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(Ben Clarkson for The Globe and Mail)
(Ben Clarkson for The Globe and Mail)

Lessons from an empty nest Add to ...

Years ago, my husband and I constructed a large shed to house two draft horses and a miniature horse. We laughingly called it “the barn” because, in relation to a real Ontario barn, it paled in comparison, sitting on the edge of our rural residential five acres.

I’d always admired a country cathedral, braced with soaring hand-hewn beams of solid pine, a gathering place for living things seeking food and shelter. As a child, I was soothed by the peaceful quiet of my uncle’s old barn, lulled by the soft lowing of cattle, the coo of a mourning dove or the whooshing, swooping sound of a barn swallow.

Our “barn” was lovingly composed of one decent-sized box stall with a sliding door, a tiny one-man alley to hold approximately 20 bales of hay, and a miniature loft overhead. We quickly gathered the prerequisite dust and cobwebs, and three equine souls stood side by side throughout summer storms and winter blizzards. Eventually, more minis were added, claiming ownership, as their giant compatriots drifted quietly into history.

Years ticked by and then, out of the blue, a mangle of horse hair, dry grass and mud began to appear on the crossbeam of the ceiling. It swelled to become the solid, beautifully engineered nest of a barn swallow, and we smiled, congratulating ourselves that our big shed had been anointed. We had officially graduated to be owners of a proper barn.

Families of swallows came and went: tiny, feathered faces staring down at me as I mucked out the stall, parents scolding day in and day out as we went about our routine chores. They must have forgiven us time and again, as each year the old nest was refreshed, perhaps by the fledglings of previous generations.

This year, in particular, I took the time to monitor more closely the exact moment they flew for the first time, perhaps because I was living in the shadow of the launch of my own children, painfully aware of the relentless march of time.

At one moment during my morning routine, I sensed a preoccupation in that avian parent, a restlessness mirrored by the bulging quality of that ever-shrinking nest. Packed like feathery sardines, five little faces jostled for a view as the caretaker repeatedly swooped in to land on an inner edge of the stall, flew to another perch on the way out of the shed, and again took off out the door, all the while squealing and calling in desperate direction.

I slowly backed against the stall, silently sliding down the worn oak wall to crouch behind the miniature horses, consciously aware that my presence might change the pace of nature. From that lowered vantage I watched as the mother frantically demonstrated the winged direction to freedom, over and over again.

The sheltered peeps that normally emanated from the cozy nest were soon whipped into small, frenzied, high-pitched cries, as the portal to independence beckoned. As the adult bird diligently and tirelessly repeated the cycle, chicks bulged further into the open air in front of them until finally, one little creature spread its wings and flew into its brave new world.

It looked so familiar, the alternating peeps and screams, the boldness interspersed with trepidation, the fledging of my own offspring as they took on the great world beyond their homestead. I had felt the same maternal instinct to push and pull as my feathered friend, yet I wondered if she felt only relief from responsibility. Had evolution offered her the joy of only foresight without the burden of regret? Was it only humans who ruminated in the murky waters of past decisions second-guessing their nurturing style, reliving their low points and highlights?

There was little time to theorize as the next day, the nest was haunted by an emptiness that I recognized well. Fledging completed, the deed was done and life carried on. In one brief moment of recognition, I later stood in our garage amid a flurry of wings that could only have been a family of swallows bidding me farewell, all swooping in and out at least three times, as I stood still as a statue, afraid to shatter a moment that begged humility.

I knew, though, that it wasn’t farewell. All I had to do was to climb onto the riding-mower, head to the surrounding fields and within minutes of inducting the blade, a cloud of insects would be generated, attracting a squadron of swallows. Every time, I would marvel at their flight skills in a cross between a military dogfight and a perfectly choreographed ballet.

Perhaps I could learn a thing or two from the birds. As I retraced the tentative steps in the progress of my own empty nest, I could see many moments of longing, of hoping for a return to the past.

Letting go was not completely encoded in my DNA, and the push and pull of the process will exhaust me for years to come. I don’t think adult humans are truly programmed to rejoice in their own newly found independence, and I think they will always hope, that at least annually, their flock will return.

Even so, there is no substitution for the premonition that your children have found an enthusiastic ability to survive beyond you, even despite you, in a world that may or may not include you.


Linda Webster lives in Halton Hills, Ont.


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