Peter Shelton

The Empty Nest is a Figment

Posted in Watch columns by pshelton on October 22, 2009

Cecily just had her 30th birthday. Cloe is 32. Both are married and working, living responsible adult lives. So, do their mother and I stop worrying? No.

Cecily is on a Green River raft trip with her husband and some friends. They’ll be on the river for a week, down Desolation and Gray canyons, through one of the biggest empty patches on the Utah map. These people are super competent, they’re firefighters, helicopter mechanics, search-and-rescue team members. All athletes, all sensible. And still we worry. It looks like it’s going to be raining Monday and Tuesday. Hope they’re staying warm. What if the water level jumps up suddenly? What if there are murderous inbreds lurking in the wilderness. . . damn Deliverance anyway!

Cloe is on a trip to Boston alone for an interview for a fellowship position at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. No toothless bow hunters, probably, but there is the air travel, the buses and trains, the flu, the unknown boogiemen of the big city.

All empirical evidence to the contrary, in our guts, tied by our genetic cords, Ellen and I can’t help but see them as kids who need our loving protection.

I’m trying to remember some early separations, when our parental concern might have been even greater. But I find, in fact, that distance and primitive technologies might have blunted our worry. At any rate, we are no better now.

Cloe lived in France for a year between high school and college. We missed her terribly, but somehow we trusted the universe that everything would be OK. This was in the mid-1990s. E-mail was unheard of, and trans-Atlantic telephone calls were still prohibitively expensive.

Cloe wrote letters, beautiful, illustrated letters. She reported on her crazy French family: Janaina, still in high school; Marie-Claire the psychiatrist, who worked at home in their Paris apartment and who took a belt of whiskey sometimes before certain clients; Pierre the frazzled Vietnam War historian, who hated America and, thankfully, lived somewhere else most of the time; the birds and tortoises and cats, who all made the train ride together to the family’s vacation home in the south.

In 1998 Cloe spent a college semester on the far side of the planet in Madagascar where the objective dangers were arguably far greater. She got malaria soon after arriving in spite of the prophylactic medicines. And she rather casually mentioned that in the capital, Antananarivo, she and her traveling classmates had to time their dashes across town to avoid the bullets flying in anticipation of the upcoming elections. We heard from Cloe only rarely, when she could stand in line at a certain shop and get a few minutes time on a primitive fax machine.

Cecily went to Australia on a break from college in 2000. Before that she’d spent a spring season teaching snowboarding at Mammoth Mountain in eastern California. We should have worried more about the Mammoth sojourn. Cecily roomed, it turned out, with some pretty hard partiers, and a drunk crawled into bed with her one night. He knew what he wanted, but she was able to wrestle him out and keep him out, luckily.

I must have buried my worry while she was in Oz. She sent postcards. And phoned occasionally on a remarkably cheap line her friend’s mother had. I don’t think she told us then about the headaches she was experiencing. Or the small planes she took bouncing around the Outback on a grand tour of the continent. And there must have been Aussi blokes to fend off as well.

Now everybody’s got a cell phone, and we’re in the habit of near-constant contact. Cloe called from South Station, Boston, when she arrived, much to her mother’s (and my) relief. We hope/expect to hear from her again, soon, maybe after her interview, certainly when she touches down in Albuquerque again in a couple of days.

Cecily cannot call, I don’t think, from down in that canyon. A part of me knows that’s a good thing. In theory anyway, one should be able to drop out, get really away where the adventure is palpable and the rest of the world is just going to have to wait to hear about it.

And she’ll be fine, I know, because for her recent birthday Ellen found and copied a photo of the girls from our first river trip. They are about seven and nine, and they’re rowing, one per oar, on a flat stretch of the chocolaty San Juan. Cecily liked the picture so much she laminated it and was going to pin it to her life jacket for the trip down the Green.

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