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Letter from America. 

O'Donnell Irish EyesO'Donnell Irish EyesWhen an old friend of mine was a child, her parents used to threaten her when she misbehaved with these words:  “Pack a bag!  We’re going to drop you off at the orphanage…right this minute!”  These days, of course, no self-respecting, child-development-guide-reading parent would use those words and, in fact, my friend tells me that she never really and truly believed her parents meant what they said to her, anyway.  However, she still remembers hearing those two oft-repeated sentences of doom, so they must have resonated with her to at least a moderate degree. 

Indeed, the memory might account for her making a yearly gift of $1000 to Save the Children Federation and/or her habit of filching dinner rolls when dining out in four-star restaurants, then stowing them in a second-hand Dora the Explorer backpack behind the platform bed in her luxury high-rise condo.  Of course, I could be wrong.  Nah…I’m probably not.

It was on January 15, 2014, that I, at the ripe old age of 63, became an orphan upon the death of my mother. She passed away as she lived—serenely, even beautifully—but, still, leaving me bereft and making my five younger siblings orphans, too.  I seem to recall that the big fear of many people back in the “olden days” was that a family of orphaned children would be split up; some would go straight to the loving arms of an adoptive family.  Others, perhaps too old to be deemed adoptable, were farmed out by authorities in fledgling social services/child welfare organizations as apprentice workers or sent to learn a useful trade at an industrial school created specifically for parentless children. 

We older orphans—and this is certainly true of the orphans in my immediate family—are often already split up geographically.  My orphaned siblings and I have raised children of our own into adulthood.  One of us—moi—even has grandchildren.  Does our now-orphaned status portend an increased “dissociation” in terms of family gatherings, or a “disconnect” related to hearing timely accounts of one another’s triumphs and tragedies? 

After all, it was our mother in whom we confided these things, secure in the knowledge that she would share them with at least one or two of our siblings (whether we asked her to do so or not); it was in this manner, almost always, that family news items were disseminated.  Before and since my father’s death almost eight years ago, gatherings have generally taken place in our parents’ house.  Locals drove over; others trickled in via train or plane until the house was bursting at the seams for hours with most of the six of us, our spouses, our children, their spouses or significant others, and the aforementioned grandchildren.

Noreen and JimNoreen and JimLife was good as a non-orphan, even when it wasn’t, such as the day three years ago when circumstances in my life dictated a move by me, alone, into a spare bedroom in my mother’s house.  Three years later, I am moving again.  Having emptied my mother’s room of personal effects and after distributing many of her possessions to various family members, a fellow orphan and I selected a different paint color.  I bought brand-new bedding, and, with the help of my sister-orphan and two burly painters, moved my own bed and possessions into the very room shared so happily by my mother and father for decades.  I will sleep there tonight, or, I should say, I will attempt to sleep there.  True, restorative sleep has been elusive lately, largely replaced with musings and memories that last the night away.

An ethnic group I read about long ago, but the name of which I have forgotten, teaches that a person’s spirit lives on among them until the death of the last individual who knew that person in life.  While I don’t subscribe to that notion myself, I still feel the spirit of my mother in every room of her house.  There is nothing in any of the rooms in the house which she has not touched, moved, dusted, cleaned, or even broken and successfully repaired.  Some items date back to her own grandparents and great-grandparents; there are fascinating stories associated with many of them, stories we newly-minted orphans have shared with our own offspring, stories that dance tirelessly in my head in the dark of the night.  I suspect that those stories are circulating in the dream-worlds of my siblings, as well, and that they will be resurrected, retold to their children, then remembered and retold by generations going forward.

In the meantime, this orphan is one of the fortunate older types.  Unless I develop Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia, there is little chance that I will ever forget the face of my last remaining parent as it appeared to my infant self when she was a brand-spanking-new, 24-year-old mom.  Neither will I forget how she looked when she was the 45-year-old celebrant at my college graduation, nor will her face at 87—her age when this spirited and spiritual mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother finally went to her eternal reward—fade quickly from my memory.

Rest In Peace, Noreen Rooney Sheridan, and May Perpetual Light Shine Upon You!

Your six children, 17 grandchildren, and two great-granddaughters hold you dear in their hearts. 

In the days and years to come, the memories they will share with one another, as well as with their children, will be cherished indeed.

By Cara Sheridan O’Donnell.

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