Marlene Adelstein | Longreads | May 2019 | 15 minutes (3,712 words)
One pleasant October evening I was walking in my backyard with, Honey, my chocolate lab, for her after-dinner constitutional when I glanced up and noticed the biggest wasp nest I’d ever seen. This huge thing was suspended from a very high tree branch, way up in the sky. I stood under it, staring up for what felt like a full minute. “Jesus, Honey,” I said to my dog, “do you see that?” But she was too busy eating dirt to notice. The nest had a black circle that was clearly the opening but I didn’t see any wasps entering or exiting. It must have been abandoned before the winter, and was just a matter of time until a good gust would bring it down. I felt excitement rising as I thought: what a fabulous addition for my collection.
I collected birds’ and wasps’ nests and was quite good at finding them. I always retrieved the delicate things carefully, and displayed them all around my house. A robin’s nest was nestled in a ceramic bowl on my coffee table; a wasps’ nest made of layers of thin paper-like material, rested in a crystal water goblet. Many more were scattered about, tucked here and there, some viewable, others stored in drawers and cupboards.
Why this obsession? Perhaps, it was because I, too, am a nest builder. I create warm homes filled with mementoes of my life. To me, the nests I found were works of art worth preserving, each unique and beautiful.
The enormous nest in my backyard was like an odd-shaped weather balloon and looked so cool hanging up there, I just had to photograph it. So after our walk, I headed back to the house, got my cell phone and rushed right back because the nest could be blown down overnight. This could be my only chance to document it. By then it was twilight and I got in a few dusky shots.
Why this nest obsession? Perhaps, it was because I, too, am a nest builder. I create warm homes filled with mementoes of my life.
But in the morning it was still there. “Did you see that wasps’ nest in the backyard?” I said to my boyfriend. Well, my recently christened ex-boyfriend. Let’s call him John. He had just walked into the kitchen carrying a box of tools. We had broken up in June and he’d since moved out of our house but was back and forth often, removing his stuff a truckload at a time. It was a big house and he had a lot of stuff. We’d been having problems for a while and things seemed to reach a fevered pitch that year when in an angry impasse we finally agreed to call it quits. So now it was just me and Honey living alone in the 2,300 plus square foot house planted on almost 4 acres, the house I’d owned and lived in with John for seven-and-a-half of our 14 years together. We had put the house on the market and potential buyers were traipsing in and out. I had to keep it “show ready” — nothing on the counters or dresser tops, no photos or signs of a happy couple living there, not that there was anyway.
“Oh yeah, I did see that nest the other day,” he said. “It’s big.” He set down his box, then headed into the basement, I assumed to retrieve more stuff that I not so lovingly called crap. His copious amounts of tools, building materials, audio equipment, record albums, tapes, cds, memorabilia, and vehicles that he never pared down despite saying he would. My nagging about it was just one of our issues covering up more serious ones.
Thanks for telling me, I wanted to say in a really sarcastic tone, but didn’t. He knew I collected nests and that I would have been super excited about this one but we both had a lot on our minds so I let it go. We brushed past each other in the kitchen as he reached for a coffee mug and I reached for the electric kettle. We both mumbled polite “Sorry’s.” We were keeping it civil. We were well past the insulting, snipey remarks, yelling, tears, slamming fists to tables phase and had slid into the What the fuck happened? Why can’t he/she change, hopeless, numb, wanting-the-pain-to-be over stage, and on to the next chapter of life, whatever that might look like. We were able to communicate, to give and receive information politely. But it was strained. It was awkward. A fog-like sadness hung in the house. I felt like a visitor in my own home. Honey was confused. I was confused. We had moved down to the ground floor guest room along with her enormous doggie bed. The guest room was smaller, cozier and held fewer memories than our big comfy upstairs bedroom, and Honey was a senior with arthritic hips, so now she didn’t have to do the stairs anymore. At least there was that.
I looked forward to my walks with Honey. They were peaceful; my emotional fog would lift. I could think and breathe. As autumn wore on, every day I would look up for the nest. I was both relieved and disappointed by the fact it was still there. Part of me wanted it to stay — this dark, balloon-like orb hanging on. But a bigger part was eager to have it drop so I could grab it for my collection. I didn’t want the new owners of our house, whoever they might end up being, to have this special object. I didn’t want them to even see it. For some selfish reason, I wanted it all for myself. The nest was mine.
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If this sounds greedy, it was. But let me explain. It wasn’t just that my boyfriend of 14 years and I had broken up, or that we had to sell our house, or that I was living alone in said house that I had to keep spotless, or that I had to vacate with Honey at a moment’s notice for showings, or that I would have to move — when, I didn’t know, or where, I had no idea. I had also been long distance care-giving my parents for years. My two brothers and I had helped move my parents numerous times, downsizing them from their large home in Sarasota to a rental “villa” in a senior community to an assisted living facility my dad hated, to yet another one he hated even more. All this while my dad cared for my mom, who had Alzheimer’s. As my mom’s memory faded and her illness progressed, my dad’s ability to care for her diminished along with his good judgment. He was stubborn and despite having bad eyesight, being frail and wobbly even with his walker, he wouldn’t stop driving; and he had trouble staying on top of the bills, which my mom had always taken care of. Their lives had become a precarious balancing act, both figuratively and literally. My mom walked behind dad holding onto his belt loop as if this would prevent him from falling, and he steered her mentally. They needed each other, and for a while their crazy symbiosis worked, but eventually the balance tipped and we had to move mom down a floor to the locked memory care unit and dad to a smaller apartment at the facility.
My brothers and I took turns going down to Florida to help, but being the good daughter and problem solver that I was, I’d taken on the bulk of the work, dealing with my parents’ finances, managing the private caregivers, and the many thankless, time-consuming tasks necessary just to keep them going.
Mom didn’t know who I was anymore. Dad had recently been diagnosed with lung cancer and was doing his best to hold it all together. But he became depressed living alone for the first time in their 62 years of marriage. He was lonely and worried about his health and what would become of mom. His visits to her often ended with her throwing a tantrum, and having to be restrained when he tried to leave.
Back home in New York, I would frequently erupt into sobs while driving around town in the sanctuary of my Subaru, feeling like I was going to explode from the stress of it all. I was mourning the loss of my parents — the robust, healthy couple they had been — while anticipating their looming deaths. I was feeling sorry for myself, for the loss of my relationship, my house, my youth. I was afraid I’d be alone for the rest of my life. And the closer it came to leaving the home I’d shared with John, the harder it became to let it go, despite the fact that I actually never really liked the house all that much. The whole time we lived there it had been a huge money pit, requiring everything from the removal of raccoons in walls to mold remediation. On top of everything else, Honey, my devoted shadow companion, had reached the age of 11, and I was wondering how much longer I had left with her.
In short, I was grieving the loss of what felt like pretty much everything in my life.
Then in September my dad took yet another fall — there had been so many over the years. Up until then he’d been lucky, coming away with just scrapes and minor bruises. But this last spill seemed to precipitate a quick, dramatic decline in his health. I rushed back down to Florida and then Hurricane Irma plowed up the coast. We were lucky to be in the small protected eye of the storm as I watched my dad lose the ability to walk, speak, and comprehend. But it was totally surreal watching this frenzy of uncontrolled Mother Nature and my dad’s very essence seem to collide. Within the month he was gone.
I was mourning the loss of my parents — the robust, healthy couple they had been — while anticipating their looming deaths. I was feeling sorry for myself, for the loss of my relationship, my house, my youth.
When I arrived back home, I was, exhausted and emotionally drained. John opened the front door, letting Honey run out to greet me, the way he used to when we were still a couple. I was so happy to see them both. John opened his arms and I collapsed into his hug. It had been months since we’d even touched and right then I needed that human contact. I knew he cared. I had a momentary fantasy: maybe everything would be okay with us. Maybe things would go back to the way it was before…before things unraveled, when we were still happy. When was that? I tried to remember. When I extricated myself from the embrace, there we were, a couple who still loved each other yet had a broken-beyond-repair relationship. But besides being my partner, he’d been my very good friend for all those years. I needed to tell someone what I’d gone through so I let loose, babbling about the hurricane, being with my dad when he took his last breath, the funeral, the kindness of Dad’s friends, emptying his apartment, saying goodbye to Mom, who kept asking if we’d seen Dad, and how we couldn’t tell her the truth so we just said, “No,” and changed the subject. Feeling guilty and sad about leaving her in a facility far away, with no family nearby. I talked and talked. When I was done, we stood together awkwardly for a moment.
Then he shook his head in sympathy and said, “You’ve been through too much.” I nodded.
“Thanks for picking up Honey,” I said.
“Of course,” he said.
We were back to being polite strangers. Then another silence, the air heavy with unspoken words. He said an uncomfortable goodbye and left. I grabbed Honey, and buried my face in her soft fur, “Don’t you leave me,” I told her. “You’re my bestie.”
It was two weeks later when I walked in the back yard and saw the wasps’ nest for the first time. Every morning after that when I was making my coffee, I looked out the window. “Still there,” I said to Honey. In the evening, “Is it there, Hon?” It was. After big rain storms, still there. Big wind, there it was.
The house showings continued and soon I got word of a repeat visit for a couple who had recently seen it. Whenever it was time for a showing, I’d take Honey in the car, run some errands, and then drive around for the rest of the hour. That’s what I did this time. When the appointment hour was up, I drove by my house but saw two cars still in my driveway. As usual, I parked in the lot of the school across the street. It had a perfect view of my house, and so I waited and watched so I could see when the potential buyers and realtor left and the coast would be clear to return home. That day I saw a man and a woman and another man, the broker, I assumed, walk out my front door. They were talking animatedly as they walked towards the garage, pointing at windows and trees. They walked around the whole house and disappeared for what felt like a very long time. My heart sped up. This young couple was interested. I didn’t want to get too excited since early on in the process we’d had an offer fall through. But sitting in the car watching them pulled me back seven-and-a-half years to when John and I sat in his car in the exact same spot looking at the house which was not yet ours. We had first viewed it a couple days before and parked at the lot a few times afterwards, trying to imagine our future in this house, our future as a couple. The more we sat across the street staring at the house, the more excited we got.
As I sat there, I felt like I was watching a movie of my past. I thought about calling John. He was the only one I could really share this moment with, the one who could appreciate the weird feeling of sitting in the car like a spy, watching a couple possibly about to step into our lives. My eyes welled up thinking of all the what if’s. What if we’d have hung in there, what if he’d stuck with couples therapy, what if I was more attentive, he less negative, what if we hadn’t bought this jinxed, money-pit of a house in the first place, what if I hadn’t been consumed with my elderly, ailing parents, what if, what if, what if?
I saw the couple get into their car, smile and wave to their realtor as he got into his. Both cars made their way around the semi-circle driveway. I started up my car and went home.
Before I knew it, it was Christmas, snow blanketing and the wind blustery, yet the nest hung on. The only change was that the small black opening wasn’t quite as small. The hole was a bit shabby around its edges and not really round anymore. I kept taking photos; this time the sun danced off its snowy top. I wondered if it could really last the whole winter. I made a snowball and threw it at the damn thing, missing it by a mile. Yes, it was a very large, very cool thing that I wanted for my collection, but something else was going on. Why was this big, hollow vessel so important to me? What did it symbolize? Did it hold the answers to my uncertain future? And the wasps that had lived in it. Where did they go? All that work to create this amazing container then whoosh gone! What could I learn from them?
In January there was an offer on the house. We were relieved but also skeptical. The inspection still needed to take place and the deal could fall through at any time. What scary, expensive problem would be found? I desperately wanted the house to sell. I couldn’t move forward in my life until it did. Yet I was starting to appreciate the house in ways I never had before. I’d always complained bitterly about the place, all the money we had sunk into the house repair black hole, but I was already missing my large office and the nearby rail trail. I thought about the fun dinners we hosted for friends, the summer parties, the first winter John and I sat in front of the toasty fireplace when the power went out, and the amazing sight from our porch of three owls landing on a tree limb, and how they watched us watch them. We did have good times there. It was sad.
After some minor fixes, the house passed inspection. As the deal inched along I started to look at house rentals that accepted dogs. I tried to envision my new life with Honey in each place. I let every landlord think I wanted to live in their house because I thought I did, until I got back home and realized I didn’t know what I wanted.
It was lonely in the big, quiet house. I missed my dad’s daily calls, his voice saying, “Sweetie, it’s Dad. I’ve got a little problem,” when he needed help with his computer or advice on where to find lost items in his apartment. The days were dark and long and cold. I wore my dad’s many-sizes-too-big, wheat colored cardigan sweater around the house. At least I had my Honey to talk to. I zapped frozen dinners in the microwave, too depressed to cook for myself. I pared down my belongings in preparation for the move, getting rid of clothes I didn’t wear, books I hadn’t read, furniture I was sick of. I began packing. Boxes piled up high as I lined them up against the walls. The rooms became a maze. The house echoed.
One late January morning, I looked out the kitchen window and didn’t see the nest. I ran outside. I looked and looked, thinking I was standing under the wrong tree. “Where is it?” I said to Honey. I scoured the ground until finally I saw it: a deformed lump of paper mixed in with a pile of wet leaves. It had been damaged in the fall and looked nothing like the plump, proud nest I had photographed so many times. I picked it up and was surprised by its weight. How could something feel so light yet hold such heft at the same time?
As I carried it to the house, a wave of happiness rippled through my body. My first thought was that this was a good sign, an omen that my next house was coming. I got my nest and the new owners wouldn’t see it or get it. Ha-ha! I won! But then just as quickly a rush of doubt came over me. Suddenly, the fallen nest was a metaphor, a big obvious one, for my own big, vacant house and the relationship that had collapsed. It was actually a really bad omen.
Crap, I thought. I didn’t need more bad juju surrounding me. How had I not seen this before? Why had I lusted after this thing for so long? Why would I want to own a symbol of my failed relationship?
Back on the porch, I laid out some newspaper and placed the injured nest on the floor, where it looked like a botched art project. It was still very large — larger than any box I had, even the big moving boxes I was using to pack up my clothes and dishes. I would need to buy an even bigger one.
One late January morning, I looked out the kitchen window and didn’t see the nest. I ran outside. I looked and looked, thinking I was standing under the wrong tree.
I left it there, on the floor of the porch as I went about my business, continuing to pack and scan the web for house rentals. I’d check on the nest each day. It no longer held the same fascination it had when it hung high in the sky. Did I really want to lug this mess of paper around? What was I going to do with it? Store it in a box in some basement or storage unit? I touched the outer layer of paper and it crumpled in my hand, tiny bits of nest paper sprinkling between my fingers to the floor. What would I even do with so many crumbly paper bits? It made no sense. I didn’t need it. That’s when it occurred to me: I could be the one to decide what this nest meant. I could reject the bad omen theory and go with my very first instinct, that being there when it fell, being able to take it, was a positive. It’s what I had wanted. I’d come full circle with the nest, with my house. It was a sign of a new beginning for me and Honey. Good things to come.
I broke off a handful of the paper, so I had a chunk of many layers. I took this clump and put it in a sandwich baggie, zipped it closed and placed it in one of the small moving boxes that held some of the nice bird and wasp nests from my collection, ones that were small and beautiful and manageable. I taped up the box, labeled it Nests, and patted it with a sense of satisfaction. Then I carefully picked up the mound and with Honey at my heels, walked outside. It was a spacious yard, private, with lots of trees. I’d miss it. I looked up at the gray, winter sky and saw a small bright spot, a clearing where the sun was trying to poke through. As I stood there, I felt a shift in my chest, an opening of space, the same as that glimmer of hope I’d had the day I’d happily discovered the nest had fallen. I pulled my arms back and then heaved the armful of paper onto the compost heap where John and I used to throw branches and grass and leaves. I had a memory flash of tossing a shovelful of dirt onto my dad’s grave the day of his funeral, watching the workers lower his casket into the ground and thought, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. I slapped my hands together, brushing off the remaining paper bits. “C’mon, Hon,” I said and we headed back to the house.
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Editor: Sari Botton