How a Daughter Regards an Empty Nest

This was the first time I cried. I broke down in front of those elasticated barriers that zig zag towards security stations at Trudeau airport. People consciously ignored me, in that uncomfortably, strained, polite way people do at airports.

This felt monumentally difficult. I don’t know why. Why was this time harder? Why did I choke up as I waved to my mom?

Even though they still have one unmarried daughter (me-the perma single one), the conclusion of this trip meant that my parents now officially had no kids left in the house.

It fits incongruously on all of us. My oldest sister getting married was unexpected. A lovely surprise, but unexpected.

Instead of remaining a comforting fixture in our squashy duplex, she went, leaving my parents with an empty upstairs apartment and a strange feeling of isolation.

Before she took up residence there, my sister lived in the kids room. Then she moved to my suddenly vacant grandparents place, the upper apartment of our duplex.

For years Bubby and Zaidy presided over the family as a stoic and strong presence while four kids made a raucous circus below.

Somehow it made the whole three floors inarguably ours.

That house feels rattled now. Redone. Properly separated in two. Completely confused in its quietness.

It feels perverse somehow.

Places can hold memories, even when reshaped and refined and redone.

Those memories feel kind of…missing now.

I’m happy living where I do.

But I’m still sad that the four of us will never live as we did with our parents and grandparents again, safe in a house all our own.

~

Some people can fit their whole lives into two outdoorsy backpacks.

I understand the appeal.

But I’m not one of those people.

A space filled with things is not necessarily about possession, it’s not necessarily greed or sentiment.

It’s feeling safe, knowing that those things that help you just be, or that are imperative in helping you create, are at hand. It’s about knowing that what you need to feel loved, protected and valued is ever close.

Sometimes it’s about the manner in which you set up your surroundings. It’s about how calm they seem, how organised, familiar and warm. Uniquely you.

But I think it’s mainly to do with people. The story behind each thing, the moments that built their place.

My childhood home is becoming a stranger to me because the people who make me feel safest are drifting from it.

She doesn’t know this, but I feel safest around my sister.

Don’t tell her, she’ll just roll her eyes.

~

She’s married with four kids now but I was fourteen when she flew the nest. Needless to say I didn’t take it well. How could I possibly survive without her? She was the one who taught me incredibly important things like how melting cheese over legumes instantly makes them more appetising, that eyeliner remains the only essential item of makeup a girl needs, and that staying up late to watch Lord of the Rings clearly makes you a better student.

She had the courtesy to remain in Montreal while I finished high school.

Then we thought we were moving to Israel the same year (how exciting).

God had other plans for me.

For years I withered away in Montreal or New York while she grew, alone, into someone slightly different in Israel.

When I finally came back to Israel we acted as if nothing had shifted and she was there for me, giving me everything I needed.

Though we had changed, though our opinions were oceans apart on some matters, we still needed each other. Those memories of home anchored us and tied us to each other.

We recently had to take a drive, just the two of us, to our uncle’s azkarah, a day of gathering that marked a year since his death.

We were both a little nervous about the reception from our Israeli cousins.

We drove, on Yom Yerushalayim, (what we thought would be) against the flow of heavy traffic.

We were wrong to assume it would be easy.

The highways were congested all the way to Hod Hasharon.

Though it may sound crude to call it an adventure,  I enjoyed the fact that I got to cruise with her, sans the kiddies (whom I adore, I swear) and her husband, who is at this point like an older brother to me.

Despite our occasional but pleasant “brunches” together, there was always a little baby present, a reminder of her changed life, of her new home, of that family unit that she was the foundation of.

This time, it was just the two of us, a throwback to the originals.

We had galgalatz playing, and I had picked her up a smoothie from Rebar before meeting her.

It was a hot day.

We hadn’t done this in a while.

Relied on each other for emotional support.

Joked about random things.

We hadn’t smiled through safe silences in a long time.

As we passed under a traffic sign I recognised the names of places, and I told her an amusing story  about how I watched and listened in horror as Gal Gadot mistranslated the name of her home town Rosh Hayain, in an interview.

My sis met my story with another about how she had done the same faux pas in college, forgetting the meaning of her biblical name when a professor called on her to explain it to the class.

She’s always acerbic and to the point. I laughed.

I used to be able to make her laugh more.

But I was ok with only smiles.

It was warm in the car, but I didn’t care. As I drank my smoothie and steeled myself for what was to come by exaggeratedly bopping my head to the music as if I was starring in my own version of Night at the Roxbury, my sister confidently at the wheel, I felt as safe and calm as I had all those years ago, three thousand miles away, in a home all our own.

~

My friends always joke I over-exaggerate the hardships of the ice storm.

“Miles in a blizzard for a box of pizza.”

“No power for days. Eating canned food by candlelight. No showering. Covered in layers. Cable wires and split trees painting the streets.”

One of my most vivid memories from the ice storm is, in fact, super cheesy but a testament to how I used to feel about my siblings and most of all, the memories a room can hold, long after its inhabitants are gone.

We lost power pretty early on in this now infamous ice storm.

I was around six years old.

It was like a hellish Narnia out there. We burrowed in our cold and darkened homes while outside everything was covered in layers of ice, a constant blizzard raging for two weeks.

I can’t remember much, except eating cold chicken and doing everything by candlelight. By week two the kids had been bundled out to homes with power.

However, there was one night when we were still together, when the four of us had gathered in our small living room to kill time as our parents dealt with yet another broken down thing.

We used shabbos candle sticks to light up the room. I had somehow gotten hold of a scented purple candle that came in a tiny glass container, probably purchased at the Dollar Store.

Amidst the struggle of where to sit (a game of “which spot on the floor is the least likely to freeze your tuchas off”) I adamantly insisted that my scented candle be lit or none of ours could.

My siblings rolled their eyes (i think), and someone eventually caved and helped light my tiny violet luminary.

My two sisters and my brother finally sat down and somehow they agreed on Trivial Pursuit.

I was six. They were 7-10 years older.

Clearly, I wasn’t going to be much of a participant.

But in that little glowingly cold space, someone made room for me, even though I could not play.

To make me feel loved and like I was a part, they read questions to me.

“C’mon Gila. You know the answer. It’s… Re—ee—d,”

They all slowed the word down to a slur in unison.

“Red tulip!” I squeaked, a little too excited as I finally caught on.

Red tulip was the catchall, the ever true, ever reoccurring answer to every question I was asked. Even if it was “Who did Charles II commission to rebuild London after the great fire of 1666?”

Red tulip of course. He commissioned Red tulip.

Because, though it was winter, during springtime, tulips always bloomed around the hedgerow of our home.

My wealth of knowledge was shallow but I was certain of that. Tulips would spontaneously spring out of the ground between the border of our house and the yard. This was a sacred truth.

Red tulips. Yellow tulips. Wild ones.

Around the home we called our own.

I felt so sure then. In that moment I felt so safe. Even though my parents were battling with a frozen heater and it was colder than the arctic and the siblings were just humouring me.

I felt warm, and safer than I have ever felt in my life.

~

My mom and dad are like most Jewish parents. They want you to fly but don’t want you to fly away to far off places.

My sister and I chose somewhere 3,000 miles away. Yes, my heart led me there. Even though it breaks sometimes and its lonelier than ever and even though it knows it will always stand apart, looking in.

My other siblings have gone in very different directions.

My brother is in New Jersey, living a life devoted to Torah.

My oldest sister works at a sefardi bakery in Montreal. Her french is now excellent.

My sister here is a full-time mom. She kicks butt and is so upfront about how difficult it is.

And I’m here, still figuring it out.

I feel at home too. Safe in a different way. We seek out our own, and I know they are here.

I may never have my own home. I may never have children who fly the nest.

But my parents worked hard to make sure that even though one or two of us had crooked wings, we finally made it out.

The four of us haven’t all been together in one place since…2013. We all managed it somehow. My mom even ordered a family photo be taken as proof.

She told me, some time back, that for some odd reason, the wild tulips stopped growing. No Dutch flower came out, come springtime.

The thought saddens me more now, years after she mentioned it.

I never told my siblings. I’m not sure they’d take much meaning from it.

Maybe if I sit us down. Properly. We’ll calmly sip something nice in a warmer climate,  contemplating things in a deeper manner, remembering them fondly without embarrassment.

Even so, one day I’m going to force us all to travel to the same coordinates and get us all together for a game of Trivial Pursuit.

This time, I will kick ass at it.

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