Domestic Disturbances: Empty Nest

Illustration by J. Ann Eldridge

Excerpted from “Home Bird: Four Seasons on Martha’s Vineyard,” published by Vineyard Stories.

Today I spotted a bird’s nest in a thicket of briar on the edge of our field. Somehow it had become dislodged from the twisted vines. The nest now tipped to one side, and the soft patch at its center was crudely exposed. I could see animal hairs and downy bits of plant fluff that the parent birds had woven in to cushion first eggs, then babies. Seeing all this effort now flapping uselessly in the northeast breeze was more than I could bear. I plunged into the thicket, surprised by my urgency.

The nest was held fast by only one thorn. Detangling it was easier than I expected, and soon I was standing amid the briars, covered with scratches, holding the nest in my hand. It fit right into my palm. Both sturdy and delicate, the construction amazed me.

How does a bird know what to choose to make such a wondrous home? Nest in hand, I pulled myself back through the thicket, leaving behind a few of my own hairs on the sharp briars. Perhaps they will be used to line a new nest next season.

My husband and I just took our youngest child to Boston to start college. For the past few weeks our focus has been on packing, medical forms, course requirements, farewells. As visitors poured onto the Island for the Labor Day weekend, we quietly slipped off. Our station wagon overflowed with pillows and whatever comforts of home we could stuff into it. I noticed gratefully there were several other families on the boat who were doing the same thing. Their cars were also laden, and their faces expressed the anticipation and sadness I felt in my own.

The next day, after a welcome speech for freshman families, a picnic in the quad, and innumerable trips up four flights of stairs into a cramped dorm room, there was nothing to do but go. Lila was launched, and in a place that seemed right for her. That life could begin when we departed. She had begged us not to cry when we left so she wouldn’t get upset too. We thought we had succeeded, but with the final hug came tears all around. Waving goodbye, we pulled away in our empty car and turned toward home.

The nest sits on my desk in a china saucer that belonged to my mother-in-law. It’s still empty, of course, but at least it’s right-side up, and no longer dangles in the briar patch. I hope the parents were able to lay eggs in its cavity and keep them warm. I hope chicks shed their shells here, opened their mouths for food,and gradually filled it to bursting. I hope the parents taught these babies to fly and emptied this nest before it was loosened from its mooring.

When people said, “Oh, you’ll have an empty nest now!” the phrase rubbed me the wrong way, but now that I’m studying the nest beside me it makes more sense. An empty nest is clean. At home today there are no dirty dishes in the sink, no sticky negotiations for staying out late or borrowing the car. An empty nest is quiet. This weekend the TV has been blessedly off and the phone rarely rang. Although the silence is welcome, I miss the vitality and electricity that Lila stirs up.

An empty nest means the task is completed, but i’m not ready to believe my job is done. Yet Lila is off soaring solo, as she is ready to be. Last night she called from a North End festival celebrating St. Anthony, and her excitement lit up the wires. She was not looking back, and I don’t want her to. My briar scratches remind me that I still need to rescue a used nest, but in time I expect I’ll learn better how to let it go.