Unexpectedly, our sandwich expanded for a few months recently. An old friend surfaced on Facebook, writing that she was looking for a place to live in between artist residencies.
If we have anything, it’s space. A college daughter’s room sitting empty. A guest room filled with exercise equipment and random household clutter. I wrote back immediately and said, “Come live with us!” I had no idea how perfectly this friend would slip into our household, or the gifts she would bring to all of us. She came like the Wizard of Oz, with unique offerings for us all, drawn from her magical black bag.
The gift to me is the fact that she is a writer (we met long ago when I was in graduate school, in a literature class, and formed a writing group that has lasted almost 15 years). And an artist (she designed a beautiful cover for the chapbook I’m putting together). And a cook. I don’t think I can adequately describe what it is like to come home after working all day, and smell some delicious aroma when I open the door. A meal that somebody else thought about, shopped for, and cooked! We’ve been feasting this month: on delicate homemade gyoza, on hearty soups and enchiladas, lasagne and fish. I’ve been ecstatic and grateful.
The gift for my mother is that our friend is Japanese-American. More Japanese than me, she’s lived in Japan for years and is quite fluent. She speaks in the tongue that my mother heard and spoke and lived before she went to kindergarten back in New York. I can see how startled and pleased it made my mother. And how familiar and comforting it was for our housemate to hear my mother speak in Japanese “baby talk” — words for bedtime and bathroom that only a mother would say to a small child. We melted into childhood nostalgia together, and I heard the voice of my grandmother in this woman who is ten years my junior.
My husband found a kindred historian, someone whose life’s work it is to read and understand the stories of the past. History has been a deep comfort to him in the months since he lost his father; stacks of Civil War, and then Revolutionary War books grow in towers next to his bedside. The first night she was here, I came into the kitchen to find them deep in conversation about California during the Gold Rush — a topic I would have enjoyed for five minutes and then begged off. Here they were, both in their element, and it was a wonderful thing.
Even our youngest daughter found a dream come true in our houseguest, who didn’t come alone. She brought a roommate — a five-foot golden corn snake named Quincy. Our girl has been clamoring for a snake for months and months, and it was the most incredible serendipity that this Friend Seeking Housing actually came bearing slithering scales. Quincy is a lovely and delicate creature, supple and sweet, and nothing made our girl happier than visiting their room and coiling the snake around her neck and shoulders like a scarf. I am not yet convinced that we need our own snake, but I was happy that Quincy was here.
Having housemates reminds me of the times that we’ve opened our home in the past — various friends, a few relatives (niece and cousin), and once an entire extended family from Nicaragua who stayed during the time when our children were the smallest. It reminds me that we seem to thrive when we open our doors like this, and the more the better. We are all at our best when we’re mingling with others.
There are new foods, new ideas, and life is easier for us all. For me, it was like having a double in the house. Often I’ve joked, half serious, that I need a clone, and suddenly, I had one. She picked our daughter up from crew practice when I was working and my husband was out of town. She was home to make sure my mother ate a healthy dinner when my husband and I escaped for a weekend alone together, something that hasn’t happened in over a year. And when I was at an exercise class and my husband spilled off his mountain bike and injured his shoulder, she was the one to drive him to the emergency room when I was oblivious, twelve miles away with my phone muted. It is like having a clone, a — dare I say it — second wife, an extra parent, an extra daughter. A friend.
It was beautiful while it lasted. But alas, this brilliant soul was offered a position as historical curator (of course) for the Japanese American National Museum, 800 miles south. We mourned the day she packed her bags (and her snake) and moved on. Already we are wondering whom we can invite into the guest room next. We hear that her brother, a professional chef and reptile lover, may be looking for a place to stay in the spring. I’ve just friended him on Facebook.