After the Children Leave Home
by Maria Mazziotti Gillan
Slowly, we settle into the quiet house.
We almost grow accustomed to the noise
of absence, that terrible stillness
that slides along carpeted surfaces.
“The house is so quiet without them,”
you say, your voice husky with loss.
For years, we have adjusted ourselves
to their schedules, the nights of fever
and coughing, the days of car pools
and tinker toys, PTA meetings
and homework, our time together
torn by their needs.
Now facing each other across this empty
landscape, we are vulnerable
as creatures suddenly bereft of skin.
somewhere along the way, caught in our busyness,
we lost the habit of speech,
the pathways leading to the secrets
of the heart. So we begin
slowly our grave dance, moving
through the Braille of touch
into that textured country
where words are unnecessary.
Our bodies give warmth and comfort
as we struggle to reinvent the language
through which we name ourselves.
This time of year scores of parents across the nation sit on neatly-made beds in empty bedrooms, wishing, for the first time, that the covers and sheets were heaped in the usual jumble. Only a few sit planning new uses for the rooms; most gaze at left-behind posters and framed photographs, thumb through yearbooks, and examine ticket stubs tacked on bulletin boards, just to feel for a moment the presence of the child who grew up too fast.
I have many friends sending children off to college this fall. For some it’s the first time, and I feel tender towards those weepy mothers, having gone through that a few years back. I wish I could say something other than, “It’s not as bad as you think,” a comment at least one woman I know would label a bald-faced lie. Other friends have just sent their last child off to college. I don’t have any comfort to offer them, and not even much curiosity; I don’t really want to know, just yet, what an empty nest is like.
It’s hard to read this poem for the same reason. “That terrible stillness/ that slides along carpeted surfaces” is an image that disturbs me more than unmade beds would the Felix Ungers of the world. Noise, chaos and bodies are what make a house a home for someone like me, a person with four kids and ten brothers and sisters. Almost worse than the slithering silence in the poem is hearing Mazziotti Gillan’s husband, he of the gender we count on for emotional suppression, uttering only the tip of a deep sadness, in a “voice husky with loss.”
The second half of the poem offers a bittersweet hope, a renewal of erotic life. The poet moves from a depletion of auditory stimulation to another type of stimulation. The empty, quiet house offers lots of opportunities for textural experience, shall we say, and there’s no talking but lots of Braille-like touching of each other’s bodies (this is beginning to sound like every husband’s fantasy of an empty nest) and dancing. But the dance is still a “grave dance,” the beginning of the slide to the end.
Mazziotti Gillan’s grave dance is still three years away for me, but the past few weeks I’ve been reluctantly learning preliminary steps. The only boy in the family is gone, and dang we miss the noise, even the arguments, the bluster and bravado, the slammed doors, the blare of the car radio, the thumping bass from upstairs, the burst of boys in the house, ready to eat and slump on couches and tease each other. My youngest daughter, experiencing only-child-ness for the first time, has taken to shouting, stomping and off-key singing because she hates the quiet as much as we do.
A day after I dropped off Joe and a carload of bedding and clothes 271 miles from home, I heard Roseanne Cash on the radio singing “500 Miles.” Her version of the somewhat maudlin Peter, Paul and Mary hit is desolate and raw with an unnerving organ accompaniment. It was just the song to draw out the tears I had been holding back. (Driving, crying and singing along to the radio may be a road hazard but the combination is great therapy.)
Hearing Cash reminded me of another song of longing and loss, a song I used to sing to Joe at bedtime when he was a little boy. His favorite of my nighttime repertoire was always “Shenandoah.” The verse goes like this:
Oh, Shenandoah, I long to hear you,
Away, you rolling river
Oh, Shenandoah, just to be near you,
Away, I’m bound away, cross the wide Missouri.
You can hear a lovely rendition here.
“Shenandoah” has always been a special song to me because I heard it sung for the first time—sorry for sounding pretentious—at a ceilidh in an upstairs room at a small hotel in Scotland, and years later my husband and I got engaged in the Shenandoah mountains.
After my earnest warbling, Joe would often tell me that he really liked the high parts (“away, you rolling river!”). I’m a committed alto, nearly a bass, so this compliment spoke more to his own sweetness than the sweetness of my tones.
In his teen years, once in a great while he’d ask me to sing “that song” again. I would sing from just outside his bedroom door because while I loved the fact that he wasn’t too old to want to hear his mother sing at bedtime, his request embarrassed us both a bit. Now it’s our little joke. And right now it’s a flesh wound. How I miss that funny little boy.
Since then I’ve been singing a lot. Singing helps, I’ve found. Singing reminds me of who I am with or without kids around, and keeps noise in the house.
I left “After the Children Leave Home” on the shelves of the local Bed Bath and Beyond during the weeks of off-to-college shopping. I do wonder who found it, and if it made anyone feel worse or feel better.
Maria Mazziotti Gillian was born in 1940 in Paterson, New Jersey, birthplace to poets William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg, and ever a city of immigrants and poverty. Her parents were working class Italian immigrants. She grew up speaking Italian at home and feeling shy in school because of ethnic slurs and her shaky English. She published her first book of poetry at forty and since then has received, among other awards, the American Book Award and the Barnes and Noble Writers for Writers Award. She directs the creative writing program at Binghamton University and founded a poetry center at the community college in her hometown.
I heard her speak once at a writer’s conference and what I remember about her, besides her croaky voice and an exuberance that made her confessions of childhood shyness hard to believe, was her directive to begin writing at the darkest corner of the psyche, in the most painful place, where feelings are uncharted. That’s where the energy is, she told us. Later when she read her own poems, it was clear she had no fear of exposing her own vulnerabilities and secrets. Hers is confessional poetry that feels universal and never self-serving or self-absorbed.
In a recent interview Mazziotti Gillan says, “I think there were so many things we weren’t supposed to talk about when I was growing up that I feel compelled to say the unsayable in my poems. I think I see poetry as a vehicle for bridging the gap between people.”