A Taste of an Empty Nest

The other day my wife wondered aloud what barn swallows did before there were barns. This is, of course, up there with such other meaning-of-life questions as, “What did people call Captain Hook before he lost his hand?” and “If people can have dog breath, can dogs have people breath? And what, precisely, is people breath anyway?”
She was wondering about barn swallows because this year a mom and pop pair of swallows — my wife christened them Lil and Phil — nested on a wooden crossbeam in our barn that offered my family both a perfect glimpse of the meticulousness with which they had built the cup-shaped nest, and then the mother’s care and feeding of her four baby birds before they learned to fly. It was completely remarkable. It also meant that we had to treat our three cats as if they were swallow serial killers and put them under house arrest.
Actually, that’s an exaggeration. The June and July incarceration was pretty lax. We simply kept a close eye on the cats when they were outside and made sure there was nothing tall on the barn floor near the nest from which one of our cats might make a desperate cliff dive whenever an adult swallow flew to or from the eggs or, eventually, the chicks.
Over time, we seemed to reach some sort of interspecies detente with the birds. They seemed to realize that humans, unlike the cats, meant them no harm and so they would remain in the nest when we approached it to check in on them. During a freakish windstorm — a near tornado — in late June, my wife and I watched the adults shivering in fear as winds whipped the barn. Not long after the eggs hatched, a friend of ours, Amanda Bull, got close enough to photograph the mother bird feeding the four young ones. In the image, the chicks’ mouths are wide open, each one shaped like an upside down teardrop, the insides the yellow of wheat.
This past Monday morning, between 6 a.m. and 7:30, the four baby birds officially took flight. For a few hours, they perched, cheeping rather proudly it seemed to me, on the steep peak of the roof of our house. Their mother sat like a sentinel beside them. And now they are gone.
Without wanting to make too much of a rather obvious parallel, my wife and I can’t help but compare ourselves with the birds’ mom and pop. Our daughter has drawn nearer to 15 than to 14 — earlier this summer I commented on the reality that she had outgrown her swing set — and she is inching closer every day to fleeing the nest. Her friends are learning to drive. Just the other day, her pal Bridgette appeared in our driveway at the wheel of her mom and dad’s minivan, her mother — surprisingly serene — in the passenger seat beside her. She has friends who will leave for colleges and conservatories in less than six weeks, and others who are starting to explore where they will hope to continue their education when they finish high school. She has peers who have jobs — real jobs that pay real money.
Now that the swallows have left, our cats once more have the run of the yard. The first thing they did when we opened the front door to the house was dash like mad men and women for the barn. We’re talking “The Amazing Race.” My wife and I followed. There the two humans and three felines stared up at a wooden beam and a barren half-cup of straw and grass and mud.
It definitely felt a little lonely out there.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on July 26, 2008.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.