No Matter Our Age, There’s No Place Like Home

When I was a child, I loved The Wizard of Oz. And since I grew up in an era long, long before DVD, Netflix or On-Demand, we had to wait a whole year between viewings for the movie to be shown again on TV. In our house it became a night for a special occasion!

Not surprisingly, The Wizard of Oz was usually shown on a Sunday night when families would gather around TV, and often a month or two before the holiday season to remind us of the importance of home. Mom always gave us dispensation to stay up past our bedtimes to watch it, even though she knew some of us (my younger sister Ann and I) would most likely suffer from nightmares later in the night.

While my sisters, brother and I watched the movie, we munched stove-popped popcorn and sipped Ginger Ale. Sometimes as an added bonus, we enjoyed a dish of vanilla ice cream with mom’s special, homemade chocolate sauce. To this day, my mouth waters when I think of that decadently rich and fudgey sauce steaming over two big scoops of vanilla ice cream!

That’s certainly a memory worth savoring over and over again!

But it’s not just how the popcorn and ice cream tasted that still brings me pleasure when I think of those treats. It’s the feelings of comfort, belonging and security that go hand-in-hand with them that makes me feel good when I think of them, no matter what might be happening in my life at the present.

As a child watching Dorothy and her eclectic collection of friends battle the wicked witch, I knew no matter how scary parts of the movie might be, I was safe, cared for and loved. No harm could come to me while I happily swirled ice cream and sauce together to make chocolate soup in my dish.

I had many “favorite” parts of that movie, the most satisfying coming from the thrice spoken phrase Dorothy repeated while clicking the heels of her magical red shoes together. From all the trials, she’d finally learned the simple truth needed in order to return to her beloved home where safety, comfort and love awaited her and Toto, too!

“There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home!”

For most of us, home is where we grow up with our parents and often a sibling or two or more. When I was a kid, TV shows like Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best and Ozzie and Harriet were the norm and exemplified the traditional family unit. Years later, blended families, professional families and large families like The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family and The Waltons gained popularity.

And today, we watch Modern Family, about an endearing extended family with mixed-up and crossed-over everything! Like Dorothy, who was raised in a loving family headed by her Auntie Em and Uncle Henry, it doesn’t matter what your “family” is comprised of, or who the “parents” are who raise you or how many people make up the “family” you care about!

When I met my husband Jim, his father had already passed away many years earlier, but his mother was still alive. I grew to deeply love my mother-in-law and cherished the hours we spent with a cup of tea, toast and her delicious homemade marmalade (there’s that food-to-good-memory connection again!) talking about her favorite pastimes of gardening, reading, and cooking and of course, her children and grandchildren.

A couple years after we married, our first daughter was born in 1990. Just two weeks later my mother-in-law Janet died. She was living with us at the time and in hospice care due to her advanced leukemia. It was a bittersweet time, losing our beloved Janet while welcoming our beautiful new baby, Hayley.

At the time my parents were alive healthy and quite vigorous. I ached for my husband, his brother and sisters as I watched them grieve for the loss of their last parent, and I marveled at their strength. I could not imagine life without my mother and father! We still spent all of our holidays together, shared most momentous occasions, talked at least once a week by phone and as young parents, Jim and I counted on my folks for the weekend respites from child-care they offered from time-to-time.

When my mother died suddenly in 1997, I felt like my world had collapsed.

In the first year there were countless times I would turn to pick up the phone to ask for advice or share a funny store with her, only to remember she would not answer. I even caught myself thinking of what she’d like for her birthday, and often about what she might be doing in the middle of any given day.

I have two sisters and a brother, and though we were all close in relationship and physical distance to our dad at the time, I also worried about how he was managing without mom’s watchful eye and companionship. Thanks to our love for one another, our many beautiful memories and our blessed lives, we slowly healed from the loss of our beloved mother and wife.

Recovering from or accepting the loss of the first parent to die can be quite difficult, even for adult children. It’s understandably traumatic to lose a parent or parents before we’re grown, and people expect there to be repercussions when this happens. Yet whether we’re 21 or 61 years old when our first parent dies, we can be thrown off balance then, too.

Prior to that dreadful moment, we’ve only known our lives in reference to two parents, where now there is one.

It matters little if our parent has died suddenly or after a long, drawn out illness, because either way they are gone forever. The adjustment to life without them must be made. But inside of us, no matter how old of an adult we might be, our inner child will be shaken. Our inner child is – and always will be – just a child, and therefore a part of us will experience things from the perspective of the child we once were. Acknowledging this inner, lonely and heartbroken child can help in our journey through grief.

During my struggle with the loss of my mother, I remembered something I learned from a skilled therapist many years earlier. She taught me to talk with my inner child, to assure her that I, the now “grown-up” Eileen, was in charge and that as an adult I would take care of her.

I began to realize that when I felt down, lonely, afraid, confused or just plain heartsick for my mother, I could ask my inner child – my inner self – what was really bothering her/me. By identifying the underlying problem threatening my inner child, I could fix it. And when the problem was not obvious or could not be fixed, at the very least I could provide the attention, comfort or encouragement “she” was seeking from the mother who was no longer there to provide it to her.

Parents can’t always fix our problems.

Yet whether our problem is remedied, the pain relieved – or not – the mere fact of having our parent’s love, support and reassurance makes things better for us, easier to manage, or just to let go and accept.

In May 2008, dad passed away after a valiant battle with bladder cancer. Eleven years had passed, nearly to the day, since our mother had died. And though my siblings and I are very grateful for those 11 wonderful years with dad, (so many baby boomers lose both parents in a very short span of time) I think that up until his diagnosis eight months earlier, we’d all believed he’d live many more years.

However, it’s not just the length of time between losses or the manner of death that can cause the second parent’s death to be more traumatic. Another big reason it’s harder to lose our second parent is because we realize our own lives are no longer grounded by our beginnings.

Our parents, the ones who gave us life, are gone.

For many adult children the death of the second parent precipitates a new, unique sense of loss known as “The Orphan Syndrome.” Common and expected in children who lose both parents, it can cause embarrassment, confusion and even guilt in adults.

For adult children, however, it can be a very real and painful experience. We realize we’re no longer “children” to anyone living. In fact, we’re now the elders in our family hierarchy, and the realization that we are that much closer to our own mortality sinks in.

Additionally, our “family home”, the place with the “open door” policy, the keeper of our childhood hiding places, secrets and special moments is gone for good, and that creates an even deeper sense of loss within us. To complicate matters more, we are now responsible for maintaining the connection to our immediate, as well as extended, remaining family members. Siblings, who may have gotten together at holidays and other occasions “for the sake of the folks” might no longer feel drawn together, and may eventually drift apart.

The last year and a half since dad’s death have been another step in a long process of self-discovery for me. But that’s just it…as long as we live, the process never ends…it just evolves and shifts, giving us new opportunities for self-growth and personal awareness. December 25 will be the second Christmas my siblings and our families will celebrate without our dad and grandpa’s physical presence. I know we all miss him.

Just last week, on December 3 which would have been his 85th birthday, my sister Ann sent an email entitled “Happy (heavenly) birthday!” to us. Here’s her simple message:

Hi All
Just was thinking a lot about Dad today on his birthday.
Then, of course, thinking of you and yours. Bless you all!
Love, Ann

It made me happy to read her quick email.

But not just because she remembered the significance of the day, because even from his place in heaven, dad is still the springboard from which our thoughts jump to each other. It’s impossible for us to think of dad or mom, without thinking of the each other, their children: Marie, Eileen, Ann and Bill. And we will always be the children of Bill and Rose Ellen McCullough.

I still consider the heartwarming message, “there’s no place like home,” to be one of the most important messages we can learn. But there’s another one spoken many centuries ago in Como, Italy by Gaius Plinius Secundas which trumps even that one. It is:

“Home is where the heart is.”

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