Memories, Meanings and Lessons For Life

Some places just feel like home even if you’ve never lived there. I can feel calm settle over me as I turn from the highway and see St. Joseph Convent perched in its solid position above the Pennsylvania Dutch countryside. Its three-story arms spread across the hill as if embracing the furrowed farmland below. The manure-covered fields puff pungent perfume into the April morning air. The dense pine trees planted by my grandfather are almost as tall as the bell tower. I don’t remember the pink and white dogwoods that blush next to the retreat center but then again, I have never been here in spring. An emergency calls me here now.

Could it have been 45 years ago I watched my beautiful aunt walk down the aisle and become a “Bride of Christ”, a term that kept my eight year-old Catholic mind in puzzlement? I remember the coolness of the chapel and the stained glass colors dancing across the pews. Could it have been so long ago and after successive summer visits, that my twin brother and sister and I found the cows kept by Sister Phillip, the grotto walkway, the Lady of Lourdes statue and chicken coops? Could it have been so long ago that countless arms swaddled in black gauze reached to hug us against ample bosoms?

How strange it seemed that we had to meet her—Auntie Pep now-called Sister Mary Clare—in a small parlor with uncomfortable velvet chairs. Stranger too was hearing Nana and Pappaw call their daughter, “Sister Clare”.

There was mystery behind all those doors marked “private” just as surely there must have been some secret hidden behind the starched headpiece and cowl and beneath the long black skirt and veil. Yet for all the mystery, my overwhelming sense was always one of contentment when I walked up the steep marble stairs to the entry hall and candlelit chapel.

The black habits are gone and I am staying in one of the rooms behind the private doors .I wear my bathrobe and stand shoulder to shoulder with nuns of all ages at a sink to spit toothpaste and water. I carry my tray into the dining room and laugh at jokes around a table. I know the security code to open the backdoor and where the yogurt is hidden in the big refrigerator. It is now a different kind of mystery.

What are the odds that my 86 year-old Florida- based mother would fall while visiting her baby sister? What are the odds that there would be room down the hill in St. Anne’s Home for the Aged where mother could recover from a multi-fractured hip? What are the odds that each one of her children could arrange schedules to fly across country and take turns caring for her and that the convent would find room for us? Mystery beyond mystery.

Psychologist Carl Jung would have called my mystery, “synchronicity”. This fortuitous set of circumstances- “synchronicity”– is fraught with meaning and it is my task to figure the lessons.

Spending days between a health care setting where many will never leave due to infirmity and another home where women stay because of faith, I find these initial lessons the most universal:

Lesson One:From breakdown comes build up. Mom is getting stronger in the weaker places of her body. She still has more life to live. We all have broken places to rebuild.

Lesson Two: Caring for the ending of life is as precious as caring for the beginning. May we learn to see its beauty.

Lesson Three: Respectful listening is the greatest gift we give each other. No other species can verbalize its experience and feelings and have it held in sacred trust.

Lesson Four: Shared memories create a bond as potent as fire. A memory can either burnish or destroy. It’s our choice.

I’ve retraced my route and crossed the Susquehanna River. I am flying home to California from Baltimore with these lessons packed in my heart. Perhaps you might find them in a corner of yours.

Named by Executive Excellence Magazine as one of the top 100 thought leaders in business, Eileen McDargh, CSP, CPAE authored one of the first books on work/life balance. Numerous books and articles later, Eileen serves the meetings industry as a popular international keynoter and on the Board of Directors of the National Speakers Association. You can find products and services offered by Eileen at

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