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Oh, Those Olas!

Every year at this time, it’s hard for me to resist the aisles of school supplies. I share my love of office products with my brother and at least one of my daughters. I remember the annual excitement when the school list came out. Always there was the one teacher who demanded that we buy a specific brand of glue stick and required three sticks, in fact, when the package came in twos. I have repressed such frustrations, though, and only recall all those virginal sheets of binder paper, the waxy smell of the crayons.

Several of my friends are experiencing their first “Back to School” without a child in the house. They have packed their kids off to college and now their empty nests are void of unsharpened pencils and composition notebooks. Or maybe, like me, they have become the repository of years of cast-off supplies. I’m sure I could put my hands on at least five pairs of those tiny handheld pencil sharpeners and at least a dozen colored pencils in varying shades of green.

Shopping for school supplies and readying oneself for a new school year are two of the events that fall from our lives once our houses empty. Like the shrinking laundry bin, the absence of the lunch boxes, and the silence that befalls a home with no school bus riders, we can’t help but feel that we’ve lost a little magic when fall comes.

What no one tells you about an empty nest—and what I have come to realize—is that while you may miss the Back to School shopping, it’s not having the list that’s more significant. It’s the list that starts the time clock on the academic year and is your instruction manual for moving forward. Lists make us sit up and take notice. Without a list, August slides into September and sometimes it’s not until maple leaves clutter your path that you realize it’s autumn.

Aside from school supplies (at least there’s a delicious drawer of supplies at work that I can open and play with), I miss the magic that children bring to our lives. I long for the perspective they provide, and I’ve wondered: Is it possible to get that back?

I think so.

Recently I was creating a flower arrangement using gladiolas. They are my favorite flower to arrange because of their height and their boldness. They are show-offs, and I appreciate their self-confidence. I always pop off the spikes that stretch beyond where the blooms stop—tentacles that have not yet opened. When my daughter was little, I would take these trimmings home to her. We’d soak them in water and for the next couple of weeks we would watch them spring to life. It was the ultimate recycling project.

One day years ago I was leaving the house; recovering from a cold, she was whiny. I told her I was off to arrange flowers but that I would be home soon and would bring her a surprise.

“You’ll bring me some olas?” she asked weakly. She had coined the word for those tips — and there seems to be some sort of grammatical logic to that name.

I remembered this tradition when I was arranging the vibrant pink gladiolas a week ago. I snapped off the tips and started to throw them away, then stopped and instead took them home. My daughter’s now away at college; those tiny little limbs have morphed (over night it seems) into a mature woman who bathes and drives herself. But just because she can’t enjoy them, I can! All week the emerging blooms have cheered me at work, reminding me that something’s not over just because it’s over.

Using flowers as a metaphor is cliché, I know, but I will say I see a lesson in these “olas.” Perhaps I need to slow down, be more intentional. Instead of hurrying from one project, one task, to another, maybe I need to notice what’s around me. Old friendships, forgotten memories, well loved stories, yellowed cards and photos—all of these call to me to save them, submerge them in water, and watch them bloom. Like the gladiola tips, so many magical parts of our lives are not dead; with care they can live on.

At work, the olas—floating in a shallow bowl of water—have invoked several conversations. “I didn’t know they would continue to bloom once cut off,” one person said.

Exactly. Just like the memories of sharpened pencils and binder paper float back to my consciousness every Labor Day. And just like the little pigtailed girl, chin on the counter, watching her olas, is a magical memory to which I can always retreat when I have lost my
way — when I need to remind myself of life’s beauty. Empty nests are not really empty, you see; it’s just that the noisy chatter of family life resides in your heart, still blooming.

Oh the simple joy of those olas. Put them on your list.

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