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'Ms. Life Care' contestants know what's important

Turns out, life's most difficult stage is the one you end up missing the most.

When our kids were young, there were times I honestly wondered if I was going to make it. Just ask my wife about all the crying, the whining, the clinging, the late-night feedings. And she had to deal with the children, too.

Little did we suspect, back then, that as our "married with children" stage began to wind down, we would look back on those years as some of our best.

Not that we've quite reached the end, mind you. Our daughter has left the nest, but we still have three boys at home, including a teenager and a soon-to-be teen. So there's plenty of whining and late nights left to enjoy.

But we can clearly see the beginning of the end. With one in college and another coming up on his final year of high school, we're faced with the prospect of soon seeing our brood cut in half. Once, I might have welcomed such an idea: half the headaches, half the work. Now, the thought fills me with dread and a curious sense of loss.

Who knew?

I'll tell you who knew: the residents of the Life Care Center of Lawrenceville, where I recently had the privilege, for the second time, of judging the annual "Ms. Life Care" pageant. The seven contestants ranged in age from the mid-70s to the early 90s, and when asked about their fondest memories, nearly all responded, "raising my children."

(There was one whose favorite memory involved dancing on the captain's table after imbibing one cocktail too many during a vacation cruise. But I'm sure raising her children was a close runner-up.)

I couldn't help but admire the strength and resilience - not to mention the beauty - those ladies exhibited. They had been factory workers and seamstresses, school teachers and musicians, homemakers and Hollywood extras. For the most part, they began child-rearing during the Great Depression. Several had outlived a husband - or two. All had numerous children and grandchildren, even great-grandchildren, many in attendance.

But I also shared their evident amazement at the speed with which life had raced along, bringing them to this final stop on the way. I certainly saw myself in them a few short decades from now - except I don't think I'll be entering any pageants at that age. I'll feel good if I can still hold my own fork.

Oh, there are advantages to a shrinking family, sure. With one fewer girl in the house, the boys and I are roughly twice as free to emit rude noises without the risk of offending the gentler sex. Also, her vacant bedroom now constitutes the giant storage closet we never had.

But I'm not sure how I'll feel once the last one leaves home. Probably a lot like the ladies at the Life Care Center.

Just not as pretty.

Lawrenceville resident Rob Jenkins is associate professor of English and director of the Writers Institute at Georgia Perimeter College. E-mail him at rjenkinsgdp@yahoo.com.