There is that great line in “The Sound of Music” when the promoter/hustler Uncle Max says, of being a guest at the von Trapp estate, “I love rich people. I love the way they live. I love the way I live when I’m with them.”
So a couple of months ago when our friends Jim and Joy asked if we would like to join them at her cousin’s ski house in New Hampshire for a few days over February vacation, the answer was, “Well…yeah.” Not that anyone involved is wealthy, except in that First World way that we are all wealthy and constantly forgetting.
It’s a wonderful thing to stay in a house where the owners are unknown to you, the discovery of their private world that exists in the photos and artwork on the walls and in their choice of kitchen utensils. Once, a long time ago, I spent the night in John Updike’s house where my college roommate was house-sitting and taking care of his young step-son while he and his wife were away. I confess, I did look at the family photo albums (lots of Harvard graduations, I think), but I just peeked into the open door to his study—I didn’t go inside. In the morning in the shower I thought, as I squeezed the shampoo, (supermarket variety) “Hey, hey! I’m using John Updike’s shampoo.”
But what was better than spending a few nights in a lovely ski house was spending a few nights with friends we have known for years but rarely see in such a relaxed setting. As we talked and drank wine the first evening, using the common vocabulary of people and places and jokes and encounters known to all of us, it occurred to me how fortunate we are. So few people I know live in the same community they grew up in where that kind of knowing continues to adulthood. Most of us don’t have close family anywhere nearby so we’ve begun to create something different around us. And it looks a lot like a family.
While none of my friends in Maine can summon up a mental image of the yellow floral paramecium-under-the-microscope wallpaper from my childhood bedroom nor do they know my siblings who live far away, over the past 15 or more years we have walked together through deaths, divorces, new babies, miscarriages, job loss, weddings, and the day-to-day business of living and raising children and eating lobsters in the summertime.
Last fall I was going through a hard time in a certain compartment of my life. I should have been over it, but I wasn’t. My friend Denise, in her wise and perceptive family doc way, listened to all my woes. As we stood in front of her refrigerator she didn’t say, “Get over it, you big baby,” she simply looked me in the eye and raised a single issue from my childhood that we’ve talked about many times over the years. “This pushes that button, doesn’t it?” she said. “Well…yeah.” As I stood there nonplussed but approaching comprehension, she hugged me and told me she loved me. How rich and delicious it is to be known and loved without having to explain anything at all.
But the kind of belonging I hold so dear doesn’t come without cost. The burden of living in one small community for 17 years means that the people you grow to love grow old. Lately at parties I see many of the fascinating people, often young retirees, we met when we first moved to Maine. They are getting older; some are infirm. And some are gone. I’m sure they see the same thing in me: “Boy, she was so young when I first met her but she’s no spring chicken anymore!”
But here I’ll remain, as much as Scott and I talk about winning Powerball or writing a trashy bestseller together to enable us to spend part of the year in a warm place reading and diving or to buy a comfy ski house of our own. We’ll continue go to work and sit at the kitchen table in the evenings helping our boys with homework. Over the years we’ll suffer the loss of many good people we’ve looked up to and watch these wonderful children all around us grow into interesting adults – some of whom have the audacity to leave Maine and move to New York City. (This is convenient, however, if you miss an evening connection at a NY airport and need a place to stay in Manhattan. You call someone up and say, “Hey, sweetheart, as Frost says, ‘Home is a place that when you go there they have to take you in’ so I’ll get a taxi and be there in about half an hour.”)
The first evening we stayed at the ski house in New Hampshire last week we sent the boys to bed about 9:30 p.m. and then Joy, Jim, Scott and I stayed up awhile talking – catching up, laughing, planning for the next day’s skiing at Attitash. We had just gotten ourselves squared away in a guest room downstairs and turned off the light, when Jim knocked on the door. “You’ve got to see this,” he said and motioned us back upstairs to the living area. All the lights were off, but we didn’t need them. The moonlight was almost as bright as day. Through the big windows that spanned the width of the room, Mt. Washington loomed; its snow cover shining brilliantly in the moonlight.
The four of us stood there, quiet and marveling, grateful for the chance to experience it together. Rich people indeed.
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