Notes From an Empty House: Digging Deeper

Opal started middle school this week, alongside her Kindergarten sister, both trailblazing in their own right (while still having to wear masks), both starving for newness and adventure. 

Ruth hasn’t been in preschool since March of 2020 and has been home with me for the grand majority of waking moments since. So, it certainly has been a countdown worthy of the world’s largest advent calendar (519 sleeps but who’s counting). The fact that the day has finally arrived feels as significant and cosmic for everyone as a solar eclipse. 

I remember middle school as being my most successful time, socially. I had gained high status in popularity, found my place in the top-rankings of cheerleaders and football players and nuzzled that triumph like a treasured companion. But, upon recent consideration (there have been many middle school conversations lately, inspired by Opal starting 6th grade), more memories rise to the surface, as if shining a light on a shallow pond long enough to see what starts to emerge, rather than simply my own reflection. 

It suddenly became clear to me that those years were also a starting point for my troubled relationship with boys (there were many kind boys who I was unkind to, and many questionable, precocious characters—ahem, Scott Ward who was the only 8th grader I have ever met who could DRIVE—who I chose to spend time with. Those were also the years where my eating disorder took hold. As a sheet-layer memory, I always remembered middle school as being glorious. I never cared to dig a little deeper until now.

I have no memory of Kindergarten aside from the smell of the library: weathered paper like dry leaves and the smell of the librarian's flowery perfume, faint like an unlit candle on the shelf.

ANYHOW, both my girls leapt face-first into their respective mile-markers. And even as we shot the mandatory first-day photos, I could imagine us like a hologram in the distance—in ten, twenty, thirty years looking at those very photos. Commenting on the outfits. The hair. The new shoes. How grown Opal looks now, juxtaposed next to her little sis. 

Without a big sister to compare herself to, Opal settled into Kindergarten the way one would take a seat in a big, comfy chair. Happy to indulge us with hand-held walks the few blocks to and from school, (on second thought, that's what SHE wanted...) and marinating in her new social world. Kindergarten was half-days then (if even that) and you had to pay for full days, if that was your desired outcome. We did two full-days. And we had Ericha then, our first foster daughter, so the minimal school-time was spent caring for her and squeaking out a few hours of massage when I could line up a sitter.

Ruth, on the other hand, is second-in-line and with no little sister to impress. Quite the opposite: she is in a hurry to be grown-up like her big sis. To do life on double-speed, skip forward like with the commercial-skipping button on a podcast. She is the kid who uses the comfy chair as a leaping-off point, not a place to settle in. She would walk to school on her own if she had her druthers. She refuses to hold my hand—shoves both hands in her pockets to avoid any temptation—and wants hugs to be quick and to the point. 

She wears her "garden" themed backpack (her choice, since she is now a "kinder-gardener") with the pride and catwalk-strut of someone who is carrying a small animal to safety on her back. Out the way. Saving lives here.


Back at home after drop-off, I sat on the couch for a minute in an empty house and listened to the silence—or allowed for it, rather—ears reaching for something to grab on to. A bird chirping in the crab apple tree out front. The garbage truck thrusting and banging its way down our road. The only noise coming from inside the house was an audible sigh from our dog. 


The house was at a disastrous level of end-game messiness. It almost needed a chart-system to wrap my mind around. Level one, two, three and so-on. Level one is a general, surface level pick-up—which, when living with three people who rarely leave, is a full-time job. One that is not worth doing until the end of the day because it immediately gets undone. 

On day one of girls-in-school, between the massage and day-drinking with a dear neighbor friend (multiple toasts were made), I banged out Level One tidying on the ground floor while listening to Grace Kelly by MIKA on repeat at ear-shattering decibels, out of principle. It looked clean enough—certainly clean by COVID standards—but it felt the same as always, a little like shoving everything into a closet or drawer or a bin or any receptacle with available space. Until the time comes to go through it all. That time did not come in a year and a half. 

Throughout COVID, I'd been purging regularly. But, like relentlessly scooping water from a boat that continuously takes on water, it never seemed to exceed simply keeping the space livable. Next level cleaning—vacuuming and scrubbing the toilet and chipping away at the cloth-mountain of laundry, unloading then re-loading the dishwasher to create counter space for the next meal (ahhh, the endless meals!)—happened either in a highly distracted manner or after bedtime. Level three would be going through it all. There simply has not been the bandwidth.

But finally, (I say, pulling up the boot-straps), 

finally, (I say, grabbing for the tiny brush and pan of an archeologist, with perhaps a yelp of vim and vigor),

there is.



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