Teenager Bedroom 3. Photo by jingdianjiaju1. https://tinyurl.com/hk7tf9cf

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Kilim Beige: The Making of An Empty Nest in Five Parts

Despite a parenting style that could best be described as “stage five clinger,” I couldn’t wait to dismantle my kids’ childhood bedrooms the moment we were free from the relapse and remittance of the college years.

No, that’s not right, says the full-nest me. I’ll keep their rooms exactly as they were, down to the smell of flushed adolescence in the air and the stab of their wanna-be selves on the windows and walls. When I long for them, this is where I’ll find them. This is where they’ll be.

That was before I found a half-eaten oatmeal cream pie covered in carpet beetle larvae under my son’s bed.

“You know . . . I have always wanted a home office,” said empty-nest me to the black, writhing little darlings.


The thing that no one tells you about your children leaving home is that it’s not clean. They don’t just go on the prescribed day. You are not allowed to begin moving on the next day, or the day after. It’s a process of emotional warfare that goes and comes in fits and starts and lasts for four long years.

He’s coming home for fall break! says partially-empty-nest me.

“And when he’s not on his phone texting his college friends he’ll be at Cook Out with his high school buddies,” says completely-empty-nest me. “So, what do ya think—pearl gray for the walls, or kilim beige?”

But he will be here for a whole month at Christmas, she persists, standing her ground.


I’ve made plans. We’re doing all his favorite things.

Oh, oh.

The kilim beige, then. Yeah. Definitely the kilim beige.


I never had a home to come home to. That’s where this whole thing starts, in truth. My parents split up on my eighteenth birthday, their divorce finalized just before I left for college. The house sold, proceeds divided, mementos misplaced and still missing. Even today, all these years later, I can close my eyes and see my old bedroom exactly as it was: yellow walls, white four poster-bed, double sliding closet doors, Def Leppard plastered on the ceiling.

My kids will come home and sleep in their bed, and be surrounded by their things, nest-building me determined, doubling down on the sticks and twine.

Before we go any further let’s all agree to blame holiday rom-coms. I used to love that scene, the one where the main character brings the love interest home at Christmas to meet the parents and there’s their childhood bedroom exactly as they left it, only clean and tidy without a hint of parasitic carpet bugs clinging to half-eaten oatmeal cream pies.

“That’s not a thing, you know,” says completely-empty-nest me. “Normal people with healthy relationships to their adult children do not keep their bedrooms enshrined when they leave home.”

Uh-huh, kids-in-preschool me smiles politely and nods, turning the volume on the Lifetime channel all the way up.


There are two scenes from my son’s freshman year in college that stay with me. The first is what happened the day he came home for fall break. Seven weeks after we dropped him off at Appalachian State he was back, sneaking in the side door to try and surprise us. I was already there, waiting, frozen for a brief moment while I took him in.

“Well? Do I look different? Do I look older?” he laughed, and I rushed to hug him.

I’d never been so happy to see someone in my life. My boy was home. Life was good. For the next four days our house would feel like a home again. That’s what I was thinking.

What happened next was that he did this thing, and I’ve replayed it a million times. He hugged us all, one by one, stooped down to pet the cat, then the dog, and then he went very slowly, room by room, and took inspection. That’s the only way I can describe it. My perpetually distracted child, my son who never met a detail he cared to recognize, looked around each room with awe. He gingerly touched the clock on the mantle in the living room. Ran the palm of his hand over the island in the kitchen. Bent down and studied—I don’t know, something—in the dining room. Came back to us, put his hands on his hips and tendered his report.

“It’s so . . . clean,” he marveled. “I forgot how clean it was. And everything looks smaller now. It’s so weird.”

Look at how he appreciates his home so much more now that he’s been away from it, said the me then.

Years later I would write in my journal: He was really seeing it for the first time. He was seeing our house from the outside looking in. Because he was outside. He was outside the old circle of us and always would be. I just didn’t know it yet.

The other scene I can’t stop replaying happened the day we dropped him off. After getting his room set up, after the parent’s orientation and campus tour were done, after huddling up for one last hug and walking away gutted and in tears, we made our way to the parking deck across campus and headed for home. We had to drive through campus to get to the main road, and just before we pulled off we caught sight of him on the quad. Playing ball with some kids he’d just met in his dorm. On his face was a look of sheer joy. Happy, carefree, I’m-young-and-life-has-finally-begun joy.

I feel like it’s all ended and I wasn’t ready and I can’t get it back, I sobbed on the way home. There were so many things I thought we’d do that we never did. And now it’s over.

“Yeah, I know,” said my husband, wiping his own tears with the back of his sleeve. “But did you see that look on his face? That’s what we did. We did that.”


My son left home five years ago. His sister followed two years later. The house learned to expand and contract around them at holidays and some summers, and I learned to see every homecoming less as them returning home and more as their stopping over.

“One day you just realize it’s time to let them go,” says practically-a-pro-empty-nest me to a weepy friend preparing to launch her firstborn.

That’s a lie, says future-wiser me. What really happens is they do the letting and the leaving and the coming and going and all you can do is agree to stop expanding and contracting around them.

So, on went the kilim beige, up went the new curtains, and out came the mementos, all boxed and safe up to the attic. I snapped a few pictures when I was done and texted them to him.

“I don’t know if you can tell from the photos, but it’s a neutral color,” I called to assure him. “And I didn’t throw anything away. Not one thing.”

“Mama, it’s really fine,” he said from his new apartment. It’s exactly 4.3 miles away and has a welcome mat, forty-three beer glasses and zero hand towels.

“If you need to move home for a while, like ever, you know you can have that room back. You know that, right?

“Yes! Ugh, Mama. I know. I know, okay? It’ll always be my home. I know that.”

Before he hangs up, my son tells me—and I can really and truly hear it in his voice—that he’s worried about still-holding-on-for-dear-life-empty-nest me. Something he says pulls a mean, merciful little thread.

“I hope you’re going to be ok. Now that I don’t live there anymore.”

And for me, that’s enough. That’s enough now.