, a starch and a vegetable: healthy food and masses of it. At the same time, we wanted our child to value the difference between Big Macs and real hamburgers, pablum and polenta. And he does. But while his tastes are still developing, ours arrived long ago. Neither of us is eager to grow any more (except spiritually, of course), so after a giddy flirtation with the potato-chip-and-wine diet, we're back to our kind of healthy eating: These days, most of our meals include anchovies.
4. Home Improvement: -- Eight fewer pairs of enormous sneakers in the living room really opens the space up. Also, tying into manageable bundles the dog-eared Fiske Guide, U.S. News and World Report College Issue, Colleges That Change Lives, SAT practice tomes and myriad gaudy view-books, and putting them out with the garbage is an immensely enjoyable chore.
5. Freedom of Television: Do you understand what's happening on Lost? We never really did, and now we don't have to. The first week home alone, we watched an old World War II movie (in black and white!) and East of Eden. Aaaaah. Sometimes we just stay up late, clicking aimlessly through the channels. Sure, we're wasting our time, but we're not setting a bad example.
6. Dog Duty: We can abandon the stressful pretense that our son will walk the dog on anything like a regular basis. This is a relief. On the other hand, the poor dog now has no-one handy to jump on, lick extravagantly or chase dementedly around the house. When we try to roughhouse with him, he looks embarrassed for us.
7. The Laundry Thing: There is so much less laundry to do with just the two of us in residence that we wonder if our son was changing his clothes three times a day - which is odd, because he rarely looked that way. We'll have to discuss when we visit on Parents' Weekend.
8. Not Quite Gone: Friends who've been through this advised us not to go into our son's room for a couple of days after he'd left. Of course we went right in and, surprisingly, found being there a great comfort. It looks as if he'd never left. We've made the odd stab at straightening up, but really we're just poking around to remind ourselves of him. The room is layered like the cities of Troy with once-essential items - cordless headphones, piggy bank, handheld electric fan, purple usb flash drive, paper comparing Buddhism to Taoism (10th grade), and a zillion gaudy shirts from basketball tournaments. He might not want or need any of them, but he would surely notice if we removed any, so we won't. All of which proves that, even though he hauled several large crates of belongings away with him to college, our son still lives with us. Which means the nest isn't empty yet, only resting.