The spring thaw reveals that my in-laws’ driveway is deeply rutted and in need of fresh gravel after this year’s harsh New England winter. Toting his steel rake, my husband, Richard, the oldest of Daisy and Walter Smith’s five children, walks to their house to lend a hand and stay for supper. He’s joined by all four of his siblings, only one of whom lives more than three miles from this country road where they were born and raised.
In a world of constant change, my husband’s family seems rooted in a gentler time and place: a bucolic neighborhood where they’ve shared each other’s lives and watched each other’s backs for more than 60 years.
It’s every aged parent’s dream, and my reasonably robust 89-year-old in-laws are living it. Their daughter Kathy lives around the corner from them with her family, as does Richard and our crew. Son David, daughter Marilyn and their families lived on the block, too, until the need to downsize took them a few miles down the hill. Emily, the youngest, is the only one who lives in another state, because of her husband’s business. Still, she comes home to Forest Lane as often as possible. Partly because, to her ten-year-old son, Jack – who’s raking away, surrounded by his aunts and uncles – this is the best place on earth.
It’s easy to see what a child finds enchanting here. The 19th century barn filled with Grandpa’s world-class antique tool collection. The big old spinning-wheel on the landing. The richly colored folk-art rugs hooked by Grandma’s own hands; the stone hearth where her mac-and-cheese bubbles away. On top of that, Jack’s enamored of his pack of sharp-witted, good-looking older cousins – the eleven young adults (including my three) who also grew up together in this place. Some still in college, some off chasing their dreams (scriptwriting in Hollywood, rebuilding in New Orleans, outward-bounding in Oregon), some newly boomeranged home.
The irony is that what got us all to stay here is what forces many people to move away from family: the economy. In the early 1950s, Walt Smith was hired to build a house in a sparsely populated section of town. Its cash-poor owner offered to pay him in several acres of land instead. Who knew that over the next several decades property values would skyrocket, and this sleepy Connecticut burg would become a posh suburb known for fine schools and gracious living? In the 1980s, Walt gifted each of his adult children a plot of land or its value. We could never have afforded to live here otherwise. And so the Smith family neighborhood – or Walt(on)’s Mountain, as it amuses me to call it – was born. It’s been a sweetheart deal. Always a babysitter somewhere, a spare vehicle when yours is in the shop, an extra jar of peanut butter if you run out.
If nobody’s home, just let yourself in and take what you need.
After the yard-work’s done, Sunday supper goes on the table – at six o’clock, like it has every evening for the past 65 years. The boomerang kids rush in, joining parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, around the dining-room table. Long tapers in brass candlesticks are the room’s only illumination. The food is fresh, the conversation is flowing and the laughter is warm. No topic is taboo or will be met with derision. A bit of deft teasing, maybe, but never derision.
Afterwards, the three aunties (who have seven children between them, all boys) encircle my older daughter for some serious girl talk about her upcoming wedding. And Grandma pulls out the old photos: the marriage, on January 27, 1946, of Miss Daisy Alice Ahern of Mitchell, South Dakota, to Mr. Walter Roswell Truman Smith of Stamford, Connecticut, whom she met when he drove out to Mitchell to deposit his brother at college there. She didn’t know him very long before he went off to war and she promised to wait. They were 23.
“What time is it, Daiz?” Walt calls out pointedly from his armchair in front of the TV, and everyone knows it’s time to go home. On this last night of winter, a full moon lights our way. Each step familiar and holding a memory.
Across the street: the original house where Daisy and Walt lived and raised their kids. And where they first laid eyes upon me, Richard’s brash bride-to-be, the city girl dressed in all-black who couldn’t drive a car, grow a plant, bake a pie or sew. (At least I learned to drive.)
Down the road: Marilyn’s former home, with the in-ground pool that she and her ex added – bless them – so that roving bands of half-naked little cousins could splash away the summer days under the watchful eyes of as many as a dozen adults who truly cared about them.
Around the corner, at the cul de sac: Dave and Lil’s old house, before Lil got sick, where once reigned a snazzy backyard treehouse, complete with electricity, and a zip-line worthy of Tarzan.
And then our house, with a 44-acre nature preserve to the east, and Kathy and Brad’s place to the west. Between our two yards, which are separated by towering birches, there is a footpath. A footpath worn so deep, trod so often by six children and their two sets of parents, that nothing can possibly grow on top of the jagged tangle of exposed roots.
“Will whoever lives here next, after we’ve all gone, understand what this path was all about?” Kathy wonders aloud for what feels like the umpteenth time.
Even now, not everybody understands. Folks are sometimes aghast when I tell them that the in-laws live next door. I totally get this; in some families, the signpost to such a block may as well read Domestic Hell. But not here. Daisy and Walt are unfailingly rational and respectful, and the rest of us gamely try and follow their lead. Take Thanksgiving, which they’ve hosted for nearly all of those 65 years, transforming the old tool-barn into a rustic tableau worthy of Martha Stewart. On Walt’s Mountain, the holiday feast always takes place on Saturday evening, so that children and grandchildren are able to spend the traditional Thursday with the other side of the family or with friends or however they damn please. All that tiresome running between households that so many couples undertake, all that “but-we-were-with-YOUR-folks-LAST-year” nonsense: gone. And did I mention: ever since their firstborn son embraced the Jewish faith, married a Jewish woman (me) and began raising a relatively observant family… Thanksgiving dinners in the Smith barn are kosher – for everyone?
Pure genius. Pure kindness.
The flip side? When one of our kids messes up, the whole village suffers. But even then, he or she can always come home and find exactly the right person to talk to. The aunt who’s a nurse who’ll discretely confirm that your weird rash isn’t herpes. A nonjudgmental uncle to guide you through your credit-card woes. A cousin who cares enough to tell you to step up your hygiene if you ever want a girlfriend. Or the resident night owl (me) if you just feel like talking and watching a movie after midnight – long past lights-out on Walt’s Mountain, a land of early risers.
Do the kids know how special it is, to have grown up this way? It seems they do. “We never felt alone,” recalls Daughter #2. “All of us, all the cousins, knew there was always somebody looking out for us.” “Ohh!” I gush.“That’s so beautiful!” She pauses. “Well, sure – except for all those times in high school when we wanted to throw parties while you guys were away…”
“Will anyone ever understand what this path was all about?” Whenever Kathy says this I want to cover my ears, because we all know that the sun will too soon set upon this glorious day. About the future I have only one certainty: that I cannot do unto my children as my in-laws – and my own dear, departed, generous parents – did unto my husband and me. We have no land, no nest-egg, no carrot to keep them nearby. Odds are they won’t choose to replicate the life they’ve treasured here; each of my children is determined to forge a new path, which is as it should be.
But will their children, those cousins, truly know each other? Will they know me? Or will my own offspring someday be among the seven million Americans defined as “long-distance caregivers,” i.e. those living at least 450 miles from senior family members?
In fact, recent studies by the Pew Organization suggest a shift back to multi-generational households and/or family neighborhoods like Walt’s Mountain: “The majority of U.S.-born adults (56%) have not lived outside their birth state, and of the 37% who have stayed in their hometown, three-quarters say the main reason is because they want to be near family.”
Another Pew survey reports that even families who live far away from each other are keeping in touch better than they once did, thanks to the proliferation and reduced costs of communications technologies, “with some 73% report[ing] that on an average day they speak with a family member who doesn’t live in their house.”
Maybe somebody will understand that well-worn path after all; maybe our own children will. And maybe they’ll say to us – no matter how far their wings take them from its gnarled old roots, and whether or not we’re even still around – the tender words I say now, to the ones who came before me:
Thanks, Mom and Dad. Thanks.