A House without Teenagers Isn’t the Same

Because Hugo was home, Claude came over more than usual. We played euchre three nights in a row, once after having dinner guests, including two of Hugo’s vocal instructors.

The house was full of cooking, laughter and yelling. For four days, my life reconstituted to the familiar — a large, opinionated family under one roof. For nearly 13 years, I have lived with one or more teenagers. Then, this fall, our house was emptied out of teens.

My friend Edna Young, who’s been gone many years, taught me much about raising children. She was a grandma when my big boys were born. “Just wait until they hit 13,” she told me, “you’ll not be able to keep enough milk in the house.”

She was right. For years we called Claude “the gaping maw,” his appetite akin to that of Audrey II’s in “The Little Shop of Horrors.” The fact that he was (and still is) a distance runner contributed to his high caloric needs.

One summer, we stayed in a hotel where Claude ran on the facility’s treadmill. When he finished, I looked at the read-out. In one hour, he’d burned 1,700 calories, more than I (should) eat in a day.

Like Claude, my third son, Jules, is also a distance runner. He stayed with his grandparents last summer and I worried he’d throw off their food budget. “No, it’s wonderful,” said my stepmom. “With Jules here we never throw out any leftovers.”

We’ve long had a membership to BJ’s Wholesale Club where we buy bulk items at a lower price per unit or ounce than in traditional grocery stores. Unfortunately, my $50 annual membership renewed in August before I understood how much less we would need with no teenagers around.

Without teenagers we do not need as much toilet paper, laundry detergent, toothpaste, shampoo or conditioner. Even cleaning supplies last longer.

Jules alone goes through five or more pounds of apples a week, which I happily supplied. Without him here, that many apples last closer to a month.

Not having teens also affects how much I cook. For many years, I doubled or tripled recipes and while that’s no longer necessary, some habits are hard to break. Leftovers routinely go bad now.

But with the departure of my last teenager, we also lost something we’ve long enjoyed and perhaps took for granted, especially Max who didn’t know differently: built-in babysitters.

When most parents have their first baby, a rude awakening follows. Footloose adults who could run out at any time for any reason become parents who must decide whether it’s worth bringing baby, getting a sitter or just staying home. Grocery stores alone can be an ordeal, particularly when toddlers are involved.

For nearly 10 years, Max and I have enjoyed long walks, child-free shopping excursions and dinners out, either the two of us alone or with friends. All this was done without requiring, except on rare occasions, someone to come to our house and tend our two littles.

But perhaps the biggest adjustment with no teenagers at home is losing roommates. Easily two, if not four, years before they graduate high school, teenagers are someone else to talk with about politics, art, science, the comics, people we know, things we want to see and do. Without any of them under our roof, it’s a little lonelier than before.

I wept when dropping off Claude, and then Hugo, at college their first year. But once I left them, I was fine. When Jules returned home for Labor Day weekend two weeks after I’d taken him to OSU, tears coursed down my face. “I can’t believe you don’t live here. It’s so good to have you home,” I told him.

Max pointed out my extended sadness may be due to something other than missing Jules. “Jules leaving home is an end of an era for you, Holly.” It’s true. For more than a quarter century, my identity has been entwined with mothering those first three children of mine.

When we first dated, Max told his family about “Holly and the boys.” Shortly after I met his now 97-year-old uncle, Bascom, he told me, “I thought Max was dating not a woman, but a Broadway show called ‘Holly and the Boys.’ ”

The father of my big boys hasn’t laid eyes on any of them in nearly five years. Even when I was with their father, it was mostly just Holly and the boys. Back then, a friend who often came for dinner told me, “I get help from family and friends because I’m a single mom, but few realize that someone, like you, can be a virtual single mom.”

In a “Pearls before Swine” comic strip, the crocodile son asks his mother what’s the most important part of raising children. She tells him it’s having them grow up and successfully lead their own lives. He then asks his mom what’s the hardest part of being a parent. She replies, “That one day you’ll grow up and successfully leave us.”

And so it is.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on October 6, 2019.


Fully house nearly empty…for now

I have at times, like most parents, imagined my life with a different number of children:

What if Claude had been my only child?

What if I had stuck to my guns on zero population growth and birthed only Claude and Hugo?

What if Max and I had skipped having two more kids together? I’d be nearly done with the parenting of nonadults. Jules, who has one more year of high school, just turned 18.

Undeniably, my life would be different in any of these scenarios. But to imagine something is not the same as to wish for it.

Currently only one child, Lyra, is home with Max and me.

Jules and his girlfriend are in Northern Michigan. Leif, who will stay a few weeks with the grandparents, went with them. Jules comfortably drove everyone up there. I checked in on them throughout the long trip, but I knew they’d be fine.

It was different the first time a son of mine drove himself to Michigan. At the end of Claude’s first semester of college, he had a week between his second-to-last and last final exam. He took a Greyhound bus home and drove back to Ann Arbor for the test.

Before he left, I found some excuse to fill up the car for him at the BP in Fairlawn, right off I-77. Then, as he drove away, I whispered, “Please be safe, please be safe,” while my eyes welled up.

Some things do get easier.

After two years of saving and holding fundraisers, Hugo flew to Austria to study vocal performance in Graz for six weeks. Before he left, he came back from Rochester for wellness visits with doctors and the dentist.

While Hugo scheduled and got himself to his appointments, I was routinely involved. During a lunch meeting, I received four text messages and one call:

“So no fluoride, right?” Right.

“Do I need X-rays?” No.

“Just so I’m clear; I’m getting the fluoride and X-rays?” Hahaha.

“I need a filling for a chipped tooth, they’re checking on insurance.”

And that’s when he called, to get my OK for the $50 co-pay. Before I hung up, I told him how nice it was having him join my lunch meeting.

By the time I was Hugo’s age, I’d been on my own for years. Even then, I often wished I’d had someone to turn to as a young woman navigating adult decisions for the first time.

Hugo navigated the complexities of insurance coverage but understandably had questions. We soon commiserated over the amount of time it takes to get medical bills properly processed.

Apparently, Hugo and I are a lot alike. People regularly tell us as much. We’re both direct, extroverted and energetic. We have choleric temperaments, which is to say we are fiery.

Perhaps that is why he was the hardest kid for me to raise. His last two years of high school, I counted down the months until he moved out. The spring of his senior year he was so frustrating (not in my eyes alone), I had him move into a room at one of my rental homes.

Like me, Hugo values his independence. Moving him out early was reactionary on my part but, as it turns out, just what he needed. On his own, Hugo is more responsible and even tidier.

I drove Hugo back to Rochester so we could have time together before he left the country. Nobody makes me laugh like Hugo makes me laugh. We stopped at a Wendy’s in Erie for Cokes and when I asked for a biggie, nobody knew what I was talking about.

“These are our sizes,” said the cashier as she swept her hand under the row of cups.

“Okay, Mama, what’s with the baby talk?” asked a giggling Hugo. I looked it up on my phone and showed the two of them that Wendy’s did once, and for a long time, have a “biggie” size for a variety of items.

As soon as we were in the car, Hugo, a skilled raconteur, called Claude and retold the story, making it funnier and far more interesting than it was.

Still chuckling, we stepped into a T.J. Maxx to look for some things he needed for his trip. As we searched for backpacks, everything became hilarious and we found ourselves holding on to a fixture, belly laughing until tears rolled down our cheeks. When we finally stopped, we sighed loudly — several times.

Hugo, Claude and Jules Christensen all watch James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” with Paul McCartney. (Credit Max Thomas)

“You know,” said Hugo when we were back on I-90 East, “a lot of people have best friends they’ve known for years. I have good friends from when I was growing up, but my best friends really are Claude and Jules.”

Hugo will be a senior this fall, so it’s not like we aren’t used to him being away for months at a time. But there’s something different about him being so far away. Claude and Hugo especially sought to spend as much time together as they could before Hugo left. I had to tell Claude he could not call off work to hang out one last night with his brother.

It’s not always pretty. My boys will call each other out on transgressions in a hot second. But what a gift to have someone who will never walk away, who will always be in your life, point out when you are screwing up. Not to draw blood, but to push you to be your better self.

The armchair psychologist who lives in my head tells me I had five children because I was a lonely child. Funny thing, I love time alone. I enjoy a quiet house, including a week with only one child to feed. But that’s because the other four always return to fill it up. With a noisy mix of emotions all rooted in, yep, you guessed it, an abiding love.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on July 1, 2018

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