A Partially Empty Nest, with Mixed Feelings

In this season, the term "empty nest" has taken on fresh meaning for thousands of parents whose children went off to college for the first time this fall. Commentator Marion Winik counts herself among them. Winik lives in Glen Rock, Pa. She is the author of Above Us Only Sky.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Thousands of parents sent children off to college for the first time this fall, one of them commentator Marion Winik. She knows that doesn't qualify her quite as an empty nester, and she doesn't even that neat a term for the big adjustment it's been for her younger children, who are still at home. They are without their older brother for the first time in their lives.

MARION WINIK: Last month, the children of our family lost their historic leader when Hayes went off to college a few states south. It took two cars to fit all his stuff, so brother Vince chauffeured me and little Jane in my car and King Hayes followed in his Jeep. Vince is so excited about his learner's permit. It's exciting for me, too, especially when he does things like darting into the left lane when traffic is so thick Hayes can't follow us. What are you doing, Vince, I shouted, and a few minutes later, when Hayes still hadn't reappeared, I called him on the cell phone to make sure he knew the name of our exit. He answered with a stream of recriminations, though he knew I was not driving.

Soon afterwards, Vince got annoyed by my direction giving and began shouting that I was crazy and he would never drive anywhere with me again. Right then, Jane began whining from the backseat that she needed to go to the bathroom. Now, I have to go now, she cried. A gas station appeared on the right, and our maddened group swerved into it. The boys got out of their respective cars.

Dude, said Vince to his older sibling, I'm so sorry about what happened back there. Dude, said Hayes magnanimously, clapping his back, it was cool. I wasn't mad. God, Mom is such a freak. I know, man. Let's go in and get some beef jerky. I'm hungry, too, said Jane. I looked at her accusingly. Didn't you have to go to the bathroom?

In the weeks since we left Hayes in his dorm, things here have been weird and sad. I keep staring wistfully at the leftovers in the fridge. I can't seem to adjust the quantities I cook for dinner, and he's the only one who ate leftovers anyway. However, the house is much quieter without the beatings and the rough housing that are the older brothers' purview, and ganging up on mom just isn't the same.

Meanwhile, the other day I ran into Vince's guidance counselor, who exclaimed about how different Vince seems this year. When pressed further, she revealed that he had greeted her in the hall. He never did that before, she said. Perhaps with Hayes gone, the balance is shifting. I have a friend in Texas who said she never realized how exclusively her family's dinner conversation focused on her older son until he left and they started to talk to the younger one. They've learned a lot about Dungeons and Dragons.

Last night, I stared at a plate of homemade sushi rolls leftover in the refrigerator. Vince, I said, isn't sushi one of your favorite foods? He thought a minute. Yeah, he said, give me that, and settled down beside Jane to watch the fairly odd parents. I think Vince has begun to notice a few job openings around here - eater of leftovers, friend to little sisters, greeter of guidance counselors.

I guess it happens every fall. The parents go around whining about their emptying nests while the little brothers and sisters move up a peg in the pecking order, unable to believe at first that no one's swatting them down.

Do you miss Hayes? I asked Vince the other day. Well, he said, he hasn't been gone that long. But you lived with him every day of your life for 16 years and then he just disappeared. Yeah, said Vince, that's what I mean.

SIEGEL: Marion Winik lives in Glen Rock, Pennsylvania. She's the author of Above Us Only Sky.

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