When our daughter moved into an apartment at Washington State University in Pullman last month, we finally realized we are indeed empty nesters.
We rented a U-Haul and packed it with a bed, bed frame, dresser, cabinets she had picked up for free, my well-worn favorite recliner and the couch from our family room.
When I offered her the couch, which converts into a none-too-comfortable hide-a-bed, she initially declined, describing it as “gross,” even though we’d had it professionally cleaned before Christmas. Nora’s brother/sister cats contributed to the condition of our floral-patterned couch.
Raising an eyebrow, I said, “Well, honey, I’m not going to buy you a new couch and keep the gross couch here.”
She laughed. “That’s fair enough.”
When Nora moved into a dorm at WSU last fall, we started to experience the empty nest syndrome, but the novel coronavirus pandemic cut it short. Along with most college students, she returned home in March and stayed through the summer.
Although learning online proved distracting with her boyfriend nearby and her search for a summer job, she managed. She had already reserved one of the few on-campus apartments that allowed pets so she took her cats and returned to Pullman.
I’ve winced reading stories about the soaring number of coronavirus cases in Whitman County since students have returned to campus — increasing in less than a month from 138 to nearly 1,000. Nora’s not a party animal or involved in the Greek life, and she wears a mask everywhere, so she’s not contributing to the problem. But she’s more likely to contract the virus there than here at home. She’ll be tested before returning for a visit.
After we hauled her belongings six-plus hours across the Cascades to Pullman, we returned to our empty house, now devoid of our son (Paul lives in Finland), our daughter, and even her two cats.
But I took solace in the fact that I had an excuse to invest in new furniture. I bought a new recliner, one with heat and massage settings. I purchased a new office chair to replace one that has listed to the left for years (although the new one is still in the box). And we bought a new couch for the first time in decades.
Maneuvering that gray fabric beast into the house proved challenging, even after we rented furniture dollies from U-Haul. But we pushed and we pulled, and we hauled it inside. How fun to push buttons to raise the feet and recline the head rest. We played with the center piece that folded down to offer plug-ins for laptop cords as well as several USB cords. It even has overhead lights.
When the nest is empty, buying new furniture constitutes excitement. We showed our son and daughter our new couch during Facebook video calls. I snapped photos of it. I couldn’t wait for people to sit there when they visited.
Then the winds picked up. Wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington swept across the states, devouring tinder-dry timber, destroying homes, claiming at least 33 lives.
Friends in Oregon evacuated, leaving nearly all their belongings behind as they scrambled to save their lives. Flames destroyed 80 percent of Malden, a community with a population of about 200 north of Colfax in Whitman County. In Oregon wildfires swept through a million acres of land and devoured the towns of Phoenix, Talent, Detroit, Blue River and Vida.
With dozens of people missing in Oregon alone, it’s likely more have perished. Ten people have died so far, including Wyatt Tofte, a 13-year-old who climbed into a car with his dog on his lap to escape the Beachie Creek fire, and his grandmother.
By Saturday, 22 people had died in California’s wildfires; 13 remained unaccounted for.
In Washington, Jacob and Jamie Hyland fled from the Cold Springs Fire in Okanogan County with their 1-year-old son, Uriel. In the wee hours of the morning, the couple smelled smoke, packed up their belongings and jumped in a truck. After it crashed, they ran on foot to escape the flames. They sheltered behind a rock and poured water on themselves but all suffered severe burns. Uriel died, and Jamie lost her unborn baby.
While I still like our couch, I realize it matters little. In a fire, I’d leave it behind in a heartbeat to escape with what matters most — the people I love. With love, I can make an empty nest full anywhere.
Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at email@example.com.