Listening to the Silence
by Liz Flaherty
There are just the two of us living at home now. All the kids are married and have homes and lawnmowers and telephone bills of their own. They have children, cats and dogs, and cars they have to pay their own insurance on. Sometimes our house sounds too quiet and feels too empty. I can no longer hear even the distant echoes of someone yelling, “Make him stop looking at me,” or “Make her come out of the bathroom. She’s been in there for two years.” Like my mother-in-law before me, I need a family fix when the silence and the emptiness begins to bother me
Mom was always so glad to see us when we went to visit her in
Southern Indiana, encouraged us to come more often, and cried a little when we left. Not a lot; it was more like she just held a Kleenex in one hand and her eyes got shiny.
I used to look in the back seat to make sure we hadn’t managed to leave any children behind, then turn to my husband and say, “We’ve got to get down here more often. She misses you and the kids so much.”
He would then say something profound like “uh-huh” or “you’re right” and we would wave one more time and head north. Now, the fact that he admitted I was right should tell you something. In those earlier days of marriage, admitting the other one was right just wasn’t done unless it was a matter of Grave Importance. Nowadays, we say “yeah, you’re right” real quick because we know it’ll stop the argument before it starts and very few things are Gravely Important enough to argue about.
Since he did agree to the Importance of visiting his mother, we would always make plans to visit more often. I hoped the fact that we had these good intentions made her miss us less, because, of course, the plans didn’t materialize. When you are 30-something and have three children who participate in 27 organized sports apiece in addition to the homework they don’t do until it’s three days late, plans have a way of falling apart right before your eyes.
But we made it there a couple of times a year anyway. We slept all over her house, ate everything in sight (she’s a spectacular cook), monopolized the television, and promised to visit more often. Then we’d leave for home again, with Mom standing at the door with shiny eyes, waving her Kleenex.
A few years ago, for the occasion of their brother’s wedding, our older children and their families were at our house. We had such a good time. Since I’m not the cook my mother-in-law is, I sent people to town periodically for chicken or pizza. They slept all over the house — I had to lay grandchildren sideways across the sofa bed in order to use the computer. No one monopolized the television only because one of the grandkids hid the remote and no one knows how to change the channels if you have to get out of the chair to do it. I shopped with my daughter and daughter-in-law, played Scrabble with my sons and son-in-law, and waved to my husband in passing. I tried to act like I wasn’t giving advice when I was, like I wasn’t tired when my eyelids were at half-mast, and like it didn’t bother me that my son and brand new daughter-in-law were moving 1000 miles away when it did.
It was, all in all, a splendid weekend.
When the last car drove out of the lane, I stood in the yard and waved. I probably had a tissue in my hand — or a paper towel; I can never find the Kleenex when I want one — and my eyes were undoubtedly shiny. Then I went into the house and sat on the love seat and listened to the silence. My husband sat in the chair, his hand curved around his rescued remote control.
We looked at each other, smiling, in our blissfully quiet and empty house. I said, “As glad as I am to see them come, I’m just as glad when they leave.” It made me wonder just what kind of a mother and grandmother I was. I not only fed them store-bought pizza and birthday cake and couldn’t tell a good story to save my life, now I wanted them to go home.
Before I could make guilt into a family pet, my husband picked up the phone and punched in Memory Dial One. “Mom? All those years ago, when we’d leave and you’d stand there with your hankie, you weren’t really crying, were you?” He listened a minute, then said, “That’s what we thought.”
He hung up and looked over at me again. “She was crying, all right, but it was with relief.”
Married for thirty-some years to Duane, her own personal hero, and mother of three and grandmother of six, Liz Flaherty has written a column from her Window Over the Sink off and on for over ten years. She hopes you enjoy her essays. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org