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Reflections May 2013

Home Is Where the Heart Is

By Elayne Clift

The memory of that time reminds me always that family is whomever we love, home is wherever they are, and tradition is what we make, once it has shaped us.

It was a house of love full with laughter and affection. A mother, a father and three children lived there, with grandparents and friends frequently present. I felt warmed and happy in that Cape Cod bungalow with its white picket fence, just like where Dick and Jane lived. It was 1950s perfect and I wished it was mine.

I lived across the street in a custom-built red brick house that marked the demarcation line between individually designed houses and the bungalow development. The house I inhabited with my parents and two siblings became a place of illness and loneliness soon after we occupied it. But when I was six and we moved from an apartment above my father's store into our big new abode my siblings and I were ecstatic. We could ride bikes on the street. My father parked his shiny black Buick in a garage. My parents had their own bathroom and ours had both a tub and a shower. My mother's garden full of velvet pansies and red bleeding hearts — flowers that move me still — made it seem like Nirvana.

Soon, however, my mother's chronic depression and frequent hospitalizations began. My father grew tense as business failures mounted. Like him, I was lonely. So I began to virtually reside in the Cape Cod cottage across the street and to make of myself a part of that Dick-and-Jane family while internalizing their traditions as I survived my childhood pain.

I was ten when their first child was two. I played with the petite red-haired toddler after school and sat at the kitchen table as her mother peeled potatoes for dinner. Watching her, I imagined having a house of my own with children and a husband who, when he returned from work, was so happy to see me that he kissed me on the lips.

I became their regular babysitter, folding laundry and emptying the dishwasher as if it were my house. This is what it would be like, I imagined, having my child asleep in a talcum-scented room. I would be like this mother, anchoring a happy family.

I learned many things in my adopted home, especially from the mother whom I came to love so deeply that I thought my heart would break when they had to move away. From her I learned unqualified trust, not only because she gave her children into my care, but because she lent me her car, laughing hysterically as I drove the stick-shift red Valiant that lurched like a bucking bull as I changed gears. I learned how to make hot crab dip, creamy mashed potatoes, holiday casseroles and seasonal decorations. I learned about generosity — she never could say no to Dan, the produce man, when he showed up in his truck three times a week, even though she didn't need any more green beans. "He's such a nice guy," she would say. "I just can't say no to him."

From her I learned that a heart can grow bigger if you give a bit of it away. There were lessons too about patience, about the healing nature of humor, especially when it is directed at oneself, and about how far a touch of kindness goes. But perhaps the lesson I learned best is that there is value in tradition and rituals repeated in order to honor those whom we love, to define who we are, and to remember that we have a special place in the world.

The Cape Cod bungalow family is still very much in my life, the kids and I long grown and married. We still share holiday rituals and family ceremonies. The father has been gone for six years and now the time has come to say goodbye to the beloved woman who was my second mother.

No one should have to bury a mother twice, which is what this feels like. Still, hers was a long, loving, well-lived life and her gifts abound. Among them is our shared past and the time we spent together that makes me whole. The memory of that time reminds me always that family is whomever we love, home is wherever they are, and tradition is what we make, once it has shaped us.

The Cape Cod cottage and the woman who made it home are rich with memory and meaning for me, for that is where I felt anchored and nourished. Hers was the map that charted my course; she the beacon guiding me home. Always home. I remember, and forever grateful, wish her well-deserved and eternal rest.


Elayne Clift writes about women, politics and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt. (

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