On the Road: Watching the Nest Grow Emptier

Dinner at the Lobster Roll on the last open weekend of the year. Annette Hinkle photo.

“Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.”

So sang Janis Joplin while hitchhiking cross country with her Bobby McGee. While that sentiment may have been true for a pair of hippies in 1970, when you’re the parents of a newly minted college freshman now living five states away, the notion of freedom carries a whole different set of realignments.

And here’s a hint …  though perhaps not as extreme as thumbing a diesel down in Baton Rouge just before the rain, it’s not far off.

The reality is, here at our humble abode in the woods of Northwest, we’ve officially entered a new phase of empty nestdom. It starts early in the morning when the diesel that our daughter, Sophie, used to thumb down (aka school bus #65) rumbles by without even pausing out front anymore. It’s a far cry from previous falls, when I spent many a morning sitting on the front stoop with my daughter having the kind of girl chats that occur only in impromptu settings as we listened for the throaty call of that approaching bus. We’re at the top of one of East Hampton’s longest and highest hills, so we could hear it lumbering up from the lowlands half a mile away, letting us know when it was time for Sophie to head down the driveway to make her presence known to the driver.

I still hear the deep rumble of that bus as it makes its way up the hill, even inside the house. But these days, it just kicks up the newly fallen leaves as it passes by in a hurry, on its way to pick up other kids at other houses.

Like the bed in the unused room that now stays made for weeks, the bus is the kind of subtle clue that reminds you that your nest is, indeed roomier than it used to be. Which is probably why my new modus operandi is to alight in it as little as I can.

In other words, I am officially out and about.

Every Thursday evening, for example, I’m taking a four hour podcasting course at Stony Brook Southampton. This Friday, I’ll be leading 30 or so brave souls on a haunted walking tour of Sag Harbor. Two weeks ago, I spent hours on end in dark theaters enjoying lots of movies at the Hamptons International Film Festival, and recently I even flew to Block Island with a pilot and another friend who thought it’d be fun to go there for lunch.

We did, and it was.

All this out-and-aboutness is very different from last year at this time. Sure, once she got her license Sophie was driving herself and her friends to ballet class or into Sag Harbor for a Buddha Berry or a dinner at LT Burger, but for most of her high school years, when it came time to just hang out with friends, our house was usually the place to congregate.

Once we got Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu streaming, we became even more popular. Last Halloween, I came home late expecting to find Sophie and her cohorts in town taking part in whatever after-dark shenanigans high schoolers engage in these days, and instead found them huddled on the couch eating popcorn and watching a scary movie.

That was fine with me. Birds of all feathers were welcome in our nest. Better than having them flying off to some random party in Montauk, right?

I think our new nest reality is really obvious, not only because it’s fresh, but because autumn has arrived, and was always a favorite time of year for both Sophie and me. The bewitching season. Pumpkins, falling leaves, the smell of fireplace smoke, and nor’easters. Frankly, it is kind of strange that this is the first year in many that I’m not expected to get lost in a corn maze, help clean the goo out of pumpkins or go apple picking.

It’s probably even stranger for Sophie. Where she is way down south in Charleston, it’s still basically summer. I saw on her Instagram feed that it recently dipped below 70 degrees for the first time since she got there and she was thrilled to have a reason to wear her jean jacket. Pumpkin-spiced lattes just aren’t the same when the palm trees are swaying in the midday sun.

Figuring that she was experiencing the empty nest syndrome too in a homesick kind of way, my husband, Adam, and I put together a care package that was delivered by some Sag Harbor friends who visited her last week. In it, we included a selection of small gourds and tiny pumpkins from the Halsey farm stand, along with locally sourced apples and cookies from Tates and Pepperidge Farm (soft baked “Montauks” of course). And the pièce de résistance — North Main bagels that were purchased fresh and made it down to Charleston intact and free of mold — this after package number one was left behind for a week in a hurricane evacuation and package number two was mishandled by the U.S. Postal Service and went missing for several days, despite being shipped priority mail.

Between you and me, I kind of like that she’s longing for bagels, pumpkins and the comforts of home. I suppose that having your kids actually appreciate you is an important and satisfying milestone in the life of a parent, and it’s a sweet, sweet day when you realize they can’t blame you when something goes wrong in their new world. In the case of fledgling humans, it would seem that absence really does make the heart grow fonder.

But just to be sure, last Friday night Adam and I headed east to have dinner at the Lobster Roll on the Napeague stretch for the last time this season. It’s a favorite and familiar summer haunt for Sophie. But now, we’re into late October and on the chilly night we ate there, the place was practically empty and slated to close for the season in just two days. As I stood in the parking lot, I noticed that the sun had set behind the distant hills and the lingering light contrasted nicely with the neon “Lunch” sign and the blowing American flag. In fact, it was downright Hopper-esque, so I snapped a photo and posted it on Instagram.

Sophie was the first person to “like it” and I wasn’t surprised. When we talked by phone the other day she mentioned how much she missed home and her friends. Then she came out with this gem: “When I’m home for Christmas break, can I make dinner every night?”

Yes my little bird, you certainly can … and we’ll even pay for the groceries.