This is the first in an occasional series on empty nesting, or as my friend Tim likes to call it, spacious nesting.

Outside, the soft pewter sky of winter afternoon spits down a thin, bitter snow. The frigid air is comfortless, too cold to allow flakes, let alone clumps. One online report I see notes that it is colder in Chicago today than on Mars! (I wish I were making this up.)

When my children were still living at home, this dusky afternoon hour would be full of homework and carpools and questions and interruptions. On a day like this, wintry and sharp, I’d make a stew that would warm bodies and fill the house with wonderful smells that ward off the impact of subzero windchills and beckoned us all to the table.

But my house is empty, and though my husband (and I) would appreciate stew, I’m sipping tea and thinking—why make the house fragrant with beefy comfort, when there is no one here to smell it? Except me, and I’m content with a cup of tea and the last slightly stale Trader Jo’s Peppermint Jo-Jo from Christmas which I find hiding behind a box of panko in the pantry.

They say all of us have a love language—a way we express (and receive) affection and mine is definitely cooking on both counts. But as much as my husband loves to eat, and lauds whatever I put on the table, on dismal winter days like this one, cooking tastes bittersweet.

At each meal, I look around, bewildered. There should be more people, preferably related to me, around my table. Even after four years, it still feels off balance to have just two of us, seated adjacent, in the chairs we’ve always occupied.

I just saw my kids over the holidays, and went skiing with daughter and son-in-law last weekend, for which I’m absolutely grateful. But now, the house feels bleak, cavernous. Though my son, my youngest, will graduate college this spring, the empty nest still feels like a new wound, not quite healed and easily reopened.

Yes, this season affords great freedom. I spent the morning working, and the afternoon at the barn: riding, visiting with friends, unhurried because there are no carpools to drive. I have come, in slow fits and starts, to appreciate setting my own schedule.

But freedom has a price, as every empty nester knows. While we’re still in it, empty still feels like the right adjective to describe my table and the nest around it.

I know, I know: I should be grateful: my kids are doing fine, on their own, independent. They’re adults, and that was the goal all along—to work myself out of a job. I can enjoy being their mom without having to do the daily chores of parenting.

  Indeed, I am free to make beef stew. To comfort and feed my self, my soul (and oh yes, my husband!). I wonder if the familiar rhythm: chop, saute’ and stir, will ease my melancholy. I consider the possibility of cooking beef stew as a form of self-care. Of soul care, even.

It’s 4:30, and if there is to be stew, I’d best be chopping onions.