• It’s been almost two weeks since Mark and I embarked on our empty nesting adventure.  My tears have dried.  I’m starting to enjoy increased freedom and diminished stress.  Fun is being had. A book — a library book, no less — has helped me shift into drive.  I checked out non-fiction writer Melissa Fay Greene‘s No Biking in the House without a Helmet (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).

    Greene is a brilliant storyteller.  I first encountered her work in Praying for Sheetrock (1992), a lyrically written chronicle of the legal and political fight to bring civil rights to rural Georgia.  She belongs in the same class of writers as Tracy Kidder, Buzz Bissinger, William Finnegan, and Susan Orlean.  Orlean presents herself as a woman in a ballsy – sexy – edgy way.  Greene doesn’t trade on her looks.  She’s a public mother, a wife, a person deeply concerned with raising children (not with jetting off to exotic locales to commune with a fertility goddess).

    In No Biking, Greene describes how she and her husband, Donny, went from a family of four (biological) children to nine (through international adoption). She’d hit her early forties and no longer had very young children at home.  Her oldest was well into high school, and she thought, “Why not?”  Greene got pregnant, but the pregnancy ended in miscarriage. She’d already done the hard work of choosing to expand her family, so when she learned of Romanian children languishing in orphanages, she convinced her husband and four children to make room for one more.

    As she began her adoption journey, she stuck to one guiding principle: she would only consider healthy, older children who had started their lives in families where they’d had a chance to bond and love. From Romania, Greene moved on to Ethiopia in the height of the AIDS crisis. There, over time, she adopted a daughter and three sons, two of whom are biological brothers.

    Greene argues passionately in No Biking for the power of family.  She exults in the beauty of raising children and the basic pleasures of having growing kids underfoot. It’s not all smooth sailing for Greene and her husband, though, especially as the oldest kids leave home. Greene realizes a bit too late that those older kids, the boys especially, have provided a pecking order that has kept the younger kids in line and relatively free from conflict.  Their absence produces a dearth of order and fun, leaving the family in a state of crisis.

    Greene also realizes that no matter how many children she adopts, she can’t avoid the pangs associated with children’s inevitable departure.  She has launched her two oldest sons and finds herself sitting, alone, at a gate in the Cleveland airport:

    It seemed especially unfair for these goodbyes to hurt so much, since the working THEORY was that Donny and I would AVOID the pain of empty nest by continuing to FILL the nest. I sadly phoned Donny from the waiting area. “I don’t think our plan is working. We’re getting all the pain of empty nest anyway…” “I know,” he said. “But we don’t get to go to Paris.” (280)

    Raising children, Greene asserts, doesn’t diminish a woman’s intelligence or capacities. Raising kids takes patience and skill, not to mention organizational prowess. Without these, parents can wind up turning  a family into a “group home.” Her account left me feeling joyful.  There really is something profound to celebrate.  And there is also something profound to mourn.

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  • I’ve been cleaning, clearing, re-organizing, re-painting, even redecorating all summer. Re-claiming space with an eye toward living in an empty nest. I have come across scraps of paper from a zillion lives ago, kids’ kindergarten art projects, files from projects left dead by the road. Some of these reconnections have left me with a sense of sadness. Others have brought outright joy.  By far the hardest? The Rolodex.

    For those too young to know, a Rolodex is a “rotary card file” first brought to market in 1954.  I think it’s fair to say that its history reflects significant shifts in personal organization and business. One look at the company website, and you’ll get an idea of how hard the widget makers have tried to bring this vestige of 20th-century efficiency into the modern era. What, exactly, does one do with a rectangular, plastic, flip-top bin that sits on a desk and holds paper cards? It doesn’t plug into anything.

    I acquired my Rolodex in 1986, when I began as a reporter at The Brownsville (Texas) Herald. I can still elicit a giggle from Mark, whom I joined in Brownsville that year, if I repeat the slogan the City of Brownsville inked on its trash barrels: “Crossroads of the Hemisphere!” For me, it was a crossroads in many ways, not the least of which was technological. The Herald had an interlinked computer system that allowed reporters and editors to write, edit, and lay out copy digitally. We even had an early, inter-office version of “email” that allowed us to gossip through our keyboards. We had telephones — not cell phones — and, yes, Rolodexes. I filled mine with important contacts I cultivated on the two beats I covered: lifestyles, then education. And then I moved that Rolodex with me from desk to desk over the next quarter century, relying on it — like the rest of the world — even as I first acquired email and then a mobile phone.

    Yesterday, I found myself staring down the Rolodex, wondering what on earth to do with the thing. Update it? Throw it out? Archive it? I started with the “As,” picking through cards to see whom I still contact.  By the time I reached “XYZ” (there is but one category for the three neglected last letters of our alphabet), I had stumbled across names of friends and teachers and doctors and service providers (electricians, landscapers, babysitters) no longer part of my life. Hardest were the names of The Old Ones, friends of my parents whose addresses I had carefully logged at the time of my wedding and when I gave birth to send thank you notes, as my mother would have asked. Almost all are gone now, their homes occupied by people whom I wouldn’t know — and who wouldn’t know me.

    My recall ain’t what it used to be. If you ask me to tell you a name, I might scratch my head for quite some time. But when I come across that name, the faces and memories dance through my mind. Couples who gathered for my mom’s swanky dinner parties at which my sister and I passed hors d’oeuvres and washed dishes. Marta Rita Prince de Garcia, the retired Mexican schoolteacher who marched me through Spanish verb conjugation twice a week in Matamoros, when I worked at The Herald. Fayek Shama, the rookie infertility specialist at Yale whose deft surgical hand translated the crude techniques of IVF into what would become my three healthy babies. I tossed card after card into the recycling bin yesterday, thinking to myself that I’d need a seance, not a Rolodex, to put  me in touch with most of the people attached to these names and addresses.

    I got up this morning, gathered each and every one of those discarded cards, and put them willy nilly into a Ziploc bag. I don’t know where I’m going to put the bag. Don’t know which file or box or container it’ll go into. My business with these long-losts just hasn’t come to an end. I don’t think it ever will.

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