When I was in kindergarten, our house caught fire. We got out quickly and my parents tucked my brother and me in the back seat of my father’s blue Chevrolet Caprice while they dealt with the fire department. I sat silently in the driveway, watching my home burn.
The fire forced us to move in with my grandparents for three months while our place was repaired. Although my mom would say those three months were some of the most stressful of her life, they were three of my happiest. I fell into a routine with Grandma Pearl. We played cards and checkers, and when I got home from school, we’d watch soap operas. In the evenings, I’d help her in the kitchen as she made her restaurant-worthy brisket or apple cake. When my parents said it was time to move back home, I cried.
My grandma died just a few years later. The house fire turned out to have a silver lining: I would never have spent those three beautiful months with my grandma without it.
Close to 50 years later, I find myself thinking about that time in my life. In March 2020, my home, like many people’s, changed. It went from near-empty nest to busy with kids again. The pandemic forced my 23-year-old daughter, Jenny, to spend the final months of her senior year of college at home and required my 17-year-old son, Jason, to complete his junior year of high school remotely. Jenny was devastated. Jason struggled to adjust. My husband, Rich, and I were working from home full-time and trying to navigate this new normal. We were all stressed. And yet I wondered if it was a gift, like the fire was.
Rich and I bought our colonial-style five-bedroom home in New Jersey over a decade ago, when our three kids were 14, 11, and five years old. It seemed like so much space at the time, but we filled it quickly. Breakfast dishes piled up in the sink and sports equipment littered the halls. There was rarely a moment the kids weren’t calling out my name in varied degrees of urgency: “Mom, you forgot to sign this!” “Mom, did you wash my soccer uniform?” “Mom, Jason’s being annoying.” I’d wake up early to make coffee and start a load of laundry before it was time to make breakfast, field the onslaught of “Mom” calls, and get everyone out the door for school. I yearned for slower mornings, fewer afternoon driving duties, and a day when no one called out “Mom!”
Before I knew it, I got my wish. First, Allie, my oldest daughter, now 26, left for college. Three years later, Jenny went, too. Mornings were suddenly quick and easy. It was just my teenage son left, and he didn’t need me to get him out the door. I could wake up at a normal time and have my quiet cup of coffee. I found myself with spare time in the evenings to enjoy some quiet reading.
As the house got quieter and emptier, Rich and I started to question whether we should move. Ours was a family home. Without our family surrounding us, was it our home anymore?
The pandemic put those thoughts on hold. With two of our kids back home full-time, our empty nest has been refilled, if only temporarily. Noise and chaos have crept back in, just like the old days. The four of us crowd the kitchen in the morning, and I’m back to throwing in a load of laundry while I drink my coffee. Some days I find myself back where I was a decade ago, longing for a bit of quiet alone time.
But mostly I find myself grateful. I know this moment will pass, just like those three months with Grandma Pearl did. Jenny will stop working her new postgraduate job remotely and move out—for real, this time. Jason will finish high school and head off to college. My wine glass may be full, the luxury of a quiet evening stretching before me, but I’ll miss the gift of a full nest that 2020 gave me.
By Randi Mazzella | Family photo by Erica Moffit/Naki Studios | Jason photo courtesy of Randi Mazzella