For me, moving back home means moving back into a community of all generations.
In college I took political theory classes that routinely covered the subject of community. The classes even emphasized our era’s tragic shortage of intergenerational concern. It makes for great conversation in a classroom hundreds or thousands of miles from your elderly neighbors and relatives. You can talk about the defense of widows with ardor, your high heels crossed and your pencil poised over a notebook. But you don’t realize what community costs.
When an elderly neighbor, whom I’ll call “Mildred,” moved into my house this summer, I did not find myself the arduous person of grand sacrifice I had envisioned. College left me privacy-starved and eager to self-medicate with plenty of alone.
“It’s hard,” I told my mom, “To have a stranger in the house all the time.”
I had forgotten that once upon a time Mildred had actually swaddled and coddled infant-Chelsea when my mother had mono.
I see Mildred’s white head on the pillow in the spare room every day when I wake up. In the daytime my mother takes Mildred to flower stores and gives her meals and medicine. Since I live here, I help her.
I recently picked up Mildred from a hair appointment that had morphed from an expected half-hour interlude to a three hour perm in a back porch salon that a friend of hers has run for 50 years.
Mildred sat beneath the dryer while the elderly hairdresser observed an escalating electrical storm through the window. She expressed dread when the wind sucked the white curtains against the screen.
The hairdresser turned and adjusted Mildred painfully in the chair. Mildred gasped in pain, but said nothing more about the event until later. I didn’t know enough to end the appointment. The hairdresser brooded over her, then commenced clipping and razing.
The appointment stretched so long I missed prayer meeting—and nothing upsets a pious Baptist girl who’s been far away from home like missing another prayer meeting.
While I guided Mildred through the storm with a bag over her new perm, I felt tricked about community. Where was the glamour? The privacy? The convenience?
On my way back that night, the storm had knocked a telephone pole into the road, blocking my route. I sat thirty seconds away from home, but I couldn’t get there.
To every professor and student who had spouted the virtues of community my mind cried, “Have you tried this?”
To God I said, “I am angry enough to die,” then recognized that those words belonged to Jonah. Jonah, who scorned God for not letting him do religion the comfortable way he expected.
On a morning soon afterward, Mildred called me into her room and asked me to “sit down a minute.” She threaded her arm through mine. A hot pink afghan someone made for me in my babyhood covered her legs. She asked, with some confusion, if I would write down some of the stories of her life. With my slow consent, she began.
I listened hard, at first because I was discovering Mildred’s talent for storytelling, and then because I wanted full retention. Soon I lay back against the pillows with her and listened for a full hour. And I liked it much better than being alone.