My last look at my childhood home was entirely digital.
Our family had met in person at the house over a week earlier to say goodbye to the only home we had ever known. I had expected it to be an emotional farewell, but at the time, it really wasn’t. We spent our time cheerfully reminiscing as we sorted through old report cards and school photos and preschool graduation certificates, as we loaded furniture onto the trailer and made trips out to the dumpster. It still felt like we had so much time left. We knew it was only a week, but a week there felt like forever because we had no concept of anything else within those walls.
That home had already been ours forever.
It had only ever been ours.
It was the ancestral Miller family home. I could not yet comprehend the idea of it belonging to anyone else.
But today, that all changes.
Today, after five generations of Millers living on that farm, a new family will take ownership of it.
My last look at my childhood home happened last night, on on the small, smudged screen of my iPhone. It felt so surreal, listening to Mom narrate a tour of the most familiar place I’ve ever known. By the end of the video, she was crying, and Dad put his arm around her, and he said a beautiful prayer over the home, that it would continue to be a blessing and a refuge.
It had certainly been a blessing and a refuge for us: The yard was tranquil, an idyllic acreage of full of trees and aging outbuildings, with space made for childhood joy: a trampoline and a swing set, a treehouse and a pool. But the actual house, built by my great-great-great grandfather, felt like an embrace. That house was a silent witness to our lives, sheltering us like a sentinel as generations of Millers grew within its walls. Passing over its threshold kindled the warmth of centuries-old emotion, as though the memories of laughter and fun, of play and love and kindness had been left behind for us to enjoy, an inheritance from my ancestors.
That home had been a refuge for others as well—a literal, historical refuge: the Miller farm, north of Wells, was a known safehouse for American Indians fleeing persecution. My heart swells with pride at the thought, that my family used their home to offer safety and shelter to those in need. Though my own adult home is bereft of that same historical memory, having been built more than a century after my childhood home, I have still tried to make similar use of it, offering it as a refuge, as safety and shelter for children in need through the act of foster care.
In that way, the spirit of our home can live on, even when it is no longer ours.
As a family, we shared our tearful goodbye over the phone, miles apart, as Mom and Dad packed the final load into their minivan and drove away.
That was the end.
We will never share another meal together there. We will never again dump our coats in the porch and sweep into the kitchen to receive Mom’s hugs and snitch bites of whatever she had cooking on the stove. We will never again gather around the fireplace at Christmas to sing carols and unwrap gifts. We will never again play card games in the dining room or tag in the yard.
Starting today, a new family will begin their own history there, in the loving space five generations of Millers left behind.
And while that home, the Miller farm, north of Wells, is no longer in our family, we can still carry the legacy of generosity and hospitality with us.
The shape of my family isn't anything like I had expected it would be. I was expecting a tidy circle, as most families seem to be. My husband and I tried to grow our family in the natural way, but we could produce no children of our own. We longed for family, though, so we decided to open our hands to embrace those adrift in the foster system, unmoored from their own family circles.
It is a good thing that I have always loved strays.
The foster care experience has been both hard and surprisingly beautiful. There is something uniquely fulfilling about expanding the circle of your family in this way—letting go of the familiar hands of your spouse to admit a stranger and pull them into the fold, then stepping back to allow them space to join you for as long as they need.
In this way, the circle of our family has grown, its dimension an ever-changing variable.
We have only known the experience of family under these uncertain terms.
Even our adoption has felt impermanent at times. The past can never be eradicated, and no matter how tight our bond with our daughter may be, I know that part of her will always wonder and long for another reality, another unbroken family circle that does not include us.
It is a sobering thought.
But it's not enough to keep my hands from squeezing tightly around hers. I want her to know she has a place in the family we have built both with and for her, even if her hands always long for the touch of the ones that held her at birth. She is ours, and sometimes we know we need to hold on loosely.
But we never let go.
Families are made by people turning towards each other. For better or for worse, our hands are bound to those we marry and birth, and within these circles we make, we focus our love and attention. We seldom look past the familiar faces across from us.
But foster care requires you to look beyond the circle of your own family to notice and embrace those who need a place. It is the decision to open your circle to others, to take an unfamiliar hand and hold it tightly and learn its curves and edges until it is familiar as family. It’s taking hold of that hand without knowing how long it will need yours.
It could be three days.
It could be three years.
It could be forever.
(I always hope for forever.)
In a way, though, I guess it always is forever, regardless of the court’s decision. The circle of our family does not shrink after their time with us is through. In my heart, they are all forever my children, and they will forever occupy space there.
We always leave space for them to return when they need us.
The arms in our circle are always open. Perhaps our family isn’t so much a circle as it is a parabola, its curved ends always reaching out, ready to receive whatever blessings might come.