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  Ellen Davignon: Lives of Quiet Desperation

Empty Nest Syndrome

April 15, 1994

"How come you guys never pick anything up after yourself?"  Startled, I looked around to see who Phil was addressing in that irritated tone of voice.  There was not another living soul in the room, even Charlie-cat wasn't about.  Nobody here but us chickens, I mused, must be me he's talking to.  "Us guys?" I inquired mildly, peering at my husband over the tops of my half-glasses.  "What have 'us guys' done now?"

Well, it turned out that, earlier, I had dropped some books and papers and in retrieving them, I'd missed a pen.  Phil had picked it up while he was sweeping and the "you guys" question was simply the vestige of an old habit that was dying hard. It's a male version of the empty nest syndrome, of course.

Funny, it's always the mothers that get the sympathy.  "Poor lady," they say.  "Her babies have left home and there's this terrible void in her life..."  Bulltweet!! The door closes behind the last kid and that "poor lady" is having the time of her life!  For thirty years she's been cooking and cleaning and refereeing and car pooling and getting up and waiting up. Now it's all behind her and at last there's time for reading and TV and sleeping late and all those good things.  After the threshing crew she's used to feeding, dinner is a snap: two chops, a couple baked spuds, a little salad and she's home free.  Laundry?  Three loads a week, tops. Conversation is adult, attire is optional, evenings hours are disposable at her whim. The kids are gone, life is good, and her only worry is the possibility that things might not work out and that one (or more) of them may come back. In the meantime: LET THE GAMES BEGIN!

But what about dear old Dad?  How is he dealing with this blessed peace and quiet and having Mom all to himself again?  Friends, I have to tell you, he's not doing well.  Take Phil, for instance.  Things are not so rosy  for him, these days.

For starters, there's that wife of his, the one that used to roll out at the crack of dawn, fix the fires, make the coffee, and get the kids off to school in the morning, all before he'd made any serious committment to his day's agenda.  Now, she not only outwaits him on the early stove detail but as he leaves the chilly bedroom she murmurs things like, "Call me when the coffee's ready," before moving her sleep-sogged body over to the cusp of the electric blanket, toasting herself at the incandescence from his side while maintaining the integrity of her assertion that she NEVER turns her side on.  "A course she doesn't," he mutters, aggrievedly.  "She just moves over to my side-a the bed, sucks up all the heat and pushes me out."  And not only does she linger longer a-bed but she expects, hell, demands help with changing the sheets, making supper, doing the dishes. It's get- ting so a man don't know whether to put on his britches or an apron, of a mornin'.    

My new-found liberty is not, however, the worst aspect of this winter of Phil's discontent.  He doesn't really mind that I out-maneuver him some mornings and he even enjoys the little housekeeping chores he assumes while I'm sequestered in my office doing who knows what because he sure's the Lord doesn't.  He's learned to make a fair pot of soup, his stew is fine, indeed, and his bread is not only as good as mine but has no holes, a fact he delights in pointing out at every meal.  Perhaps he's even finding a little emancipation of his own. But liberty or no liberty, the truth is that Phil plainly and simply misses the kids.

He misses the babble of voices, the ten-decibel levels of music, the sheer volume of sound that filled our home, often to overflowing.  He misses the arguments about the caliber of Calgary's defence against his beloved Gretzsky's Kings.  He misses having a collective "you guys" to blame for missing tools or lost TV guide or unretrieved pens. And most of all, he misses having a like mind in the house with whom to discuss the days highlights.

"Come out and look at the tree I got this morning," he says to me. Dutifully, I take a gander at the 65-foot dried log he and his old Dodge power wagon have just dragged in from the bush.  "Boy, it's a biggie," I remark and go back to my book.  He and Toby could have parlayed that sucker into two hours of conversation.  If Jord had been there too, it could have run into three, three and a half, easy.  Getting water is another topic that never gets tired. Phil hauls it in the winter and can easily get it by himself but if it's a weekend, he waits until Keel gets up (noon-ish, on a good day) and has him come along.  "Dress warm," he admonishes.  "Look at that wind gettin' up."  And off they go, my gallant men, into the teeth of the gale, the fierceness of which one will come home and exaggerate while the other swears to the veracity of the report.  And they'll look at each other with solemnity of men who have been to the very portals of hell and lived to see another day.  "Kind of a chilly wind," I remark as Phil comes in after getting water in the middle of the week. I snuggle down under my old orange afghan and smile sleepily.  "Think I'll have a little snooze."  No wonder he misses his boys!

But I do help a little in that area.  I've learned enough about hockey to give him a good argument now and again.  About once a week, I borrow his crescent wrench and forget to return it to his coveralls' pocket.  And I've begun carrying a mouse around in my pocket just so he can yell at "us guys" without feeling sheepish.

I'm not totally insensitive, you know.

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