We were a nucleus of six.
But our lives were full of others, people who knew us as Rick and Heather, rather than “Shedders”. Only months ago, we had all been typical twosomes with normal homes and predictable lifestyles. Now, suddenly, in the eyes of those outside the nucleus, we were something more complex to deal with. Friends who wouldn’t have thought twice about dropping over on a Sunday afternoon were no longer confident that they’d be completely welcome, or that they wouldn’t be interrupting some strange household ritual. A son who might pop in with a pillowcaseful of laundry now saw the washing machine as off limits. When people rang they couldn’t be sure whose voice it was answering the phone. It required of everyone new ways of looking at old relationships.
And we Shedders of course wanted it all. We wanted the closeness and camaraderie of our new family as well as the same time-honoured way of connecting with every other person in our lives.
Perhaps my deepest concerns about our shared journey related to this issue. I wasn’t so much uneasy about the relationships among the six of us, but rather with those others in orbit around me who had regarded our home as a potential base camp: our children, Michael and Jenn; my mother, who came from Canada every couple of years to visit; my cousin Elaine, who was acquiring her Australian citizenship and accustomed to dropping in for days or months; various adventurous friends and family members from Canada who liked to hazard their way over the equator to spend time with us. When we lived in our spacious house in the suburbs, we often had people spilling over from the guest room into the kids’ bedrooms or onto the lounge room sofa. I loved being able to provide that freedom for our guests, knowing that dear friends and family could come and go as they wished, wake in the morning as it suited them, wander into the kitchen to make breakfast before launching into their day.
And now! – we were living in paradise, in nothing less than a resort we wanted to share with everyone important to us. There were kayaks in our boathouse, large lawns to run or sun on, gardens to appreciate, lorikeets to feed, breathtaking views to admire. It was a place where any self-respecting guest would love to stay, and an experience any self-respecting host would love to offer. However, I knew our living arrangements were likely to impact the willingness of our offspring and various travellers to continue to drop in, and also that their visits would impact on the comfort of my housemates. I felt deeply uneasy.
During this time, the Shedders had a special get-together about houseguests. At the meeting I expressed the view – as I often had in the past – that I didn’t want to feel inhibited about having people come to stay. This time I wanted to check out how everyone else felt about the whole issue. We talked it over. Needless to say, we all had similar attitudes and concerns.
Michael reminded us of Ben Franklin’s old saw that fish and visitors start to stink after three days – in particular, other people’s visitors. We recognised that if a guest were staying on for more than a few days, there would begin to be a small financial burden on the non-host tenants. Water and electricity bills would be marginally impacted, as would meal preparation.
We tried to establish some guidelines that would make it all workable. We got out our existing utilities bills and did the maths, deciding that four or five dollars a day would cover these expenses. Then someone suggested there would also be a little spiritual wear and tear caused by long-term guests, and another few dollars a day might help to offset that. In the end, we settled on ten dollars a day for a houseguest staying on for longer than a week, to be paid into the kitty by the host.
I privately thought of it as the Guest Tax. The logic was indisputable, but I couldn’t quite reconcile it with the spirit of generosity and inclusiveness we were cultivating. We were exploring the boundaries but to my mind hadn’t successfully found them in this area.
* * *
At some point, possibly in some primal way related to the progress of the Shedders’ retirement community, our son and daughter, Jenn and Michael, both got itchy feet and, less than a year apart, decided to head to Canada for a while to test their mettle against serious winters and to be in proximity to other family members.
As part of their Sydney wind-down, they each spent a few weeks with us in Longueville. We had a day-bed in our private sitting area that became their perch, and their belongings were scattered about the lower part of the house.
It was a wonderful time, being with them as young adults, with the long gap of their adventure looming ahead. We appreciated each other’s company as never before. We enjoyed sharing visits from their friends as they came to say goodbye. We had excursions in the kayaks on Tambourine Bay, battling the waves on Lane Cove River or drifting into the mangrove swamps at the bay’s source. We took long walks in the reserve along the bay. Sometimes we’d share meals with the rest of the household, but more often we’d slip out for dinner or have takeaway on the big outdoor table near the entrance to our private area.
Although the other residents made Jenn and Michael welcome, we were jealous of our limited time together and tended to be a little isolated from our Shedders community. We wanted our new family to integrate with the old – but there was only so much we could share.
Eve and Daniel had been active for many years in the HAI (Human Awareness Institute) community, and had become close friends with some of the facilitators who came over from America from time to time to lead the programs. These visitors had become accustomed to staying with Eve and Daniel when they were in Sydney, and during our time together in Longueville Eve and Daniel asked us if they could be welcomed into our house. “Fine with me,” I said, although privately I wasn’t sure what impact these dynamic strangers would have on my peace of mind.
As you might guess, I needn’t have worried. Sarah and Peter were warm and lively people who became part of whatever the Shedders would get up to. Considering the loving and graceful work they did in the courses they led, they were ferociously competitive game players who added considerable spice to nights when we played games together.
Sarah and Peter had no challenges whatever with joining in and being a whole-hearted part of the family, and Eve and Daniel warmly shared them. It was a revelation to me how simply saying, “Fine with me” could enliven my life.
Judy’s sister Susan, who lived in Canberra, would drop in for a few days from time to time. In the beginning, she could be found having a quiet cup of tea in some unobtrusive part of the house, but as we all got to know one other better, she came out of hiding and became a full on participant in our day-to-day adventures. She joined in the cooking and went for walks with Eve or myself. Her presence, like that of all of our guests, provided variety and was always a contribution.
Shortly before we left the Longueville house, my mother, who was in her late eighties, came to visit again – her fifth visit to Australia but her first in our shared house. She had serious doubts about living in communal quarters (“Perhaps I could just have a burner downstairs to cook on?”) but her sense of adventure and her eagerness to escape the Canadian winter brought her to us despite her reservations. As she was staying for over a month, Rick and I shifted some of our day-to-day possessions into our big sitting room and set her up in privacy in our own bedroom.
As part of my wind-down from work, I was at the office only three days a week, and thoroughly enjoyed the remaining time with Mum – doing jigsaw puzzles, taking day trips to local parks, walking through our gardens speculating about the non-Canadian foliage. She especially loved the lorikeets who came to visit at the bird feeder, and spent much time taming them to eat directly from her hand.
Everyone made her feel welcome. Always interested in what was going on, she didn’t miss a thing with respect to what was going on in the household. Eve, whose own mother had died when Eve was in her twenties, adopted mine as her own. Mum soon got used to slipping upstairs to make a cup of coffee, and eventually blended into the family.
During her stay, the Shedders refused to accept any contributions to the kitty. The Guest Tax was fading away.
* * *
Living in the eye of the hurricane was Jess, Michael and Judy’s son. We hardly saw him. It’s not unusual for a teenager to disappear into a rather smelly bedroom and rarely be seen, but for poor Jess – with six adults around to make polite inquiries and offer suggestions – the Longueville house provided a challenging environment in which to come of age. He had typical teenage encounters with drugs, alcohol and girls, and somehow couldn’t see the benefit in having six adults to make judgments, tease mercilessly and offer counsel. He mastered the art of eye-rolling and muttering “Whatever”.
Rick helped Jess find a job at the telecom company where Rick had been contracting for several years. Jess discovered to his and everyone else’s amazement that he had a gift for call centre work. In his own words, imagine getting paid to bullshit people. He was relentlessly disparaging about the customers, but the company paid him well and kept him off the streets eight hours a day.
Through it all there were rousing battles with his parents – that his teenage confrontations with Michael and Judy were public viewing must have made it just that much more daunting for both him and them. But somehow Jess made the best of it. He had his nineteenth and twentieth birthdays while living with us in the Longueville house. Both were celebrated with noisy parties, much alcohol and many bodies asleep on the lawns. The inconvenience to our comfort was a small price to pay for the fun of participating in another son lurching toward adulthood.
In these challenging circumstances, Jess grew up. I’m sure he wouldn’t have agreed with the old wisdom that it takes a village to raise a child. His housemates were an uncomfortable amalgam of village, family and annoying family friends.
But I for one wouldn’t have missed a minute of it.
* * *
The human beings in our household really caused very little problem.
It was the cats that threatened to collapse the roof.
For one thing, Tori and Jordie were both cats of-a-certain-age, not unlike their owners, and had limited flexibility. And, as seems to be common among cats, they didn’t like each other.
Tori, who had come aboard with Rick and me, was all girl. She reminded me of my daughter when she was four or five years old and would for no apparent reason begin screaming, “Michael’s looking at me”, when her brother innocently glanced in her direction. In similar fashion, Tori the cat would notice Jordie (who had arrived with Michael and Judy) entering her space, and would throw a hissy-fit. This of course encouraged Jordie to stroll into a room in which Tori was presiding, and stand in the doorway inoffensively licking a paw. Tori would launch into her fit and Jordie would saunter off, twitching his tail and muttering, “My, my, what interesting behaviour.” The performance wouldn’t have been too much cause for concern except for the piercing caterwauling which resulted in at least one coffee cup being knocked over by a startled adult.
Perhaps we could have mastered this aspect of the problem. But there was another, more abiding, one: eating patterns. Jordie was all boy. He was perpetually hungry, a trencherman who would wolf down anything he could get a canine tooth into. We quickly learned not to leave food lying about in the kitchen. The real predicament was that his excesses resulted in constant and random piles of cat spew, so his mother (Judy) perpetually had him on a diet.
At the other end of the gourmandising spectrum crouched Tori. She was a fussy eater and very much a browser, taking a nibble here and there as she wandered by her food dish. Her mother (me) was perpetually trying to make a secure food environment in which she could pick away to her heart’s content.
You can see the problem. Within twelve minutes of arriving at the house (well, within twelve minutes of coming out of the self-imposed cat-seclusion that follows moving house), Jordie the Wolf had figured out where Tori’s food dishes lay and devoured her day’s rations.
It’s an established fact that cats have small brains with very few wrinkles in which to store clever thoughts. You’d imagine six intelligent humans could out-think them in a flash. But not here. As soon as we’d work out how to give Tori outside access by cracking open a window, Jordie would find the window and get into the food dish. He learned to open sliding doors, climb onto balconies and roofs, and wait in hiding until a human watchdog was out of the way.
In the end, the cats took turns being confined to quarters, not a happy solution for either cat or either mum. Jordie gained a little weight, Tori lost a little and their owners acquired a few more grey hairs.
In view of these challenges, it was difficult to picture cats and dogs in our future together – but at the same time impossible to picture life without them. I’d read somewhere that there are 0.7 cats and dogs per head of population in Australia, an indication that people love their pets. I was aware of the research showing how much comfort these creatures provided to the ageing and isolated. In our own process of shedding, unexpected attachments were surfacing. How strong and how selective our connection to our domestic animals was surprised even an animal lover like myself.
* * *
Ultimately, the issue was generosity. How could we balance our vision for a communal way of life with human frailties like being territorial and hungering for privacy? We had put ourselves in a situation which demanded of us to keep up our social skills. The flexibility and attention required was part of what was going to keep us young.
Most important of all, I was finding that as we adopted others’ friends and families, not to mention pets, our social circles were growing exponentially. More challenges – but more goodwill, more heartfelt connection, and more fun. What I was conditioned to – for example, the nuclear family – wasn’t necessarily what made me happiest.
We were learning. Every step of the way, our Shedders family was expanding in generosity and inclusiveness.