Absence makes the heart mushy
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