Of fridges and fullness

I realize most people don't feel intense happiness when they clean the fridge but I feel only gratitude as I rearrange the jars of pickles and wipe out past spills of milk.

This September, for the first time in two decades, I do not need to buy extra ham for lunches or snack-sized packages of anything. It is just me and my husband now. My eldest daughter is in her second year of college near New York City and we just moved my younger daughter into her dorm in Lancaster, Pa.

The nest is empty and my heart is full.

As I look back on my years of mothering, I see a miracle has happened. I have been filled up with family. I have learned to love, to soften my judgments and to forgive myself and others. I have learned to trust; to allow others to have space to make their own mistakes. I have learned to remember humor and to ask for help. It has been a wild and complex ride, filled with ups and downs. But the simplicity and practice of belonging has transformed me.

Cleaning the fridge reminds me of the abundance that is present in my life. Now, I have more choices about how to nurture myself and others than I had as a girl. My mother, who was an alcoholic, shopped only once a month, laying in enough frozen TV dinners to last us until her next trip to Safeway. I hid my other food — Pop Tarts, Snack Pack puddings and potato chips — in my bottom drawer so my brothers wouldn't eat my share.

As I take stock of the contents of my fridge, replacing on the shelf the chutneys, ham and cheddar cheese my British husband appreciates, I feel love. As I stack the cartons full of brown and blue eggs laid by our chickens, I feel connected to our ranch and the life we have created over the past 10 years. As I go through the remaining vegetables and fruits from last Tuesday's open market to see what's for dinner, I feel supported by my community.

Our family has enjoyed eating thousands of meals together. Talking about our highs and lows of the day, laughing, planning, doing our weekly family meetings and having Grandad join us on Sunday nights. It all says HOME and it is in my bones now. No one can ever take away that away.

It has not always been easy raising two curious and strong-willed high school students in a town where alcohol and marijuana are so much a part of the culture. I had to have faith in them while still actively keeping them safe — a hard balance for any parent. It took every ounce of strength I had not to lecture or let my Pandora's Box of fears open. I tried to encourage and empower, to communicate well and to be fair. "Just keep the conversation going," was my mantra. We tried to entertain all possibilities and remain flexible in our family structure as we created logical consequences. Our values were reflected in our family code and the drug and alcohol contracts we negotiated together.

I strove to be a supportive guide, and my husband and I reserved the right to have the final say. It worked for us: no addictions, no pregnancies, good grades, college acceptances. My daughters have a sense of who they are and know how to live with others. Sure there was the odd lie, some Technicolor drama, and a few forged notes for missed classes but we still respect and love each other. Opportunities to learn always emerged, no shame or blame necessary.

After so many Pop Tarts, drama and fear, life has balanced out. Family, partnership and cleaning the fridge are my inner peace.

Renée Riley-Adams is a mother and wife who helps families navigate through the teen years with compassion. She is now officially an Empty Nester with more time to row, scrapbook, explore with her husband and develop her new business, Balanced Family Coaching. She also still eats the occasional Pop Tart. She can be reached at rara5060@gmail.com.

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