Early one morning, I took my bowl of fruit and cereal into the big open room we called the library and sat on the floor, resting against the doorframe. We had been in the Longueville house for five weeks now. Life was going well. Rick and I had unpacked or put into storage everything we owned; we were learning the traffic shortcuts and the best public transport into the city to work. We had sampled the kayaks in the boatshed and were discovering the joys of living on a quiet bay.
But there was unfinished business.
Leaning on the floor against the wall across from me was a lush autumn landscape painted by my Aunt Ellen, who was now too old to want to be creative with a paintbrush. The painting was beautifully executed in the riotous colours of autumn in the country of my birth. Her signature, simply “E Medd”, sat in one corner, a reminder of the straight-forward way in which she created her paintings and lived her life.
On the floor beside it sat a delicate watercolour of a brilliant pink lotus painted by my cousin Elaine, whose style I had watched transform over the three or four years she’d been painting professionally. There was also a wonderful large, dark etching of a waterbird passed on to Rick and me when friends sold up to live and travel full-time in their caravan. There were prints we’d collected over the years. There were subtle watercolours of Dee Why headlands and Narrabeen rooftops, purchased from a local painter we knew well. There were photographic portraits and family snapshots. There were three beloved limited-edition photos of aboriginal cave art purchased many years ago for the lobby of my offices in York Street. There was a little Lladro statue given to me when I was bridesmaid for a favourite cousin. In all, I was looking at perhaps two dozen pieces of art belonging to Rick and myself, every one closely connected to our hearts in some way or other.
These pieces occupied only one wall of the big library in the Longueville house that was currently curating the accumulated artwork owned by all six of us.
The cluster of treasures represented a twofold problem. First, we had more pieces than could fit in our new digs, so we were going to have to pick and choose, and then put many of them back into storage. Much of the art we had enjoyed living with over the years was going to have to slip into bubble-wrap and dark closets.
The other problem was that I didn’t feel the same way about other people’s artwork as I did about my own. Some of it I appreciated and some of it I might have loved if it had been given to me by, for example, my Aunt Ellen. And some of it appeared to have been done by someone else’s Aunt Ellen who didn’t have as much talent as mine.
I’m sure this wasn’t a unique perspective, also felt in some measure by Eve, Daniel, Michael, Judy and Rick. We all had our treasures and, at the same time, we all had a somewhat jaundiced – though perhaps unexpressed – view of each other’s treasures (“I’m sorry, but that painting cannot be called art”).
I surely do allow my opinions to define me, I thought as I sat there finishing off my muesli. Much of the time, who I am is nothing but the sum of my judgements. And if I want to be a new someone – belonging in this new family, for example – I am going to have to develop a spirit of generosity, shaking off the grip of these beliefs and just having a good time with other people’s ideas and possessions.
Having given myself this lecture, I gave an inclusive salute to all the artwork in the room and headed back to the kitchen with my empty bowl.
It was already well into April. We’d been in our new home for over a month. We desperately needed to get the paintings off the cluttered library floor and onto the barren walls. How could we honour both ourselves and each other in the process of choosing what would be on display in our new shared home?
It was Eve who came up with a solution. “You know Mick’s wife Cheryl?” she asked us all one night when we were having dinner together. We nodded; Mick was a favourite masseur and most of us had been on his table at some time or other. “What you might not know is that she’s an interior designer.”
I did know that. I’d been in her house, and had found it the epitome of good taste – modern, restrained, warm, clever.
Eve continued. “What do you think about hiring her for a couple of hours of consulting? She could come over, look at the art, look at the furniture, and advise us about what to put where.”
We tossed the idea around for a few minutes, secretly deciding whether we were willing to surrender our taste and judgement to an “expert”. Eventually we all agreed. For a very small investment, we might get an objective, professional point of view that we could – and would – all live with.
A few days later, Cheryl came over. Her index finger tapping her lips and her sleek little sandals clicking, she strode through our various rooms. She directed the white sofa to be moved to a different wall and grouped with the big soft armchairs just so. The television would work best along this wall, she said, with recliners positioned here and here. Reluctantly she allowed the pine bookshelves to remain in place, hosting some of the innumerable books that had arrived with all of us. This chest could live in that corner and that one had to go.
And then, on to the artwork. Without pause, she would touch a painting and indicate its spot. This one goes over the mantle, this one behind the sofa, this one next to the television. These three live together behind the dining room table, these big pieces into the stairwell, these into the hall. And that was it – no more room. Everything else would go into our private areas or get bubble-wrapped to spend the next two years in limbo.
As did everyone else, I followed her around and participated in the process. I noticed my reactions and tried to stay objective. I could appreciate the integrity of what Cheryl was doing but I was nevertheless grateful that I had taken a few of my favourite things down into our own suite earlier in the day so that they wouldn’t have to experience rejection.
The end result was a workable amalgam of Cheryl’s taste and our own pieces and possessions. Daniel and Michael spent the afternoon pounding in nails and hanging artwork. The six of us sat in the lounge room at the end of the day with a glass of wine, paintings hovering on the walls above us, and declared ourselves happy with her handiwork – with the furniture groupings, the art placement and the traffic flow.
I wandered through the house by myself that evening, touching each painting, print, photo, vase or sculpture. “You so belong here; welcome to your new home,” I’d say, or “I don’t love you yet but I look forward to getting to know you.” Or, more ominously: “You and I are going to have to learn to get along somehow.”
We’d been going through a similar process with furniture, with pots and pans, with crockery and cutlery, with trays and glasses and mugs and serving bowls. It was a crash course in muzzling my opinion and in swallowing my ego, as well as in speaking straight about what was important to me and learning how to engage others in my point of view.
When we inhabit our own homes for many years, in the nuclear-family way, it is unusual to have to live with someone else’s possessions. Almost everything we have is our own and represents a choice we have made, however carefully or casually we made it. Some things, like garden tools and tea towels, are easier to share or dispose of. Artwork is at the other highly-charged end of the spectrum.
Thank heavens for Cheryl, helping to take our personal attachment out of the decisions.
* * *
Food was another critical issue. A question we were often asked was, “How do you deal with eating and meals?” Everyone was curious about how we were coping with this very personal – and elemental – part of life.
As we first launched into our new communal life, I carefully watched Rick, our most dedicated foodie. Born into a family of food lovers, eating was a primary passion developed early in life. He had had a lot of years to establish what he liked and what he didn’t. Because of his strong interest in food, he had often been the cook in our family, and over the years, he and I had worked out how to keep his tastebuds happy. With some misgiving, I wondered how he would manage inside this new family where all the rules had changed.
Things came quickly to a head the second night after Eve, Daniel, Rick and I had moved into the Longueville house. On his way home from work, Rick had picked up a couple of steaks – clearly taking it for granted that he and I would cook for ourselves. In the kitchen he met up with Eve, who looked distressed when she saw the two steaks and appeared to be taking it for granted that we would cook and eat together.
I watched as, Eve-style, she took a moment or two to formulate her thoughts, then said that she wondered if we might generally enjoy sharing our meals communally. Not the steaks tonight, obviously, but perhaps in the future…
There was a long pause as Rick stopped to think. After twenty-some years of marriage, I fancied I could hear his considerations as he turned the idea over in his mind: mentally evaluating the meals we’d shared at each other’s houses (always delicious); not having to plan, buy and cook every single night (delightful); cooking for six (not too big a stretch from the days when our kids lived at home and the house was filled with teenagers).
“Yes,” he finally said, “sure, we can give that a try.”
“Great!” Eve beamed. “And if you can hold off on your steaks for a few minutes, I’ll get some pasta ready for all four of us.”
To my amazement I heard Rick say, “Well, these are pretty big steaks. We can share them as well.”
I discovered I’d been holding my breath, and softly released it. “I’ll make a salad,” I said, suppressing an elated whoop. I realised I’d put a fair bit at stake in this conversation – that long-term, I was much hungrier for the camaraderie and the fresh experience than I was for the steaks.
Our first communal meal was underway, and a few terms of engagement had been quietly established. Another aspect of the adventure of living together was taking shape.
The next food-related issue that arose was the thorny question of how we would share expenses. We knew it would make economic sense to purchase in bulk – but predictably we were attached to our favourite brands and our favourite shopping places. For example, Judy might be willing to pay twice the Woollies’ price for organic tomatoes, but Rick categorically was not. The more we considered it, the more we decided that we would like to continue to have each family manage its own food. For many years we had had dinner at one another’s homes, and it seemed that a modified version of cooking for each other could work in our new situation.
Accordingly, each couple had its own fridge space. Rick and I brought with us a large fridge, having housed hungry teenagers not long before. This fridge was big enough for four people, so we shared it with Eve and Daniel. Michael, Judy and Jess moved into the smaller fridge. Without testing with a slide rule and callipers, we all ended up with roughly the same amount of space.
We were fortunate to have a walk-in pantry. We divided it into thirds and labelled our shelves. Each couple loaded their space with the bags, tins and bottles we’d brought with us from our last kitchen. I found it remarkable to stand in the doorway of the pantry and consider the very different kinds of food that were in storage there. There was a whole world of information about us on those shelves. You could learn about our interest in nutrition, how concerned we were about economy, what we considered to be indispensable. I noticed for the first time shadows of my parents’ way of doing things lurking on our shelves, and no doubt Rick’s family was there in force as well. The home-brand flour and super-sized jar of Cajun seasoning were hardly an intimate part of myself, and yet I felt strangely vulnerable exposing them to comparison with everyone else’s stored items. Pressure lurks in the strangest places.
Anxieties notwithstanding, we soon found that it was a wonderful gift to share the cooking. We developed a simple chart – tick this column if you’ll be here for dinner on a given night; add an asterisk if you’d be willing to cook. It wasn’t too much of a stretch to learn to cook and set a table for seven (though Jess most often piled up his plate and headed for his room), and cooking only once a week or so was bliss. Rick became renowned for his sturdy crock pot dishes, Daniel for an array of risottos, Michael for his frittatas and chicken cacciatore, Judy for her baked dinners, Eve for her light and imaginative salads, myself for a variety of ratatouilles. We ate better than we ever had before, and I found I learned more about cooking than I had in decades previous. We all enjoyed the new rituals, and ate together often – though frequently the theatre, work engagements or other friends took us elsewhere.
Food purchase, storage and preparation were under control.
I was happy. And to my great relief, my partner looked completely relaxed about it all. It had to be right if our foodie was happy too.
* * *
There is a particular nightmare most of us bring from our youthful past when we blithely teamed up with flatmates in order to have fun and save on rent. One aspect of the trauma almost always had to do with disputes around the standard of house cleaning. I remember one obsessive university roommate who ranted if anyone left a cup in the sink and another at the other end of the spectrum who would have driven me to a dead faint if she had even once thought to take the pizza boxes down to the garbage bins.
With these distant memories resurfacing, I was a little apprehensive about our current situation. I knew from many past visits to each other’s homes that I wasn’t likely to get any surprises about my new housemates’ quality of housekeeping, but residue from those early life experiences had me – and all of us – on alert.
As with everything else we had sorted out successfully, we talked through this one. We set simple conventions such as: leave the kitchen at least as clean and tidy as you found it; don’t abandon your cups on the drainboard; clean up after your cat.
We tried to make workable compromises between where the communal bar was set contrasted with where our personal bars hovered.
Because we were all working, we decided to hire cleaners who would do a top-to-bottom clean up every two weeks. I suspected Eve of whipping out the vacuum every now and then when no one was around to notice, but she – and all of us – seemed happy enough with the middle ground we’d found.
* * *
It seems any time you have adults together, sharing jobs and tasks, there is a tendency for everyone to vacillate between feeling overly responsible, on one hand, and not wanting to know, on the other. So to avoid too much second-guessing and dancing around these issues, we early on defined “accountabilities”, an unpleasant multi-syllabic word that we hoped would help keep the day-to-day management of things clear and impersonal.
One rainy Saturday afternoon, we sat down and brain-stormed all the areas we could think of where we were going to have to work together to make a well-organised lifestyle happen. We outlined areas like rubbish disposal, gardens, cleaners, fridges, garage and carport. There were routine tasks such as dealing with the landlord, managing the accounts and paying the bills, ensuring internet and telecommunication worked, sorting out insurance.
Then, in turn, we each chose a couple of these areas for which to be responsible. That meant you knew who to go to if you had a question, a complaint, or even an acknowledgement.
Over the months that followed, we were very dependable and treated our accountabilities as sacred contracts. We were most embarrassed it there were ever complaints in our area. The only realm that gave us any problem was garbage disposal. We could not count on the garbage getting up to the street like clockwork on Monday nights, or the recycling bin being organised properly.
That’s because that was Jess’ area of responsibility. We discovered nothing much had changed in the decades since our teenage years, and young people on the threshold of adulthood still make dodgy roommates.
Otherwise, it was beginning to look like we were getting it all handled. Could I start to breathe easy?