Last night I was busy with laundry and bed making. Bed making in a room that no child lives in any more but has now become a guest room. As I lifted the corner of the mattress to straighten the bed skirt, pulled the fitted sheet into place and turned down the top sheet over the new plush and super soft blanket, I reflected that this must be an action my mother performed many times. Immediate family grown and out of the house, extended family coming to stay in bedrooms previously reserved for children. Holiday preparations in a nearly empty home.

I believe there was a time when I envied my parents: the sanity of retirement, a home quiet and peaceful. The envy of course came in the midst of our own chaos. Those years when you realize that despite spending hundreds of dollars in the grocery store, days cleaning and doing laundry, and countless hours cooking, all in preparation for one big turkey dinner, that yes, it is still necessary to feed your children the night before Thanksgiving too. One giant meal cannot sustain a family just in thought and anticipation as leftovers can, with any luck, sustain for at least a few lunches and one extra dinner after Thanksgiving. That chaos is where the thought of a quiet home resides.

But now I understand an emptiness that is more than a quiet house. It is a knowledge that this is truly a different time, a different phase in parenting. It sneaks up on us even when we are completely aware that the last one is graduating and going away to school. This information moves from the head of a mother to the heart of a mother and sticks there, like something caught in the throat. How did this happen?

I have often thought about not remembering the last time I carried my children up to bed. You know that night when they are really too old to be carried, but for fun you carry him/her up anyway. And you are both happy about it because it feels good to be carried and to carry. And then, you look back and you can’t recall that last time. They are suddenly bigger and no longer are you strong enough to physically carry your child. I love who my adult children have become but sometimes i just want to carry them once more.

As I speak with the older adults that we serve it seems to be the same sense of recognizing change across a lifetime. Fully knowing and yet not believing things are changing until something little, like making up a bed in an empty room still decorated with a few old high school pictures and favorite books causes a pause. Like being two places at once, in my mother’s shoes and in my own home. Many of those in their eighties and nineties remark how each year goes faster, how few of the friends are left, how they are the last of five or six or seven children. At moments when we talk they reflect on the times when their home was bustling, or they share a story of the family life they experienced as a child. It is not a new idea, that times change but it still hits us like a revelation once in a while.

Now, at this Thanksgiving time these elders will be collected by an adult child or grandchild, taken away to be part of the day of celebrating family. Instead of making the tradition they are invited to take part in new traditions. And again I am in two places at once. In my home in New York at 13 years old, watching mom get the best silver and her wedding china out so that I can help set the table, and I am in her home in Florida watching in my mind’s eye her preparation for a Thanksgiving without family filling her home but instead a visit to a friend’s home.

Today I am thankful for parents who let us grow into our own traditions, who, like many we serve, moved and changed with the times. I am thankful for past memories of Thanksgivings shared by changing family scenes over a 50 year period, perspectives of times in a busy home and an empty nest. I am thankful as my children move into adulthood and create their own traditions. I am thankful too for the prospect of grandchildren filling my home again with noise, and bustle, and loving chaos.