Yipppeee!! As promised, our 2021 holiday letter starts off with this exclamation of freedom. Last winter, the anticipation of all four kids being gone, launched, flown & grown; was palpable. But, I have been sitting in front of my computer for days stuck after these few sentences. Stuck because I realized that describing the beginning of my empty nest journey with “yippee” didn’t feel accurate. It would not do justice to the complex emotions that at times I expected, and other times surprisingly engulfed me at seemingly random moments – like when I was listening for the first time to Taylor Swift’s just released ten-minute revision of her Jake Gyllenhaal breakup song “All Too Well”. In August, John and I flew with Eva, Vivian and Marena, and nine pieces of checked luggage; minivans reserved in three cities, and Bed Bath and Beyond dorm lists in hand. I helped Eva unpack boxes at her apartment, while John drove Vivian around Nashville looking for a much-coveted mini fridge; we flew to Boston and helped Marena find a fan for her non-air-conditioned 209-year-old dorm room; and I went to Philadelphia to help Jeffrey furnish his apartment at IKEA. Among the important things we came home with that night – a mattress, vacuum cleaner and full bellies of Swedish meatballs. After an exhausting Tour de Drop Off (with a Red Sox game snuck in there for my sake), John and I came home for a quick two day stop-over before our two week Hawaiian celebration as “free birds”. We should have thrown our bathing suits into one of the nine pieces of luggage and headed straight for those Mai Tais. The house felt big and empty. The silence of the kids’ absence after a year and a half of being together was more sensory overload than the constant noises of the TVs, dishwasher and coffee grinder running, and the four kids going back and forth from kitchen to Zoom rooms. The kitchen now looked too clean, the house too devoid of life. I knew that I needed to use these two days to work through my emotions of saying goodbye to the kids. I wanted Hawaii to be the start of all that John and I had to look forward to. (It reminded me of the first time we dropped off the kids at Camp Champions for three summer weeks. We headed straight to the airport for Europe with a pit stop at a Mexican restaurant. I was sad and nervous leaving the kids; and John said “Do all your crying in that margarita because we’re going to enjoy this!”) So, instead of sending the kids the words to the song “Never Alone” by Lady Antebellum for fear they wouldn’t read it, I sent them a TikTok video of me lip syncing the song. It’s not pretty; I don’t get through the song without shedding some tears, but it was cathartic and did the trick. Hawaii was fantastic; and to celebrate, I made a TikTok for John of me lip syncing “Free” by Zac Brown Band. John and I lounged by the pool, went on fun hikes, ate some great food – and there was not one salty tear drop in my Mai Tai.
Jeffrey is 23 and living his best life. In his second year as a software engineer for The Vanguard Group, he spent the first year working from home in Jackson Hole, taking advantage of east coast hours – fitting in late afternoon skiing in the winter and mountain biking in the summer. In July, Jeffrey and I climbed the Grand Teton together. Jeffrey is my protector; and I think he agreed to the climb partly to make sure I’d be safe. One of the top fifty classic climbs in North America, requiring over 7,000 vertical feet of elevation gain to reach the 13,776ft mountain; it was unforgettable. Jeffrey has a calm disposition; doesn’t get too emotional, but readily opens his heart to people and experiences. We were the first to summit the mountain that morning; and Jeffrey’s wide-eyed gaze and murmurs of incredulity matched mine. I thought of the saying: “Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere; and sometimes in the middle of nowhere you find yourself.” Jeffrey is still working remotely in his Philadelphia apartment (return to in-person was delayed); and I’m sure he is looking forward to seeing how tall his colleagues are, having bad office coffee and getting up an hour earlier to get to work.
Eva is 21 and a senior at Vanderbilt. With Vivian joining her on campus, Eva has been able to play mother hen and resume her caregiver role. She might not smother Vivian with kisses like she used to as a child; but Eva invites Vivian over for dinners, took her to the doctor when she had a concussion, and let Vivian and friends join her tailgates. Kisses in disguise. After graduation, Eva will be working in Austin, TX as an Associate Consultant at Bain & Company, where she interned. She was excited to take her first business trip this summer; and I warned her that yes, it can be exciting, but traveling can be hard and tedious. On her return flight, after a full day of work, she missed her connection, had to stay overnight in Denver, getting to the hotel after 11pm with a presentation to submit, and got on the first flight out the next morning for a day of work. Welcome to consulting, Eva.
Vivian is 18 and a freshman at Vanderbilt, majoring in Human Organization & Development. She’s made some great friends and has a wonderful roommate. She enjoys her classes (one of which she and Eva take together) and was accepted into AKPsi, the business fraternity. Although Marena and Vivian spent a semester apart in high school, this goodbye was still difficult. They sat on Vivian’s bed facing each other, their eyes locked, tears welling up. It was hard to watch. I felt like I was intruding; and I looked away. They stood up and embraced, weeping quietly and wiping tears. (I got over my feeling of intrusion and took a quick video.) But, most touching was the after-hug. Eyes locked, they remained inches apart. Looking deeply into each other eyes for a full five seconds, they seemed not so much to be saying invisible words, but exchanging emotions, confirming and comforting each other. Long after they stop sharing clothes, shoes, and makeup (or maybe that will never happen) that unspoken meeting of hearts will always define their unique love.
Marena is 18 and a freshman at Harvard, majoring in Economics. Marena loves her classes and her three suitemates; and she’s having fun exploring Cambridge and Boston. Dropping Vivian off first made Marena a bit restless. She was seeing Vivian’s new world without knowing what hers would be like. She was also getting mistaken for Vivian and constantly being asked if she was moving in. So, to make things simpler she just pretended to be Vivian. While we were unpacking, Marena came in and said, “V, I just met a couple girls in the elevator and they asked for my Instagram so I gave them yours.” At first, it was hard for Marena to see her sisters going to tailgates and having dinner together. (I suggested she not look at Instagram on weekends.) But, Vivian went to Boston during her fall break and John got them a hotel room at Copley Square with his Marriott points, (COVID rules would not allow visitors in dorm rooms) where they spent most of the weekend snuggled in the king bed snacking and streaming movies, just like their high school days. The universe was back in alignment.
John and I have been adjusting to daily life without the kids. This is our first full winter staying at our house in Scottsdale; and we’ll be renting our Jackson Hole home to those seeking snow; while I happily enjoy the Sonoran desert hiking trails. Some things have stayed the same: John is still working at Arcoro mostly from home, and I’m on the same nonprofit boards. Other things are different. John and I have more time to chat about topics besides the kids. We compare our Oura ring sleep and activity results; talk about renovations to the house, and details about our new joint endeavor of managing our rental homes in Jackson Hole and Palo Alto and buying others to rent in Scottsdale. Instead of pushing the dogs off as I jump out of bed to start a busy day of kids’ activities, knowing John has already been up for an hour; now I move to pet Gus and Willa and sometimes realize John is holding my hand. One of John’s biggest adjustments in our empty nest world is that he can no longer use our large household as an excuse to go to Costco. Don’t get me wrong – it doesn’t stop him from going. He just can’t hide behind the charade any more. Sometimes, it’s the little changes that give pause for reflection – like putting my oatmeal bowl in the dishwasher that has been practically empty for days. It now makes more sense to hand wash dishes and use the dishwasher as a drying rack. I never thought I would miss loading and unloading the dishwasher – and complaining about it. The days of our family circle being one are long gone – we are six circles of a Venn diagram whose overlap has been getting smaller and smaller as it should be. But, those days are etched in my memory. The feelings of reminiscence, love, and innocence tug at my heart as my kids move on with their own separate lives, weaving in and out of our family unit. I wonder if the kids remember – the glass ornament we filled with secret notes of hopes and dreams, the music I played when giving them “rub backs”, walking to school with that big green wagon filled with Teletubbies and twins. Unlike Taylor Swift, I’m not 21 and I haven’t gone through a bad breakup. But, I know how she feels. I remember it all too well.
Jeffrey, Eva, Vivian, Marena – I look forward to the day when you take me to your own home. “I’ll walk through the door with you…and something about it will feel like home, somehow.”
We wish you all a holiday season and new year filled with reminiscing of fond memories and creating new ones – and many opportunities for your Venn diagram to look like one big circle.
May, John, Jeffrey, Eva, Marena, Vivian, Willa & Gus
p.s. Shout out to Eva’s roommate, Liz, for suggesting I use a QR code in our holiday card instead of printing out this letter. Thank you, Liz!