The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it. ~ R.W. Emerson
Nine years ago this week, this email showed up in my inbox:
I had met Tobin sometime in September of 2008. He was new to the university and I found myself sitting with him on a committee related to diversity. I recall that he mostly kept quiet and listened, though at the time I didn’t know to read this as his natural inclination and confess that I took it for a certain aloofness. He happened to teach in an area I worked with and after that meeting we had a more formal interaction in my office.
From that meeting came an invitation to dinner at his apartment, about which I remember nothing except the anxiety with which I left – his apartment being a basement unit with, so far as I could tell, no windows. I left worrying that, should there ever be a fire down there, he’d perish as the 1970s-era carpet melted around him and the wood paneling went up in flames. I shot off an email to this effect the next day and he assured me that there was, indeed, a window in the bedroom and that the lodging was temporary, as he was waiting for his family to join him once his sons finished high school. In preparation for them, he and his wife Cheryl had bought a condo. It was during moving in that he mentioned the weekly suppers to Steve.
And here is where I faltered. Tobin was a nice guy. Smart, kind, dorky. I’d come to like him. But I am not a joiner. The occasional dinner in a horrible apartment was one thing; weekly meetings with strangers, another. I emailed him back some vague response about “checking our schedules.” Steve, of course, said that it might not be too bad, while admitting that it wasn’t exactly our “thing.” But why not try it, he argued. If it didn’t feel right we could politely decline. I tentatively agreed, although I am still convinced that I did so in a complete fog. Less than one week before getting this email, my family received the devastating news that my father, 57 years old, had been diagnosed with stage IV renal cancer and told to go home and prepare.
The timing couldn’t have been worse.
That first dinner wasn’t exactly promising. Tobin made bottled pasta sauce, which I tried mightily not to judge. Zac and I argued about postmodernism. We met two sisters, Beth and Britta, who were nice but who seemed so effortlessly, coolly bohemian that I couldn’t imagine actually becoming friends with them.
But we went back.
And we kept going back. And if you asked me why I would have absolutely no answer, except to say that what I expected to be a burden became a release. There we were, every single Tuesday night. Along the way we picked up Brad, and then Tobin’s family, and then Kara. We started rotating houses. And, somehow, we became a family.
This is not nothing, for me. Growing up as I did, Irish-Italian, I had developed a keen sense of tribalism and belief that the family is paramount, that we let people in rarely and let people out never. My sister once summed it up. “You just can’t trust anyone outside the family,” she said. I teased her for sounding like she had stepped out of The Godfather, but I agreed with her.
Yet here were these people, here was this odd ritual of Tuesday nights. We slowly opened up to each other. Politeness was sloughed off to reveal something deeper, more complex, and more solid. Looking back on it, Tuesday nights took on the sheen of aged brass, more burnished and beautiful with each week.
People came and left. Zac moved and got married, though he still joins us when he’s in town; Peter joined us for a while before moving to another state, though he, too, stops by. Some weeks we’d talk about philosophy and love and justice. Some weeks we’d talk about hiking and camping. There were impassioned arguments over whether Whoopie Pies are cookies or cakes. There were impassioned arguments over freedom of expression. We began to let each other into our lives. I told them about my father. I learned about their struggles and losses and triumphs. Over the years we walked each other through life; breakups, graduations, new relationships; marriage, birth, death.
They moved with me through my darkest years, wracked as I was with depression and anxiety and dealing with a series of losses, some cruelly expected and some tragically sudden, that I stagger under even today.
We traveled together. Hiked together. Camped together. And every Tuesday night, we gathered in some house or another and talked, and ate, and held each other together, and carved out a little sliver of solid ground.
Despite my initial reservations, I am happy to say that Steve and I have been central to some of the traditions we hold as a group. Sharing Irish heritage, we host an Irish meal every March. January is our traditional fondue party, hosted each year under an increasingly fantastic name (last year it was “The Fondue Awakens”). We planned the trip that took everyone to Southern Utah for the first time, reveling in that unique joy that occurs when you introduce people you love to a place you love and find that they love it, too.
We take credit (deserved or not) for putting together two relationships. We introduced Kara to our neighbor Mark in our backyard over a truly terrible lentil salad one July. Tobin, Cheryl, and their sons Zach and Dylan, were there. I was in the house preparing something so didn’t see Mark and Kara arrive. But I could hear Steve introduce them and I could hear Mark’s voice drop on the second syllable of her name as he said hello. And I knew he was gone.
One year later, on a Tuesday night, I was in the same kitchen when I heard Kara’s voice, tinkling like bells, call me, “Julie, come out here, please.” I ran out to the joyful news that they had gotten engaged that weekend, on a camping trip in the mountains.
Amid the hugs and cheers Cheryl, who misses little and who has the gift of combining insight with kindness, turned to Mark.
“So,” she smiled. “How long have you been planning this?”
He smiled back. “Three hundred and sixty-four days.”
These people. When I think of them, when I think of these past nine years, what stands out most to me are not so much memories, but impressions. Warmth. Laughter. Silence. Acceptance. The perpetual mess of Beth and Britta’s tiny kitchen, windows steamed up from whatever deliciousness they were preparing. The way that Cheryl, when we ran into each other downtown after learning that my father’s cancer had metastasized to his brain, enveloped me, holding me and kissing me once on the side of my head. The letting go feeling of allowing myself to be comforted. The grace encompassed in her silence.
I hear laughter, and crying. I hear multiple conversations going on at once (always my favorite). I see us in someone’s back yard as the long Missoula summer-dusk stretches on. I see us in our tiny house in the deepest winter – coats piled on the couch and soup pot on the table. I see myself sitting on my kitchen counter, watching these people I love break off into small groups, chat, hug, rearrange into different small groups. I recall the way my heart floated through the roof when I spied Brad, leaving Mark and Kara’s house, place his hand – light as the touch of a butterfly – on baby Lena’s head as she slept in her mother’s arms.
I see Lena, our shining star. On the night she was born (a Tuesday, of course), as her mama labored, friends she didn’t yet know she had sat under a darkening sky and lifted their glasses to her, in joy and anticipation.
These people. What do I think of when I think of them? What do I love?
I think of Tobin and Cheryl, their solidity and balance. I think of Brad, Deadhead, loving the glimpses I get of his rock concert t-shirts beneath his dress clothes. I think of Kara’s depth, her ability to sit in silence – especially in the most difficult moments. I think of Mark’s thoughtfulness, which hides equal silliness. I think of Britta, with her lyrical voice and amazing hugs. Beth’s astounding ability to insert the word “fuck” into any syntax and have it work, and her absolute, unrestrained zest for a good meal. Justin’s epic smile (see what I did there, Justin?). I think of Dylan’s prowess in the kitchen and his facility with funny voices, cracking us up under the moon in Utah. Ken’s razor sharp wit and artist’s eye. Clary’s wry observations and sly sense of humor. Steve, who shines with love when among these people. Zach, my brother, who sat with me one day in Utah while I cried from exhaustion and shame at being too tired to hike on. Like his mother, he knows when to say nothing. Like his mother, he was more solid than the boulder we sat on.
These people. Each one of them is a universe. An infinity. Together, somehow, we have built a rudder that has kept us steady over nearly a decade. As we have watched the worst of us rise, somehow we have held on to hope, and warmth, and community.
And what do they think of me, these people? Who am I to them? The feisty pugilist? The one in heels and make-up? High-spirited? High maintenance? I don’t know. And it doesn’t matter. For some reason this collective decided to take me on wholly, bundle of contradictions that I am.
These people have held me together, buoyed me up, dragged me back to shore. They’ve let me crow, and cry, and rage. They’ve seen me at my worst and, I hope, occasionally at my best. I am amazed at this blessing. I wonder what I did to deserve this depth of love.
I could call any of them, at any time of the day or night and say, simply, “please come,” and there they would be – letting themselves into our house to celebrate, or mourn, or mend.
We have become deeply interwoven into each others’ lives in the most beautiful, mundane ways. Ken, unsolicited, left a table in my yard to help us prepare for our going away party. Tobin helped us pack up parts of the house. Steve and I dog sit Mark and Kara’s dog who seems, I’m happy to say, as at home in our house as she is in hers. We’ve embraced each others’ families. Kara and I have tea with our mothers. Tobin leaves bags of apples on my sister’s porch.
We are scattered a bit, now. Different cities. Different continents. Still, we stay connected. We continue to feed each other across the distances. We try, when traveling, to see each other, even if just for a quick meal.
I miss them. Fiercely.
In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky has a lovely digression. In the Parable of the Onion, a cruel woman has her opportunity to be saved from the pits of hell because the angels recall the one good deed she did in her life – digging up an onion and giving it to a beggar. She is pulled from the pits by this onion, the circumference and strength of that one small sphere giving her hope of salvation. Her wickedness follows her into death though, and while she is being pulled to heaven she finds that other sinners have attached themselves to her legs and she kicks and flails at them so fiercely that the onion breaks, and the angels go away to weep.
What has always struck me about this passage is not the end, but the beginning – the idea that one small act of goodness can define our lives, if we will let it.
One of these days, far into the future, it will come Tobin’s turn to stand and have the measure of his life taken. If I know Tobin, he will cast back over all he has done and come up against those times when he feels he has fallen short or failed to live up to his own high expectations.
I hope that, in those moments of accounting, he remembers Tuesday nights, and the motley family he put together. I hope that he holds all of that love, and laughter, and warmth in his hands and offers it up as evidence of the good he has done in the world. I will go to my own accounting believing that he has saved us all by this one small act of goodness.
His timing was perfect.
Happy birthday. To us.