Ab­sence makes the heart mushy

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

Piled on my kitchen ta­ble were what ap­peared to be the crazed pick­ings from a lo­cal car boot sale. A gui­tar with a miss­ing string, a Ge­orge Fore­man grill that looked like it had wit­nessed more dis­as­ters than hot din­ners and a pile of Tshirts em­bla­zoned in shouty cap­i­tals.

These weren’t the fren­zied spoils of some Sun­day-morn­ing bar­gain hunt. In­stead, they were the hall­marks of a young man in tran­sit, as my 21-year-old son, Sam, pre­pared to re­turn to uni­ver­sity re­cently. All over the coun­try, par­ents will have spent the last few weeks help­ing their chil­dren pre­pare for col­lege life away from home, won­der­ing at the way pre-term prepa­ra­tions can feel like a tor­nado bat­ter­ing through the fam­ily home.

In my house, we’re fight­ing the war on two fronts this year. Not only has Sam just be­gun a third year at med­i­cal school, but next week his 19-year-old brother, Max, just back from a gap year, will be­come a “fresher”, soon to em­bark on a course in den­tistry.

Much of what’s writ­ten about this fran­tic time of year fo­cuses on the feel­ings of the par­ents who are left be­hind. Fabled “empty nesters”, who spend mourn­ful hours flick­ing dusters over now uber-tidy bed­rooms while si­mul­ta­ne­ously won­der­ing where all the years have gone.

You are told to ex­pect a sense of loss, des­o­la­tion, of no longer feel­ing use­ful now that the chil­dren, once so cen­tral to the home, are mov­ing onto the next phase in their lives.

But, whoa there! Just hold the Kleenex for a moment and let me of­fer some words of con­so­la­tion from one who has been there and is now do­ing it again.

When Sam left three years ago, first for a gap year abroad and then to em­bark on his course of study, I felt ter­ri­bly dis­ori­en­tated at first. I still had three other chil­dren at home: Max, Aaron, now 16, and So­phie, who is 10. But Sam – noisy, ever-smi­ley Sam – was no longer part of the equa­tion on a daily ba­sis. And it felt rather odd.

The run-up to his de­par­ture was all con­sum­ing. Buy­ing new du­vet cov­ers, sheets, lamps, any­thing to make his room in a hall of res­i­dence look homely. Mean­while (be­ing the typ­i­cal Jewish mother), I made batches of freezer meals for one, such as shep­herd’s pie and spag bol, to make sure he wouldn’t starve.

Wav­ing him off be­fore term started, images of his first day at school flashed through my mind. When did all this hap­pen? Truly, I felt a lit­tle lost.

It didn’t last long. From the very be­gin­ning, Sam phoned, texted or emailed most days. Ei­ther he just wanted to share what he’d been up to or he’d call me from Tesco, ask­ing which pasta to buy. (No sur­prise that a 2012 sur­vey by Sains­bury’s found that one in three teenagers ar­riv­ing for their higher ed­u­ca­tion are un­able to even boil an egg.)

Mean­while, he’d spon­ta­neously de­cide to come home if lec­tures had been can­celled or a friend was driv­ing back for the weekend. Emo­tional rel­a­tivism meant that home was no longer about nag­ging par­ents and bick­er­ing sib­lings. It was about, well, home.

All very lovely, you might think. But in an in­verse of Parkin­son’s Law – where work ex­pands to fill com­pound the re­la­tion­ship you have with them.

Our 19-year-old, Max, has al­ways been far more low key than his brother. His was al­ways a quiet pres­ence in the house. But once he left for his gap year, we ar­ranged to speak ev­ery Fri­day morn­ing and the in­ter­ven­ing days were punc­tu­ated by text and What­sApp mes­sages. Sud­denly I had more idea what was go­ing on in his life than ever be­fore.

Since leav­ing home, both boys make far more fuss of me than they have ever done be­fore – from spe­cial oc­ca­sions such as birth­days to a greater in­ter­est in what I’ve been do­ing at work. A case, per­haps, of ab­sence mak­ing the heart grow fonder, and even slightly more mushy too.

So don’t feel dis­heart­ened as your chil­dren pack up to leave. Be­lieve me, although they will soon be gone, you will re­main on speed dial.

‘It’s a jar opener, Sam. You know what a jar is?’ An­gela Ep­stein as­sists her son with the pack­ing for his re­turn to uni­ver­sity

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