This time of year — as the academic calendar begins and the last strains of summer’s song fade — the people in my household scatter. College-aged children move into dorms. School-aged children leave and come back and leave again every day, making the case for a revolving door at our front stoop. Even the boy who moved clear across the country made his way home for a brief weekend at the end of August. And then he left again.
It has me thinking about what “home” is in our family. What do they envision when they are away and how do they feel when they return? I cannot shake the memory of a grown child, at once mournful and furious, declaring last summer that home didn’t feel like home any more. He was not altogether wrong. His passing comment, hurled in anger the cause of which I no longer remember, is seared into my memory. We’d lost the easy grace extended to one another that makes a house a place where one can be certain that love is unconditional. I’ve spent the last year trying to make home feel like home again.
Now, sitting at a dining room table scarred by the blessings of so many meals and memories, as we prepare to celebrate the canonization of Mother Teresa, my thoughts turn to the wisdom she had to offer mothers. A tiny nun who made her home amongst the poorest of the poor in the squalor of India, she speaks into my suburban maternal existence.
“Try to put in the hearts of your children a love for home. Make them long to be with their families. So much sin could be avoided if our people really loved their homes. Start by making your own home a place where peace, happiness and love abound, through your love for each member of your family and for your neighbor.”
Those are lofty words, tall orders, beautiful goals. In the quiet of a night, I go to comfort a baby, to feed and change a diaper and rock back to sleep. He knows he’s home. I know it, too, there in the dark, so enveloped in the same world that his beginning and my end are indistinguishable. This is home, a place of laying down life for a child.
The atmosphere of home grows from there, sinks its roots deep into the care of small children where the choice to love and the acts of love are so simple. Just feed the next meal, bathe the next mess, soothe the next hurt. And as you do, you create home.
Then, in the next years, the growing years, we cultivate the community of home. I have found this requires even more discipline on my part, nearly constant diligence. I love my children, to be sure, and so does their father. That is not enough. Care must be taken in the growing years to show them how to love one another. If home is to be sustainable, if it will still be there many years later — not a physical place, but a state of being — our children need to learn how to love each other well. Home is the safest community of all, or at least we hope to be that way. If it’s not, they won’t return to one another and what we built was not home at all, but a mere house on shifting sands.
St. Teresa of Calcutta writes: “It is easy to smile at people outside your own home. It is so easy to take care of the people that you don’t know well. It is difficult to be thoughtful and kind and to smile and be loving to your own family in the house day after day, especially when we are tired and in a bad temper or bad mood. We all have these moments and that is the time that Christ comes to us in a distressing disguise.”
Children must be taught to treat one another with respect and with kind regard. They need to be encouraged to lay down their lives for one another, to speak life into each other’s dark places. Brothers and sisters grow up to be husbands and wives. What lessons have they learned at home about dignity and decency and compassion that they will carry into their new homes? What have they learned about how to treat the other gender and what to expect in how they are treated? Is there gentleness and honor in their interactions with each other in the home of their origin?
We must be Christ to one another — tender, kind, overflowing with mercy — if we are to create home for one another. This is no small task. Indeed, I am quite sure it’s the work of a lifetime. Families are not accidents. They are deliberate acts of God. I may always wonder if God calls me to one cause or another outside my home, but I can never doubt that the people in my family are called to one another. Home is where love lives, and just as every living thing we know, love must be carefully nurtured lest by its neglect it withers and home is left lifeless.