I turn to Olive Kitteredge again. Elizabeth Strout's novel told in a series of stories zeroes right in on the heart of what hurts parents of grown children most. Oh sure there are joys--watching our children mature, start careers, marry, raise children, lead interesting lives. But there is also a loneliness that can bear down on you at unexpected moments--especially those of us whose children don't live close by. Strout's story, "Starving," is ostensibly about a young girl suffering from anorexia, but the main character is Harmon, a man of a certain age who owns the local hardware store. There was about him, a character in Strout's story tells us, a certain sadness. As this woman friend observes, "His four sons had grown and scattered. They visited, appearing in town as great grown men, and she remembered when, in years past, you never saw Harmon alone. Always one or more of these small, then teenage, boys were with him, running around the hardware store on Saturdays, yelling across the parking lot, throwing a ball, calling out to their father to hurry."
On a walk by himself, Harmon recalls how one of his sons "had been a pack rat with a sentimental streak. Harmon walked along...the air like a cold washcloth on his face. Each of the sons had been his favorite child."
Harmon also notes that he had thought his wife "might have had a bad empty-nest time of it, that he'd have to watch out for her." But he finds "she seems calmer, full of a new energy."
That's what I love about this book. It captures in such fine phrasing what it is that we're experiencing. When our children grow up and leave home, it is a mixed blessing. There is renewed energy, yes! All of a sudden, we're Number One. But we also lose our admission ticket--to the soccer games, swim meets, piano recitals, opening school night. The house is no longer full of noise or excitement. Sundays at the soccer game may be an annoyance when we're in the midst of it, but now that our children are grown, we miss the interaction with them and being part of the community to which we belonged with them. Watching a grandchild's soccer game is not the same thing. We're just spectators.
Starving isn't just about anorexia. It's also about the loss when our children move away and the feeling we have in the aftermath.