The empty nest now has a new meaning

By Leila Sales

Ever since I started college and left my parents to their own devices, they have become obsessed with home improvement. It’s much like the TV show, except that instead of young hottie J.T.T. running around, engaging in crazy shenanigans, our home improvement mostly consists of my parents being neurotic.

They started out by repainting the house. I totally supported this move because, ever since we moved in, our house had been pink with purple doors. My mother had always denied this fact. “It’s a peach house with plum doors,” she informed me in pained tones. When my mother looked at our house, she saw a veritable bowl of fruit. I, on the other hand, saw the insides of a particularly revolting cotton candy machine, but apparently that’s because I do not have the Decorator’s Eye.

The point is, I really got behind my parents’ decision to paint our house. I just couldn’t get behind their method for selecting paint colors because their method, technically, was called “trespassing.” The way it worked was: They’d walk around our neighborhood, purportedly a respectable middle-aged couple out for a midday stroll. But secretly, in the depths of their fanny packs, they were toting Benjamin Moore color wheels.

When my parents spied a house that they liked, they would dart up to it, whip out a color wheel, and argue about whether the house in question was painted “peppermint dream” or “pistachio sundae.” If the house’s residents were in, my parents would hide in nearby bushes, put on their distance glasses, and try to determine the color from there. Sometimes, unable to contain themselves, they’d ring the doorbell and shriek at our unsuspecting neighbors, “Is your house painted ‘caramel delight’ with added specks of yellow??? Tell us! We must know!”

Once my parents had hired a house painter, they called him hourly, just to, you know, see what was up. Sometimes they encouraged him to “check out the trim on that house on the corner of Chestnut and Elm.” The painter was like, “Um, seeing as I’m not a spy… NO.”

I am told, however, that my parents’ redecorating fixation is normal behavior for empty nesters. No longer able to improve their children on a daily basis, older parents must focus their energies on improving their houses, pets, or seashell collections. This is why you so often see sexagenarians with really souped-up Hondas. If they can’t nag their kids because we’re off living the high life here in Chicago, then by God, parents will nag their auto mechanics. I guess I should feel lucky that my parents haven’t, in my absence, become obsessed with tattoos or whaling or something.

But, I have to say, I didn’t feel lucky when my parents were scampering around suburban Boston on their endless color hunt. And I was even more concerned over the ensuing outdoor lighting fiasco. We had tried outdoor lighting once, many years earlier, when my parents bought a dozen solar-powered lanterns. You, unlike my parents, may notice a flaw with this plan; namely, that the time of day when you most need outdoor lighting (“nighttime”) is a time of day best known for the absence of the sun. This was a puzzle.

Supposedly, these lanterns spent daylight hours collecting energy, which they then used to manufacture bright artificial light in the nighttime. In actuality, these lamps could spend as long as they wanted gathering sunlight; yet, 20 minutes past dusk, they were inevitably reduced to pitifully glowing orbs. Each lantern never failed to illuminate all the ground within a four-, maybe five-inch radius. If you were walking up my front path while these environmentally-friendly lanterns were on the case, you could be guaranteed an unfettered view of your shoes at least once every three yards. Systematically placed glow worms could have done the job just as well, and been cuter, too.

I felt kind of bad for the lanterns; it must suck to fail at your only purpose in life. Still, I advised my mother, “When the lighting dude comes to look at our house, you should hide the lanterns. You know, so he doesn’t think we’re weird. Like, say, our painter did.”

“Oh, no,” my mother replied, wounded on behalf of her futile lights. “Even after Steve installs the new lights, I’ll keep the lanterns. I think I’ll cluster them all at the base of the driveway. Probably all 12 lamps, grouped together, should give a least a couple feet of visibility, don’t you think?”

She was serious, too. We now have a bush of usless lanterns blocking the entrance to our driveway. When it comes to preserving the environment, my parents do not kid around.

I guess I’m not one to talk, though. You look at my K&G apartment, and we don’t even have an outdoor lighting scheme, ineffectual or otherwise. My idea of home improvement is scotch-taping my ethernet cord to the floor so I don’t trip over it every time I enter my room. If my parents are neurotic about their home direction, I’m like the opposite of neurotic. Like…what’s the word? Oh, yeah. Apathetic.