The Gift of Intersection

I was going to say that I couldn't have predicted how important she would become to me--the 96 year-old woman whose home I now call my own. But that's not true. I could have predicted it. It's what I'm like.

A few years ago my husband and I bought a house whose previous owner had made it her home for over 60 years. She and her husband raised twelve children there. I was one of twelve children. Even the realtor said she was one of twelve children. Although that last part was a little too "meant to be" for my taste, I felt drawn to the house, humbled by its history, and connected to the woman who was at its center.

I was aware that the woman whose home this had been now lived in a nursing home at the end of the block. On a beautiful fall day after we moved in to the house, I sat with some of my family, including my own aging mom, in our sunroom. It was my son's second birthday and we were expecting our second child any day. As I looked out the window, I noticed an elderly woman being pushed in a wheelchair up the neighbor’s driveway. It had to be the previous owner of our home and one of her children. As swiftly as someone over nine months pregnant can move, I bolted outside. I felt I had to meet this woman. I felt that she and my mom, this matriarch of my big family, should meet. They would recognize themselves in each other.

I hoped to hear from the woman about the house. Her house. Where we now lived. She and her daughter warmly obliged with a handful of stories, the sort that sound familiar to people from large families. I wanted to assure the woman we would do right by this house and respect the decades of family life wrapped up in it. The woman was pleased to see there would be children about the place and I told her how my husband and I looked forward to raising them there. We joked about how the house wouldn’t be seeing twelve children this time around. Far from it. This would be one of several such encounters over the next few years, as the woman’s sons and daughters would push their mother down the street to see her old house.

Meanwhile, through neighbors and mutual acquaintances in a medium-sized city that behaves like a small town, I heard more about this woman, her family, her countless community contributions. She sounded interesting. Smart. And funny. Consistent with the twinkle I had noticed in her eye. She sounded well educated, especially for her generation. Her support of the local arts and education was legendary. She sounded committed and compassionate, an advocate for children and the poor. Someone remarked to me once that she wasn’t always very fussy about keeping house, which made me smile. I loved that.

The woman and her children came by the house occasionally, never knocking on our door or expecting to visit—just wanting to be near the house and remember. I was always glad if I happened to see them so my husband, our boys, and I could offer them a welcome. I thought it must have seemed strange for this woman, even painful at times, and I wondered how my mom might feel if our family home were to become someone else’s. On one visit, her body and speech noticeably altered by a recent stroke, the woman verbalized little but expressed much when she said, “I miss this place.”

One Sunday, I noticed the woman and some of her family on the sidewalk. As I went outside to greet them, a daughter said the woman’s health had declined and that they had brought in hospice to the nursing home. I knelt down to say hello to the woman, and wrapped my hand gently around her forearm as I always did. The family said they were hoping to have a photo in front of the house. I felt relieved to be there to take the photo so they could all be in it. I took a few so one was sure to turn out: the woman in her wheelchair, wearing a cap that said, “Life is Good,” flanked by her loving family in front of their old house.

A few days later, we saw the woman's obituary in the paper. We went to her funeral Mass at the church a few blocks away where she had long worshipped. Where, year after year, she surely had prayed for the well-being of her big family, as my mom always had. The woman was memorialized by her children and grandchildren in a way I figured she would be. And I cried like a baby.

This sort of intersection and connection is powerful to me. Sacred, even. Being affected in this way makes me feel alive. It also makes me feel heavy and heartbroken sometimes. But I wouldn't have it any other way.

Thank you, Mom, for giving me the sense of connection that informs how I move through life. For raising a big family with Dad and holding it together. For instilling a respect and appreciation for those who came before us. The extended family of relatives. The neighborhood. For, with me in tow, going out of your way to reconnect with an old acquaintance rather than avoiding her so you wouldn’t have to make small talk. For always going to the funeral. For teaching me that people matter and where they come from matters and what they've been through matters. That homes have histories and texture and the richness of memories. Like the ones I'm making now in the house that will always feel shared.

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