the following is an interview with my friend and honorary mom, susan, as part of my home project. it was a special and emotional conversation for both of us. my connection to susan is my close friendship with her daughter, lauren, who died in 2007 after battling a rare form of bone cancer. content note: the following conversation discusses trauma around death and illness, as well as substance abuse.
Who are you and where are we?
My name is Susan and we’re in Portland, Oregon.
Do you have a place you consider a home of origin?
Los Angeles, California.
What kind of sensory memories come to mind when you think of that home?
The good memories involve growing up outside. My mom’s home cooking, and the smells of growing up in the San Fernando Valley: olive orchards, eucalyptus, horses.
Can you talk about how your relationship to home has shifted or changed from childhood to adolescence to adulthood?
As a young child I had a strong sense of home. I was number five of six. I was the youngest for seven years, so I had a good sense of closeness in the family, mostly due to my mother. My father was like one of the kids. I grew up loving my dad, but he drank, and he would act out periodically. I have some scary memories about that. As a teenager, home became someplace I wanted to avoid, mainly because of my dad’s drinking and never knowing what he was gonna be like. My home in southern California was someplace I wanted to leave but didn’t know how. I sought education to get out.
I have a strong connection with my family, even through my dad’s dysfunction. I’m still very close with my siblings. We don’t talk deep talks or call each other often, but when we’re together we have a lot of fun. As I got older, I got married and had kids, and that became my purpose. My children were my home. I loved being a mom. I just did. I didn’t understand the fact that my ex-husband chose to be gone all the time. He was driven by career. I wanted to have a good sense of home. I didn’t grow up with a lot of other relatives or knowing my grandparents, and I wanted to provide that for my kids. We bought this big ol’ house on the hill. I became the hub for my family gatherings and wanted to create that home for my kids.
I’ll back up for a minute. We lived in this tiny little house when I was growing up. It was 1200 square feet, and there were eight of us. That’s why we basically grew up outside. When I was 12, my oldest sister went off to college, my oldest brother went off to the navy, and we moved into a new house. It was just a tract home, nothing big or fancy, but it was bigger. My dad was a truck driver, and my mom worked as an office assistant, so we didn’t have a whole lot of money, and it was quite a big thing for us to move there. We had a pool in our backyard, which was like living in high hog heaven! Shortly after we moved there, my dad got into an argument with his boss at the refinery he worked at. He dealt with that by going to the bar, coming home drunk, and calling up his boss and lambasting him on the phone. Surprise surprise, the next day he didn’t have a job. We almost lost our home and that had a big impact on me. I hated my dad at the time. As a result I knew I needed to always be able to take care of myself.
Back to my life with my kids. My home got disrupted pretty significantly when my husband left me for another woman. Right around the time we got divorced, Lauren was 12. We had to move out of that house, so I moved into this house. My realtor who found me this house was a dear friend. She gave me a card I still have framed that says, a house is not the structure, it’s the people inside. This became our home.
When Lauren got sick, my home changed again. As close as I was to my family — we never talked about stuff. Frankly, they weren’t around much through Lauren’s cancer. You guys [me and other friends of ours] were, and that’s the reason you’re part of my home. So many of the kids Lauren was around became our home. It was the home that Lauren loved. It became much more of a home than being with my siblings. I struggle with some of that still, in terms of feeling let down. But I’ve forgiven them. I know how our family is. It was a big lesson to me, going through something like that. People you think are gonna step up for you don’t step up for you and people you wouldn’t think of at all are there. You learn that people who are there for you become part of your home. It’s not always through the good times you develop those relationships, it’s through the trenches.
Scott entered the picture, and he became my heart and was there for me and Lauren and that became my home. This home is our haven. I’d like to think of it as a safe place for people. Now, these last couple years have been really hard for me for a lot of reasons. I’ve retired. I’m trying to figure out my purpose. Missing my kids. Missing Jon and Sara, missing Lauren every moment of every day.
For the sake of wanting to share this interview with people who might not know you or Lauren, do you mind explaining as briefly as you feel like who Lauren is?
(Deep sigh). She’s my heart. She still is my heart. I love [my other kids] Jon and Sara to the death. That’s one thing as a mom. Each child is so different, and you learn to love them for who they are. Lauren was a surprise. She came along at a time in my life when I was very lonely and unhappy. I was not happy when I found I was pregnant and my husband was like – oh yeah, we’ll take care of this, we’ll deal with this, then he disappeared. I knew I was on my own on this one. When I saw the ultrasound, I looked at that little thing and thought, this one’s mine. She was mine. (Crying). There was nothing like her to me. She was there for me during the divorce. We became the best of friends. She was the person I could be real with. I knew I could screw up. I could be a bitch. I never had to fear rejection. Never. God, I miss her.
You guys really had a home together for a while.
Sara was here the first few years , but then it was just Lauren and me. It was just the two of us for those few blessed years. It was so easy with her. I mean, we fought, but we hated fighting.
She was sneaking boys into her bedroom—
Or having parties! But we couldn’t stay mad at each other.
It’s almost easier not to think of a higher being, because it’s like, how can you be so cruel? But I try to think, she was my gift for 20 years. I had her, and she was mine. She never was mine, but she was mine. She belonged to everybody. But it’s still hard. When it happens, you have the grief, and the newness, and this energy to be strong. After a few years that goes away and you realize the rawness there. The pain. As a mom, I deal with Jon and Sara’s grief. When I’m with Jon and Sara — anything we do, like Sara’s wedding — it’s always bittersweet. There’s such a hole. We all feel it, we all know it. And we deal with it. She was such a light. I know I’m her mom, but I don’t think there’s many people like her.
A lot of times I still flounder about where I belong. I don’t know what I’d do without Scott. He’s my rock. That was where I found the true meaning of love and family.
Tell me about what home is for you today, having done some healing and rebuilding and obviously, still feeling lost in lots of ways.
I’m part of a blended family, which comes with its challenges. We have one grandchild on Scott’s side. It’s not what I dreamed of in terms of what my later years would consist of, other than finding a soulmate in Scott. We truly love each other a lot. We really enjoy each other.
I’m searching around right now about what I want to do. I’d like to maybe do some freelance writing or something to earn a little bit, since I retired fairly early. If I had my druthers, I’d have half a dozen grandkids, and I’d be having the kind of life my mom had. I’m not going to have that, and I’ve accepted that. You make your home with what you want. We want to do things. We want to travel. I’m trying to define that in my life right now.
The one question I’m asking everyone is, in what ways are you seeking home and in what ways have you found home?
I’ve found home with Scott. From the day I met him, I thought, I could love this man a lot, and I do. We have our ups and downs, but he’s got such a good heart. He’s where I found home. I feel very good about my relationships with both Jon and Sara. I don’t have a good relationship with their dad, but I know they have relationships with him, and I’m glad about that. I also know they both care very much for Scott. That feels like home for me.
I’m seeking home in trying to find a place, a meaning. I have an ache. I need to feel better about myself. I need to find a purpose. I’ve thought a lot about it. I want to do something of value, in terms of an employment type of thing. Part of that is just because of the experience I had growing up and not feeling very important. I’ve dealt with a whole lot of my feelings around my dad the last several years, now that my mom’s gone too. The home I’m looking for is in myself, where I can find some peace. I’m still working on that one. I function, I’m not curled up in a ball, but I have episodes of significant grief. I’m figuring out what she would want me to be doing at this point in my life. That’s what I’m searching.