Ellen Freeman Roth                      

December 16, 2010

Dogs can't quite fill empty nest

“It’ll be an adventure!’’ I told my husband. “And it’s empty nest practice!’’

Steven and I were driving our daughter to upstate New York for a college recruiting weekend, and decided to travel with our two big dogs. Online I’d located a dog-friendly inn whose name promised a rustic idyll. The innkeeper breeds Labrador retrievers, and by phone sounded Lab-ish himself, bouncy and eager to please.

“The bed’s king size, so your dogs can sleep with you! And bring your sweeties to breakfast,’’ he exclaimed.

“Just no kids under 16 because we have antiques.’’ Note: Pack short leashes.

“We’re going to have an adventure with the dogs,’’ I said gleefully.

“Adventure’’ had become our buzzword since we started an Empty Nest Adventure List. It helped us look beyond our youngest child’s senior year in high school, fraught with emotions and challenges for the three of us. Rather than anticipate autumn melancholy, Steven and I imagined lectures around town, the Badlands in South Dakota, and “macarons’’ in Paris.

Here was our first foray. I envisioned Lassie and the L.L. Bean catalog; Steven pictured Clifford the Big Red Dog doubled, a pair of well-meaning Fidos who are a lot to manage. I was so excited about our new foursome and free of angst about sleep-deprived teens with cars and spotty judgment that Steven figured, “Why not?’’ Whenever we mentioned the trip, one of us scratched the nearest dog’s belly and crooned, “Who’s gonna have fun?’’

I wedged our overnight bags in the car amid dog provisions, opened the cargo hatch, and called, “Want to go for a ride?’’ The dogs bounded right in — the front seats. “Buddy, Chief! Back here!’’ From the front they stared at me, grinning goofily. Steven, standing beside his now-occupied seat, stared too.

Later, at a rest stop, Buddy squeezed past the cargo net and out the open passenger door. Steven returned with snacks to find my daughter and me racing to retrieve the highway-bound retriever. I snagged the mutt’s collar and moseyed past Steven. Later, Buddy jammed through again and sprawled across our daughter’s lap.

After 5 1/2 hours we delivered our daughter to the university and at nightfall arrived at the inn. Our kids would have grumped about the isolation, but we were eager to relax fireside.

The innkeeper had been sawing wood out front. He was cordial but not as warm or effusive as I expected. This wasn’t the tail-wagger from my phone call. He offered his hand, advertising a big black handgun tattoo on his forearm. When we shook hands, he aimed straight at me.

He ushered us through a filthy bunkroom jammed with disheveled beds topped with mud-caked boots. (The mud was the only antique here.) Adjacent to a storage area crammed with broken bunks was our room, with a gaping hole in the wall, no lock, and crust-stained bedsheets. Our private bath didn’t exist. I recoiled when I opened the door to the grimy bathroom downstairs with soiled towels heaped on the floor.

“We’re not used to having people here,’’ the innkeeper mumbled. “We live here.’’
This place was really for the dogs.

Steven and I simultaneously drew our cellphones to hunt new lodgings. No cell service. Our Disney adventure was turning Deliverance. We bolted out of there. We tried hotels, bed and breakfasts — no dogs allowed. Finally, we found a Howard Johnson’s. “Dogs weighing up to 20 pounds are welcome,’’ said the smiling clerk. We had 160 pounds’ worth. “We’re desperate,’’ I whimpered puppy-eyed. “They’re practically lap dogs!’’

We herded the dogs inside. Amazingly, they had splendid manners, the long day notwithstanding. Our children might not have been so easygoing.

This hotel was sufficient but not the retreat we had planned. Steven didn’t blame me, but I felt responsible. On the university’s website I located another dog-friendly inn seemingly with charm and real antiques. A late-night call confirmed our room the following night.

The new inn offered old-time elegance in a historic lakeside village. We strolled, holding hands and leashes, in a nearby park and enjoyed a delicious hotel restaurant dinner. The receptionist carried it up two flights and dodged our drooling pooches. “I love dogs,’’ she said, laughing. Then Steven and I relaxed, dogs nestled alongside.

This resembled life before kids; together, bonding with pets, blanketed with fur and unconditional love. But this catalog-perfect dog scene turned out to be more about who wasn’t there. The reprieve from 24/7 parenting felt great, but the impending permanence of our children’s absence was unshakeable. Our adventure brought home the deeper truths of being empty nesters. The kids will be gone and we’ll be left with emptiness and worries, with joy and memories . . . and with the dogs.

We can’t escape that reality by packing suitcases or kibble. But we’re game to explore, especially since our trip affirmed that we’re still good together. And thanks to our adventure, we sniffed out a perfect hotel for parents’ weekend.