My most recent experience of the psychology of the empty nest – or, to put it another way, of time racing by so fast it leaves me panting and terrified that my cramped fingers are slipping off the cliff of life – happened over dinner during the holidays.
Sister No. 1 was bemoaning the fact that the painting she had inherited from our late mother was not, in fact, a George Stubbs landscape appraised at $300,000, as Ma had said, but one by a lesser Stubbs, worth $100 if she was lucky. Sister No. 2 then began to worry over the picture she had been bequested by our lying mother.
It features a cart horse standing backward in a farmer’s lane, painted in the late 1800s by John Frederick Herring Jr. He and his father were a shrewd pair: J.F. Herring Sr. churned out portraits of racehorses for the emerging British mercantile class, while Junior specialized in nostalgic Victorian country scenes (e.g., Horses and Pigs).
At this point, my daughter, a second-year McGill University literature and art-history major, perked up: “Herrick? The poet?”
“No,” I countered. “Herring. The painter.”
“Oh,” she said. “Because there is a poet named Herrick.”
“Yes, I know.”
She looked at me. “Have you read Herrick?”
“Yes,” I said. “Of course.”
That is, at least I remembered seeing his name … post-Renaissance, flowers, countryside, something something something.
Still, I knew what was happening. I had spent the first 19 years of my daughter’s life being the well-read one, trying to forge a fathomless father-daughter connection based on a mutual life of the mind.
Now, suddenly, in her second year of university, she was speeding by me, reading wider and deeper than I had, and faster than I ever could. She was needling me to keep up. But I knew it was hopeless. She was now educating me, and I was the rookie.
Robert Herrick, the poet, it transpires, was the 17th-century contemporary and acolyte of Ben Jonson who wrote:
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying.
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow will be dying.
He came by his famous sense of carpe diem honestly: His father fell out a window to his death (fourth floor) when the boy was a year old. He was apprenticed to his uncle, a goldsmith, but instead read at Cambridge to become a vicar in Devonshire, where he wrote 2,500 classically themed poems, roughly half of which are published in his only book, Hesperides. (There was very little else to do in Devonshire, as Herrick points out in several poems.)
Easy for him to insist that one should live for the moment – Herrick didn’t have children. Children are hostages to fortune, as another English writer famously said: As soon as you become a parent, you start to worry about your child’s future, and try to control it, even if you know you cannot.
I wanted my daughter to be deeply, traditionally literate because I am convinced that knowing your way around stories, famous and otherwise, is a valuable skill in any profession. I just didn’t want her to be more literate than I am.
For a long time, the odds were in my favour. Little of the reading I gave her – Catcher in the Rye, Tom Wolfe’s funniest reporting, the Potter books (both Beatrix and Harry), The New York Times, Tennyson, Kipling – caught her interest at the time. She read her own or her mother’s books – The Giver (in fourth grade), The Velvet Room, the stories of Deborah Ellis, countless plays (especially Shakespeare) – for her own reasons.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I did not long to have a reading relationship with my daughter as a way of hanging on to her. I know that the empty-nest watchers, the experts in postsecondary sadness, say this is precisely the mistake modern parents make: Instead of recognizing our lives are in a new chapter, we resist change. We try to stay parental, authoritative, reliable, which is why so many adult children still feel perfectly fine living in their parents’ homes.