This year I have a group of kids who love to hear stories. Alice told me yesterday they are asking to hear stories from her childhood. She tells them about her neighborhood, her brothers and sisters, and the games they played sixty or seventy years ago.

The children ask me to tell Jonah and Isabel stories. At first I told stories of their childhood. Lately, I just tell the latest news. Jonah is working in a coffee shop, so I told about walking in on Sunday afternoon and seeing him in the kitchen with his co-workers and how I ordered one treat and got one I didn’t expect and was first disappointed, then given the one I had wanted for free, and how I wondered if that was because I was Jonah’s mom, or because the place was about to close, or both.

I tell stories about Isabel at boarding school, going to visit a friend instead of coming home one weekend, writing a poem about being twelve and independent and sharing it with her mom and dad over the internet, cleaning out her room and making her bed and keeping all her clothes in her dorm, going camping, rock climbing, eating her meals in a cafeteria with her friends and teachers, enjoying her independence at nearly eighteen.

The children, mostly the twos and threes and fours, find these stories fascinating. Every day they ask for more.

Tonight I hosted two little girls for dinner at my house while their parents went out for dinner at a fancy restaurant as a thank you to them for helping me through this hard year. The girls and I enjoyed Japanese food, udon noodle soup and dumplings. We used chop sticks and ate from the Japanese bowls my kids gave me for my birthday, drank tea from cups given to me by various grandmothers. We talked about Akira’s children, their names, how many there are, how they are Japanese and I’m learning more about Japanese food from being with them.

After dinner I washed all the fancy dishes and put the others in the dishwasher and the girls explored the house a bit, played the singing bowl and the glockenspiel, made designs with the magnet mosaic blocks I bought my kids just as they were outgrowing toys. Then we walked to their house a few blocks away, tracing the steps we have walked together to the park every day for all the years they’ve been in care, the five commenting on how weird it was to be walking with me in the dark, all of us noticing the holiday lights at the high school and the five commenting as we crossed Mass Ave how amazing it is that the whole world was people, and me noting that the world made itself and the people have been making things the way they want.

Back at their house we lit the menorah. The five used the candle to light the others. Then she called for a drum roll and lit the tree. We brushed teeth, read two stories, turned out the overhead light and put the nightlight on. They fell asleep and I went downstairs for a few minutes before their parents arrived. We shared stories of our separate evenings. I told a few Isabel and Jonah stories. As I was leaving I realized out loud I felt as relaxed as I have all week, having had my fix of the coziness and closeness my children no longer crave, the oldest living on his own in New York, the middle one living mostly with his girlfriend, the youngest settling into a more full time life at boarding school.

Coming home in the dark, I looked at the Christmas lights and sky differently, having been with the girls as they leaned in close to look at the lights on the trees at the high school, having forgotten to look up with them and count the stars, as we had planned to do, which turned out to have been the kindergartner’s homework assignment. Turns out it was too cloudy for stars. I texted the parents some photos of the girls and the news of the cloudy sky for their gal so she would feel less bad about the  missed homework.

Do you like babysitting? She had asked as I tucked her in and prepared for the girls to go to sleep. I do, I replied, now that my own children aren’t home. It’s very nice to spend an evening with kids who want to read and talk and have a tea party and listen to music together. Very nice, indeed.

I don’t know if I’ll do it again, but this week it was just what I needed to restore some balance to my psyche. I could imagine someday being a grandmother and tucking in grandchildren and making tea parties and sharing a few toys left around the house, and that, in a small way, lit up the cloudy night with a vision for the future I’ve been struggling to find as I give up my life of close mothering at home.