For the first time in a couple of years, I climbed the steps to the Friends House not as a resident but as a guy with no way in.
I had to remind myself not to use the special doorbell code for housies who’ve forgotten their key. Instead, I pressed the bell once and waited, much as any passerby might.
The greeting I got from Ben was a boisterous reminder that, at least among my former housemates, I’m no stranger.
The visit got me thinking about what I share with the 32 people previously known as strangers with whom I did dish crew, shoveled snow, painted a bathroom, installed a lightswitch, scrubbed toilets, washed windows, sat in silence and passed the talking rock between June 2013 and August 2015.
Stepping into the office, Ben pointed me to a bin of mail the Post Office had failed to forward. I glanced at the mailboxes of the 21 current residents and noticed a couple of new names above our old slots
Heading downstairs to the kitchen, I ran into Billy, who’d made such an impression on Leila, our two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter, that she was convinced he’d be joining us in our new apartment in Brookline. Encountering a friendly face I didn’t recognize, I figured it must be John, who moved in by virtue of us moving out. He lives now in our old room on the third floor.
Though I know Billy better than John, I know neither well enough to call them family. But my time in the house does leave me feeling that we were up to something good together. Not only the housies I lived with, but those who came before and after, too. There’s a dimension of in-it-togetherness that I suspect will be the most enduring legacy of my time at BHFH. A year in a room became two, and in the process became a way of being with other people that changed the way I think about the “other.”
I learned the up close and personal side of that old caution against comparing my insides to others’ outsides. There’s something about losing it while remembering your mother or witnessing one housie flip out on another or absorbing alternating tears and hilarity during talking rock that fuels a more insides-to-insides perspective.
For me, living in the house intensified a reality that the distractions of modern life so easily obscure: As much as you’d never know it from our political discourse, we really are all in this together.
In the course of securing my Irish citizenship last year and re-visiting her home county last month, I grasped a bit more of what life was like for my grandmother, Ellen McLaughlin. Bound for Boston, she abandoned Donegal’s scraggy, coastal farmland near the end of the 19th Century. She found work as a maid at the stately Parker House, an easy walk across the Common from BHFH and the hotel where JFK, the son of another Irish immigrant family, would hold his bachelor’s party — and declare his candidacy for Congress — decades later.
Somebody found enough common ground with Ellen to give her a break. Therefore I am.
But what of the tens of thousands fleeing Syria, Iraq and other scenes of unrelenting death and destruction? Who’ll be willing to find common ground with them?
There are some encouraging signs here and there. Our daughter, Kate, shared a story on Facebook that tells the story of an Austrian restaurateur moved to befriend a Syrian refugee as a result of kindnesses received 40 years ago in Syria. And President Obama has increased the number of refugees to be re-settled in the U.S. next year. A start.
I wonder what might be done to help some of them find a new home in Boston. Or Brookline.
I look forward to exploring the possibilities with our former housemates. In a couple of weeks, they’ll be taking the Green Line to Coolidge Corner so we can feed them dinner during a BHFH workday weekend. I’m anxious to show them our new digs. After all, we’re in it together. Nuestra casa es su casa.
That’s it for ayearinaroom.com. We hope to see you soon at acrossthehall.org!