Waiting tables, dyeing textiles, separating goats in heat
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My studio apartment felt cramped, but rent was expensive in the Bay Area. To afford a bigger place, I would have to live with other people. So I answered an online ad from a man who wanted to start a cooperative household based on mindfulness. I had been practicing vipassanā meditation for three years and liked the idea of sharing a quiet home with other meditators.
We rented a big house up in the hills. Most of my new housemates were therapists and wanted to talk about personal growth — a lot. They were always asking me probing questions, making excessive eye contact, and hugging. I was a scientist who liked my privacy. Their overly friendly guests seemed desperate to connect with me in the kitchen, while I just wanted to make my eggs and coffee and get on with my day. I avoided everyone by happily holing up in my bedroom or gardening until after the sun went down.
One evening I was trying to meditate when, despite my earplugs, I heard the sound of someone howling. A therapist roommate was doing a session with a female client, and screaming was part of the therapy. I took my meditation cushion up the hill to meditate in the sauna, but the shrieks still reached my ears.
That summer a housemate invited a flamenco guitarist from Israel to stay with us. The guitarist’s name was Daniel, and I ran into him in the kitchen, of course. Not wanting to get pulled into a conversation about energy healing or “emotional allergies,” I greeted him with the same pleasant aloofness I used with all the guests.
“Want some chocolate?” he asked without looking at me, simply holding the candy bar in my direction.
“No,” I replied.
He shrugged and walked away.
Clearly he was different.
Daniel and I became friends. We would chat in the garden while I turned the soil or planted vegetables. On hot days, under the lemon and olive trees, I could hear him playing his guitar on the balcony. Once, after I returned from a solo backpacking trip with the smell of smoke still clinging to my hair, I asked Daniel, “Want to smell campfire?” I lowered my head, and he pressed his nose to my scalp and inhaled. Then he wrapped his arms around me.
We soon became lovers. I tried not to get too attached, though. Every month Daniel would come up with a new reason to leave the U.S., but every month he delayed his departure. He told me about the violence that he had contributed to as an Israeli soldier and how he had finally refused to fight and been jailed. After his release he had joined an organization that brought former Palestinian and Israeli soldiers together to promote peace. Because of Daniel I started following news of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I also attended his performances and fell in love with flamenco — especially the dancers’ long skirts, the delicate floreos (flourishes) of their hands, and the charging rhythm of their feet. After our relationship ended, I started taking flamenco dance classes.
Daniel left the U.S., and I am now married to someone else, but I’ve continued to study flamenco. Though I no longer practice meditation, I’ve found that in my dance class I’m more present and focused than anywhere else.
Alan and I were camping at Hermit Island, Maine, while Aunt Mary watched our two kids at our house for the weekend. When we returned, she recounted all the funny, endearing moments she’d had with the children. Then her face changed, and she told us about an unexpected visitor: Mary and the kids were eating in the dining room when they heard someone walking around upstairs. Mary grabbed a broom and went to confront whoever it was, but the rooms were all empty. Finishing her story, she shook her head and gave us a look that said, I’m not crazy. It really happened.
We believed her. One night Alan and I had been reading in bed and had heard footsteps slowly ascending the stairs, one step at a time, like an old woman at the end of a long day. Sure an intruder was creaking toward our bedroom, Alan jumped up and grabbed his baseball bat. Like Mary, he found no one there, and no sign that anything in the house had been disturbed, but we knew we hadn’t imagined it. It had to have been Fannie, the previous owner of our house, who had died here.
Given all the plumbing and electrical repairs we’d had to make, we could safely guess that Fannie hadn’t done anything to update the property in years. The old-fashioned wringer washer; the missing drainpipe in the pantry sink; the rust-blocked cold-water lines in the bathroom upstairs — they all told a story. Poor Fannie must have lived alone and couldn’t have had many people coming to check on her. We pictured her shuffling through the rooms until the day she died.
As part of the renovation, Alan had installed a drop-down stair to the attic, then hauled insulation up there to lay between the joists. One day, reaching into a far corner, he’d found a packet of letters addressed to Fannie and tied with a ribbon. They were postmarked from the 1940s, and though we didn’t read them, we imagined they’d been written by a man sent overseas to fight in the war. Out of respect for the privacy of the woman who had placed the letters in that far-flung corner of an almost inaccessible attic, Alan put the ribbon-bound bundle back, burying it under the insulation.
Not long afterward, while the kids and I were asleep, Alan was working at his drafting table. The whole house was dark save for the focused beam of his lamp when the hairs on the back of his neck stood up, and he felt with certainty the presence of another person standing behind him, looking over his shoulder. Alan believed it was Fannie, come to say thank you for keeping her letters private.
From where I lie on the couch, I watch the rented SUV disappear down the road, headed for the airport. The dogs drift in close, shell-shocked from more than a week of loud voices, slamming doors, video-game noises, and kids heedlessly closing them out of the room where I keep their water dish. I reach out to stroke their soft heads and velvety ears. We had a slight scare last night when my stepdaughter’s Apple watch pinged with alerts about possible flight cancellations, but in the end everyone departed as planned.
I feel nostalgic for the fleeting golden era when our combined brood of five girls were all single and finishing up degrees or starting careers. Visits were simpler then. The grandchildren have changed things. Ready or not, my husband and I have new roles and new names. The girls are mothers now, the matriarchs of families with habits, manners, and attitudes we don’t recognize. Their yearly visit feels like an occupation. After setting up camp, they pop in and out of the house, visiting friends and family, returning only to sleep, eat, or shower. They cram the refrigerator with restaurant leftovers: lo mein dregs, congealed pizza, messy containers of hummus.
Then, just like that, it’s over. All that’s left is a mountain of laundry. (Is it necessary to use a clean towel for every shower?) My husband will stuff the linens into trash bags and take them out to be laundered, as he always does. At least the septic-system alarm didn’t go off this year.
With the kids gone, I’m free of the constant worry that someone will leave the door ajar and the dogs will wander into the road. I haven’t seen the cat for a week, but I know he’ll be back now that our guests are gone.
Between the ages of seven and thirteen, I spent several long weeks each summer at some cabins my family owned in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona. During the day we fished in the Little Colorado River and hiked up Greens Peak, a grassy knob of a mountain with a fire overlook on top. After dinner my aunt Marion would gather us kids — a pack of five to fifteen, depending on how many friends we invited — and read aloud to us from Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
In addition to our friends, we had occasional uninvited “guests.”
The cabins were built on pier-and-post foundations, with a decent amount of space underneath, and sometimes a family of skunks would establish a home below a floor. My parents and aunts and uncles would devise ways to lure the skunks out from under the cabin and into animal traps — all while keeping our hunting dogs from doing what they did best. Once the skunks were trapped, much debate would occur over how best to move the traps’ unhappy occupants far enough away to prevent them from returning while also avoiding being sprayed. (Forty-five years later I would learn that all you have to do is cover the trap in a blanket, and the skunk will remain quiet.)
As a kid I considered the skunks intruders, but now I see that we had built our cabins in the skunks’ home, not vice versa.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
After two days in the hospital’s stroke unit, I was moved to a bright, luxurious room where I could enjoy a river view and the company of many concerned visitors. My guests brought flowers, candy, and balloons — and iPads, coats, snacks, and drinks. The clutter around me reflected the clutter in my brain. “Too much,” my fraternal twin sister, Nono, declared. She turned a nearby waiting area into the visitors’ home base. They could come in to see me briefly, a few at a time, and without all their belongings. After they’d left, Nono would spend the night in the big chair by my side.
One morning the neurology intern came for my usual exam. “Can you say, ‘Today is a sunny day’?” the intern asked.
My sister was observing my response with particular concern. I failed miserably. I couldn’t say anything.
The doctor moved me to an observation area in a different part of the building. The large room was partitioned into sections, and mine was in the corner near the door. All my flowers and balloons were left behind. There were no windows, no views, and no way to tell if it was a sunny day.
Nono laid claim to a small chair by my bed. The night nurse declared that, unlike in the private room, guests were not allowed to sleep here. She told my sister she could sleep in the waiting room.
Nono saw my anxiety at being left alone in this frightening place, and she promised she would not move from the tiny chair. She would keep her faux-fur coat on instead of using it as a blanket. She would not take off her shoes. She would not put on her nighttime hair wrap. The nurses wouldn’t even know she was asleep.
At peace, I closed my eyes and made a note, when I got my words back, to tell my sister to get rid of the wrap and let her hair go curly. She’d always looked pretty with natural hair.
I awoke to a boisterous voice saying, “You cannot sleep here.”
Nono tried to explain to the nurse that she had only briefly closed her eyes, but the nurse repeated, “You cannot sleep here.” My sister pleaded, then argued, and finally ended up shouting about the Patients’ Bill of Rights.
The nurse must have figured that we twins were prepared to do anything to stay together, because Nono remained sitting quietly on the chair next to my bed.
New Rochelle, New York
Ten years ago I bought a bungalow in south Minneapolis. A nondescript two-bedroom on a quarter acre in a sea of middle-class homes, my house has seen its share of colorful guests.
First came Tomislav, the Croatian artist who created huge, postmodern canvases in the basement. They didn’t sell, and a few still line the walls down there.
After Tomislav moved back to Croatia, Dave, the lead guitarist in an indie-rock band, moved in. He often had musicians over to jam and drink beer.
For a few years I worked for Outward Bound and let the instructors park their cars at my place while they traveled to the wilderness base camp. Everyone would stay for a day or two before heading north, and we’d eat dinner, have drinks, and chat around my large dining-room table. I never asked for money, only that they leave the place better than they’d found it. Matt helped paint the back room green. Brad installed beautiful trim around the windows of the front bedroom. My visiting sister built a sauna in the basement. An old friend from San Francisco spent a week painting a graffiti mural on the garage.
One night a group of Outward Bound instructors and I got drunk and played bingo. Other times we made snow angels, carved pumpkins, or answered the door for the pizza guy nude. There was always much laughter, and the hardwood floors creaked and groaned sympathetically.
For my fortieth birthday I invited all the instructors to my house to celebrate. Their tents filled the tiny backyard, and we had an open-mic night in the basement on a makeshift stage.
Last year my fiancée moved in with me. Living together isn’t always easy. She is as much an introvert as I am an extrovert. I’ve stopped asking if she wants to go to the bar to meet new people; I know she’d rather read a book on the couch.
The house has changed. The big picture windows in front now have blinds that are often closed. I’m not sure what I think of this new era. I don’t know if I’m ready to say goodbye to having guests.
Last week my fiancée and I stood on the back porch and looked over the lawn, where we’re planning to do some landscaping. I waved to Rick, my developmentally disabled neighbor who walks to the corner store each day like clockwork.
“Beautiful day!” I yelled.
“Sure is!” he yelled back.
After he had passed, my fiancée said, “How would you feel about a privacy fence?”
He showed up on our front porch one summer evening after we’d begun setting treats out for the neighbors’ cats. A large cat with gray and white fur, he came only after dusk at first, as if looking for a place to spend the night and maybe get some food.
The wounds on his face told us he’d been in his share of fights. His gray-green eyes were full of distrust. If my husband or I tried to approach him at feeding time, he’d lower his head, give a warning glare, and then race out of reach. He’d return for the food and water only after we’d gone back inside, where we would stand quietly behind the living-room curtains, hoping to get a better look at him.
I wanted to clean those wounds on his face, take him to a vet, and have him checked for various parasites, but he didn’t trust me enough. So we continued to feed him, moving up to the more expensive canned food. If nutrition was all I was going to be able to give him, I thought he should have the best.
We named him PK, short for “Porch Kitty,” and if we were gone for a few days, we asked the neighbors to keep him fed. I didn’t want him to think we’d abandoned him.
PK eventually came to understand that we were friendly. He would scamper only a few feet away while we filled his dish. He also began to look us in the eye. We figured if we kept this up, maybe one day he would let us pet him. Maybe.
On warm fall afternoons PK would lounge in the glider outside the window while my husband played piano. Then winter came, and we put a cardboard box filled with old blankets on the porch. He was our cat, as much as he could be.
In early November of the following year, I was driving home from a late-night meeting when I turned onto our road and saw a dead animal on the shoulder. I stopped and got out of the car. My heart broke when I saw that it was PK. Up the road was the carcass of a rabbit. I guessed he had been chasing it when they’d both gotten hit.
There was no way I was going to let our wild-eyed, beautiful cat become food for the crows and hawks, so my husband and I buried him among the pine trees next to my butterfly garden.
It was the only time he let us pet him.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
It was the spring of 1970. President Nixon’s illegal invasion of Cambodia had triggered demonstrations on many college campuses, and students at the University at Buffalo occupied the administration building and filled the streets in protest. In this heated atmosphere my roommate Gloria encountered a troupe of anarchists and, without much thought, invited them to crash at our place.
So it was that, late on a Friday night, my other roommate, Jim, opened our door, and ten people entered: five men, three women, and two toddlers. The adults sported rainbow-colored scarves, brocade vests, and broad-brimmed hats with jingling bells. The toddlers wore only T-shirts and cloth diapers.
They settled on the floor, and one of the men, Joseph, began to speak. They didn’t have a leader, he said, but, being the oldest, he would relate their history. He described how they’d formed as an artists’ collective on New York City’s Lower East Side, rebelling against the city’s art establishment. Their grievances against the art world had quickly expanded to include any and all forms of authority. To convey their intense alienation from society, they’d intentionally chosen a name for themselves that was unprintable in mainstream publications: the Motherfuckers.
The group was committed to liberating society from what Joseph called the “shackles of private ownership.” They believed private property led to poverty and crime and envy, and everything should belong to everyone — no personal possessions.
We soon saw that they lived by these principles. The adults made no attempt to control the behavior of the two toddlers, who went from room to room, removing items from closets and drawers and tossing them on the floor. As my roommates and I were comparing notes in the kitchen, one of the women walked in and began rummaging through the cupboards.
“Can we help you with something?” I asked.
“No, I’m OK. You go back to your conversation.”
She pulled down two cans of tuna and started looking for a can opener. I took the cans from her and said, “Let me do that. You go back to the front room, and I’ll bring it out.”
After she’d left, Jim, Gloria, and I stared at each other. What had we gotten ourselves into? Two of the Motherfuckers had already gone into Gloria’s room and started making out on her bed, Jim said.
Gloria defended her guests, pointing out that the group would share whatever they had with us, too.
“One minor problem,” I said. “They appear to have arrived empty-handed.”
Just then Joseph popped into the kitchen and held out his right hand. In it were three small white capsules. We each swallowed one. After the mescaline kicked in, the weekend turned into a chaotic blur.
On Monday morning the Motherfuckers gathered their things and headed back to New York, leaving behind three bewildered and very hungover college students.
Orchard Park, New York
When I was growing up, my parents were part of the back-to-the-land movement, and our house had no electricity or running water. We also had no locks, because my mom and dad admired the Catholic Worker Movement and emulated its practice of radical hospitality. Fellow back-to-the-landers, both acquaintances and strangers, would drop by at random and let themselves in. We would occasionally come home and find someone there, having a look around.
Although some lifelong friendships resulted from my parents’ openness to guests, the lack of privacy at times got to be too much even for them. My mother might tell a group standing in the yard, “This isn’t a museum. This is our home!” I read in my father’s journal that, as a toddler, I would hide from all the unfamiliar people. I longed for my own room with a door I could lock.
I’m now grown and married. My husband is a private person, like me. Back when we were dating, he observed that people treated my family “like puppies they think they can pick up any which way, by their legs or by their neck.” After we got married and bought a home, we put a sturdy wooden gate at the end of our driveway and hung NO TRESPASSING signs. Our phone number is unlisted. For years we kept a dog with a forbidding bark. We discourage people from just dropping by, and we lock our doors.
I will admit that very few things were stolen from my parents over the four decades they lived without locks, despite all the people who entered the house when we weren’t home.
One time my parents did return from an outing to find that my dad’s antique gold pocket watch — a gift from his father-in-law — was missing from the nail where it usually hung behind the stove. But it turned up in their mailbox a week or so later.
We’d been married for only three months when my husband’s friend, an itinerant guitar player and woodworker, asked if he could crash at our house for a few days. At the time we lived in a one-bedroom guesthouse behind a larger home. My husband’s friend was a considerate guest. Every morning when I got up, I found his rinsed coffee cup in the sink and his sleeping bag rolled up and shoved behind the couch. He stayed out all day and didn’t come back till after dinner. In the evenings we’d play three-handed cribbage at the kitchen table or watch TV together.
By the third week, though, the sight of his rinsed cup in the sink irritated me. Why couldn’t he just put it back in the cupboard? Every morning I checked behind the couch, hoping his bag would be gone, but every morning there it would be.
Finally I told my husband he needed to find out exactly how long his friend would be staying — and maybe politely mention the fact that we were just married and needed our space. My husband agreed to talk to his buddy.
But he did the opposite: he quit talking to our guest. The nightly cribbage games stopped, and the tension became palpable as my husband would sit stoically in front of the TV or read a book in silence. Not knowing what to say, I simply pretended nothing was wrong.
My husband’s strategy worked a little too well. After our guest left, we lost contact with him.
A year later, when my husband decided he wanted a separation, he used the same silent treatment on me. It worked that time, too: I moved out.
When we decided to recommit to our marriage, his first vow to me was to talk about his feelings from then on and never again use the silent treatment. Thirty-eight years later he has kept his word.
A career navy man, my father served aboard nuclear submarines and was away for six months out of the year. While he was gone, my mother had no access to his bank account, which the military tightly controlled so he wouldn’t have to worry about his wife frittering away his salary. Instead the Navy gave our mother a monthly “allotment.” Our father determined the amount, which was never enough for her to comfortably pay expenses and feed five children. We got used to living in two worlds: When our father was away, our mother shopped at the commissary — the store on base, which sold discounted canned goods with dents in them. When our father was home, the coffers opened a bit, and our mother could shop at the grocer’s in town.
As our father rose to the rank of commander, our mother’s allotment didn’t significantly increase, even though she was expected to take on social obligations befitting the wife of an officer. Her duties were spelled out in a book called Welcome Aboard: A Service Manual for the Naval Officer’s Wife, which informed her that her skills as a cook and a hostess would directly affect her husband’s career.
The budget our father set for the lavish dinner parties they hosted was tight. There was no money to hire help, so our mother assigned various tasks to the five of us kids. She had exacting standards. In the final hours leading up to a dinner party she would start barking out orders and making us feel as if we couldn’t do anything right.
Then came the great transformation: right before the guests were to arrive, our mother disappeared into her bathroom and emerged fifteen minutes later with her face skillfully made up, looking relaxed, sophisticated, and alluring.
From the way she treated us kids during these parties, we came to believe that our mother loved her dinner guests more than she loved us. She let her guests walk all over the Oriental rug we weren’t allowed to touch; seated them in the upholstered chairs we weren’t allowed to sit in; and put their drinks down on the cherry side tables we were allowed only to dust and clean. After appetizers of fresh shrimp, pistachios, and cheese, she ushered the guests into the living room, where we weren’t allowed to go (except on holidays), and fed them the food we had worked hours to help prepare, none of which we were ever offered.
We were all expected to eat a quick snack of PB&J, mac and cheese, hot dogs, or, worst of all, Spam and Wonder Bread. Behind the scenes the five of us would huddle and devour the leftovers off the guests’ plates: fish, lobster, crab, roast beef, mangoes, plums, avocadoes, fresh peaches instead of canned, lettuce with dark-green leaves instead of iceberg. Some of us got our first taste of liquor from drinking the dregs of any wine or cocktails from the glasses we cleared from the table, causing us to become quite merry.
After the meal my three sisters served coffee and tea and brought out dessert — and this caused the deepest resentment of all, because our mom was famous for her chocolate cake. We kids all fought over the crumbs left on the cake plate, then went upstairs to bed. As a final insult, we had to do the last of the dishes in the morning while our parents slept in.
My father’s career in the Navy lasted twenty-five years, and my parents’ marriage ended soon after he retired. Our mother married another former submarine officer, only this one was not a skinflint. When we visited her as adults, she treated us like honored guests. And at the end of every meal she’d be sure to serve a chocolate cake made just for us.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
A few months after my divorce, in the fall of 1972, I received a letter from Caroline, my dearest friend from college. She and her husband, Frank, were headed east from Oregon to a commune in Pennsylvania and wanted to visit for a few days on their way.
They arrived on a cold afternoon in February, dressed in tie-dyed shirts and torn jeans, long hair curling wildly around their smiling faces. Their big black mutt, Daisy, bounded happily out of their yellow VW Bug, and they settled in for what would become a three-month stay.
Caroline and Frank had found Jesus while tripping on mescaline in the Oregon forests and were excited to share this joyful news, which didn’t interest me much. I was a Jewish girl from Philadelphia and wasn’t drawn to organized religion of any kind.
My circle of friends welcomed Caroline and Frank, even though they subjected everyone to a steady stream of proselytizing and speaking in tongues — all done in the sweetest way possible. Personally I neither welcomed nor resented the idea of Jesus as my savior. I just couldn’t relate to it.
One sunny afternoon, while Caroline, Frank, and Daisy had gone to the park for some exercise and my two young sons were at school, I lay down for what I thought would be a short nap, but I didn’t fall asleep. I’m certain of that. I closed my eyes and immediately had the sensation that I was on a train, speeding inward toward my own heart. When I arrived, Jesus was there, nailed to a cross and surrounded by a pure white light. I started to cry. I’d never felt so loved and safe in my life.
When Caroline and Frank returned, they were overjoyed to hear about my experience. I didn’t know what to make of it, except that I knew what I’d seen and felt was real. I wanted that warm, loving sensation to last forever.
Over the years I’ve attended several churches, trying to recapture the feeling I had that afternoon. Though I sometimes enjoy the services, they never bring the connection to the spirit that I long for.
But I do know Jesus is there, wherever “there” is, and I’ve never doubted Him for a moment.
My parents have a habit of inviting the downtrodden into their home. In 1971, shortly after they got married and had their first baby, my mother and father also became foster parents to four runaway teenage girls. My dad often tells of driving around downtown Minneapolis, looking for one of the girls in strip clubs. My mom says the girls taught my older sister, just a toddler then, to say, “Fuck you, Mommy.” One girl had never had a birthday cake or presents until she lived with my parents.
In the late seventies, after my brother and I were born, a Vietnamese family came to live with us: a grandmother and grandfather, mom and dad, and three children similar in age to my sister, my brother, and me. I remember helping my mom get the downstairs rooms ready and being resentful that I had to give up my playroom. When the family arrived, I thought they looked and smelled funny. They had come straight from a refugee camp in Vietnam to our small town in Minnesota, which often tops the list of coldest places in North America. My mom turned over her kitchen to our guests, and we all ate Vietnamese food, dipping chopsticks into communal bowls around a large table. Mealtimes were noisy, happy chaos.
Later there was a developmentally disabled young man my dad built rockets with in the basement, and a pregnant single mother my mom would take grocery shopping and to doctor’s appointments.
And then, in 2005, in need of refuge myself, I showed up at their doorstep with two toddlers in tow.
I still marvel at the depth of my parents’ hospitality. Today I can barely manage to go to work, raise my two children, keep house, and put some semblance of dinner on the table. I jealously guard the rare moments of peace and quiet. But sometimes I wonder what would happen if I let go and opened my heart and my home to others.
For a summer during college my home was a 1930s-era log cabin on the shore of a lake. My fellow forest rangers and I used gas lanterns for light. Our water came from two huge jugs that we paddled out to the center of the lake to fill. We heard otherworldly, tremulous loon calls at twilight each day.
The men were in one cabin and the women in another. In both cabins we also had some other roommates: mice.
At first I shrugged it off. It was natural for a wilderness cabin to have mice. But the regular morning droppings in our silverware drawer changed my mind.
My fellow rangers and I had long discussions about whether to catch and release the mice or use snap traps to kill them. I had no problem swatting mosquitoes but didn’t think I could bring myself to kill something as large as a mouse. Then again, mice can navigate back to their homes from more than a mile away and even cross rivers to do so.
In the guys’ cabin, the kindhearted men built an elaborate trap using a gallon cider jug and a cardboard ramp they baited with peanut butter. They caught one mouse and transported it via canoe to an island in the middle of the lake, which we dubbed “Mousecatraz.” But after that, they had no success.
We girls finally made the decision to use snap traps. Not fifteen minutes after we’d turned off the lights that night, I heard a crack and knew what we would find in the morning.
My roommates were too squeamish to dispose of the mouse, so I carried it outside in a dustpan. I’d thought I would feel repulsed as I pried back the metal bar to release its crushed body — and ashamed for putting my own interests above another creature’s — but I didn’t. As I tossed the mouse into the woods, I thought about what other creatures might gain sustenance from it. I thought of owls swooping down to gather up this tasty morsel, or grubs helping to decompose it. I told my friends it was a lesson about the circle of life.
If I’m honest with myself, though, I was mostly relieved that I wouldn’t have to clean mouse feces off the counters with bleach every morning before I made breakfast.
I’d always thought of myself as a humane person. I’m still struggling to understand how I tossed out my ideals so easily.
My friend Jennifer and I met in a doctoral program more than thirty years ago and now live in Florida, about two hours apart. I know that whenever I’m going to be in Sarasota, there is always good conversation, good food, and a spare bedroom waiting for me, and the same is true for her here in Spring Hill.
A while back Jennifer called and asked if she and her eighty-year-old friend Nadine could stay with me for a few days. She explained that Nadine was in difficult straits, having lost half her investments in the financial crisis. Of course I said yes.
They arrived in Nadine’s Lexus SUV. Next to my Ford Focus, it looked like a tank in my driveway. After dinner Nadine began to tell her story. I’ll never forget her opening line: “I’m down to my last fucking $4 million!”
My own home is modest, furnished from thrift stores and Ikea. The miniblinds are plastic, the curtains from Goodwill. Nadine’s high-rise assisted-living condominium in Sarasota is 3,100 square feet — for one person. (She is married but doesn’t get along with her husband, who lives in his own unit down the hall.) My small kitchen is short on cabinetry, so I added some in the garage. Nadine’s kitchen is filled with ebony cabinets and has marble countertops, two sinks, and high-end appliances. She told me she has never cooked in her kitchen, preferring to eat all her meals in the facility’s dining room.
At the end of the three-day visit Nadine said her time in my home had been healing. For the first time in a long while, she felt peaceful.
Meeting Nadine helped me be grateful for not being overly burdened by possessions. I have a home and a car and my health. It’s enough.
Spring Hill, Florida
When I was six or seven, Aunt Noreen, Uncle Elliot, and Cousin Tess came to visit us for a few days. My mom and my aunt, who was Dad’s sister, talked and cooked side-by-side in the kitchen while Uncle Elliot quizzed us kids with random questions — everything from what grade we were in to how to pronounce Scheherazade.
Uncle Elliot fascinated me. The rest of us were Filipinx, but he was of Hungarian descent, with fair skin, blue eyes, and an enigmatic smile. He would lift us up so we could touch the ceiling with our fingertips or swing us upside down one at a time before depositing us with a soft thud onto the floral-patterned sofa.
Early one evening, toward the end of our relatives’ weeklong stay, my sister and I lingered outside and were late for dinner. When we reached the screen door, we heard a commotion in the kitchen, and Uncle Elliot pushed past us on his way out.
We went inside to find our aunt apologizing to our mom: “I don’t know what’s gotten into him. Such nonsense. Here, let me help with that.” My mom insisted that Aunt Noreen remain seated while she set out a new plate, napkin, and silverware.
Later, after our relatives had gone back to New York, my mom explained what had happened: Because some dishes were still dirty, the table had been set with one mismatched plate — at Uncle Elliot’s seat. After contemplating the plate in silence, he demanded to know why he’d been given the odd place setting. My mom thought he was joking until he began to raise his voice. I could tell she felt horrible: “I kept apologizing, but he was so upset.”
Uncle Elliot accused my mom of giving him a mismatched plate as a way of separating him from everyone else. They were out to get him, he said, just like the “joggers with matching sweatpants.” He would not elaborate on what he meant by that.
Decades later I look back on that incident and feel compassion for my uncle. Being the only Caucasian at a large Filipinx family gathering would have presented a challenge for most anyone, but especially for a man who was beginning to lose his grasp on reality. Not long afterward Uncle Elliot was diagnosed with a psychological disorder. It might have been manageable had he not been resistant to treatment. That summer my aunt began contemplating the best way to raise their daughter on her own.
To this day Mom still blames herself for upsetting Uncle Elliot with a mismatched dinner plate.
Fairview Park, Ohio
Our home in northeast Kansas is nestled among mature hardwoods on three and a half acres. When my wife and I pulled into the driveway for the first time in 2003, we felt a sense of peace here. We still feel it almost every day. It’s the gentle hum of life all around us.
When we bought the property, it was suffering from the effects of too much herbicide and pesticide use. There was a lack of beneficial insects, reptiles, and amphibians, as well as an overabundance of invasive species. We did our best to encourage native plants and wildlife and used chemicals sparingly, if at all. Gradually the land and its inhabitants began to recover. Native plants whose seeds had lain dormant for years appeared in the spring. New insects moved in. More birds began nesting in the woods. Snakes, skinks, toads, and frogs came back. We were delighted by the increasing variety of winged, furred, and scaled visitors.
We planted a monarch-butterfly garden in 2011 to provide habitat and nectar sources for those orange-and-black beauties. We’ve since expanded our efforts to support other butterflies and moths, as well as pollinators like bees and wasps.
In the fifteen years we’ve lived here, we’ve learned much about the wildlife and plants with whom we share this place. Two crows once chose to nest in the cedars just beyond our fence, close enough that we could watch them bring food to their offspring. Several generations of does have brought their fawns through our yard to find water and food. The same female box turtle crosses the edge of our woods every summer on her way to her egg-laying spot.
And, of course, there are the monarchs, who come up from the south in the spring just as the milkweed is getting tall. They are with us all summer. Then one day in the fall they decide it’s time to head for Mexico, and off they go in a flutter of sun-spangled orange.
Observe and study as we might, much about the lives of the creatures around us will always be unknowable. Perhaps that is as it should be. We are the guests here.
I feel an affinity for Hillary Waterman, who writes about being exhausted after her children and grandchildren stop by her home for a visit [Readers Write on “Guests,” February 2019]. I’ve remarried at the age of fifty, and my husband and I live a life that’s quite different from what our children — my three, his one — grew up with. Though I love them all, like Waterman I am relieved when their visits are over: the leftover vegan food, the suitcases spilling clothes everywhere, the constant hum of competing electronics. Though we don’t have domesticated animals, we do have neighborhood cats that make themselves scarce when our visitors descend. Reading Waterman’s piece, I feel I’m not a bad mother for loving my own quirky life — and the quiet of a house that is not full of kids.