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4 September 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 5:46pm

I thought I was prepared for the youngest leaving home. I stand there, stirring a huge pot of pasta

By Tracey Thorn

The youngest gets his A-level results, and they’re fine, and he’ll be going where he wants to go, and everyone is happy. Celebrations all round, and this time it’ll be easy – I know what to do, what to expect, have already had two kids “leave home” to go to university, as if that’s really leaving home at all.

The terms are only a few weeks long, and he’ll be back all the time and nothing will really change, and there’s just a few practical things to sort out, like not sending him off with too many cups or saucepans or cushions he won’t need. There’s nothing emotional to deal with, and I’m only popping into his room to tidy up a bit as he’s away for a week, and I walk in and look at his empty bed and that’s when it hits me. Before I know it I am in floods of tears, and I never saw or heard or felt them coming.

I look at the photos pinned on his wall – of him aged three hugging his first best friend, or underwater in a holiday pool, or playing in snow – and then at his Joy Division posters, and the copy of Blood on the Tracks spinning around on his turntable, and I think, “How has this happened?”

Only a few weeks ago, I wrote about school days coming to an end, and there were a few tears then, but not many, and the moment passed with more in the way of relief than regret. This feels different. And different to when his older sisters left. He’s the last. However I dress it up, it’s the end of something.

I remember when I first met Ben, and his mum must have been the age I am now. Pinned above her desk she had a Philip Larkin poem.

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so

I remember feeling moved by it, but in a shallow way. Ah, bless. Head tilt. Sad face. That kind of moved.

It didn’t grab me by the guts. I couldn’t imagine the emotions. And when I thought about anyone feeling like that it seemed a bit, well, SAD.

Even now, that poem doesn’t quite capture what I feel. In typically gloomy Larkin fashion, it’s more about disappointment than the empty nest. About dreams of a family life that never came true, about an idealised home that fell short.

Well, no one’s home is ideal, no one’s family life is a dream. Like everyone, we’ve had our share of arguments and shouting, of silences and sulking, of confrontations and apologies. But we’ve also been happy in each other’s company all these years, the five of us pottering round the kitchen, passing each other on the stairs, all talking at once at the dinner table. I’ve loved that companionable intimacy that comes of being together so much that you don’t have to keep acknowledging it, or make any special effort, or be on your best behaviour. That’s what I’ll miss. Along with the feeling of simply being needed.

On the day of the exam results, the boy has three mates round to celebrate. They go out for a bit, then come back and hang in his room, and then suddenly announce they are hungry. The fridge is empty, and they’ve had one takeaway already for lunch, so I rummage through the cupboards, and find some tins and packets, and volunteer to cook something.

As I stand there stirring a huge pot of pasta with tomato sauce, I feel, ridiculously and sentimentally, like some Italian mamma from a movie, contented in the kitchen, happy to be feeding my family and anyone else who turns up, as if doing so is my greatest fulfilment. 

“Stop being pathetic,” I think to myself, and yet when I serve it all up, the simple usefulness feels like joy.

The boys are starving,and sweetly grateful, and they lick the plates clean and stack them in the sink and then disappear. I feel that something good has happened; tiny and inconsequential, but symbolic.

The youngest says to Ben later, “That was nice of Mum, wasn’t it, to cook for all of us like that. I think she enjoyed doing it though, didn’t she?”

She did, yeah. She did.

Next week: Kate Mossman

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This article appears in the 04 Sep 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The new civil war