Here’s how it happens: my oldest child—a preteen—is having a friend spend the night. This is kind of new, here in this house, in this neighborhood, for our family. Post-recession, I mean. I’m surprised how self-conscious I am on my daughter’s behalf. It’s really hot in our house these days, and we don’t have air conditioning. There are doors with no knobs, chickens have rendered the back yard unusable, and our driveway is now occupied with raised garden beds where the SUV used to be parked. Furniture is thrift-store ravaged and mismatched, but what we lack in decorum we make up for in freedom from too many rules about Things.
She says, “your house is colorful.” I look at this crumbling place and I see the salvation of its underpriced square-footage and prolific fruit trees. This has been safe harbor, even with the nearby train tracks and concomitant hoboes, and the soup kitchen lines that stretch through our alley. This cocoon makes me smile when I walk up to its rickety front porch. Thank you, House, for rocking us in your nest. I bite back apologetic explanations for the bicycles in the dining room and the cords from all the whirring fans that keep us from wilting in this destructive heat. (Even with the fans, I spend the hot afternoons listless as a lizard on a rock. Slow blink. Slow blink. Slow blink.)
I get nervous about the food we stock. I know we don’t have any of the teen-friendly fare of the sort that’s referred to as “EXTREME!” in the commercials. There is nothing for them to pour conveniently into their mouths while they play video games. We don’t have the kind of yogurt that comes with Amazing Color-Changing Sprinkle Topping. On this day, we’ve chopped pounds and pounds of squash from our own ample harvest, and that’s going to comprise the bulk of our dinner. My husband steams it, seasons it lightly with butter, salt, and pepper, and serves it with a pot of brown rice. Our young houseguest eats heartily and enthusiastically, then goes out to tend to the chickens and pick up fallen apples from the tree, a nightly chore. We package up two half-dozen containers of eggs for the neighbors, and pile the apples in a basket for the young family whose child we babysit.
The next day, there is the creek. It’s just so hot, and our little waterway bubbles below the foot bridge and lures the children with the smell of the fennel that grows in great, fluffy drifts on its shores. My three break small green branches from the plants and chew them, casually, to the amazement of our visitor. We have to climb through the apocalyptic remnants of a concrete ditch, make our way under a bridge with lovers’ graffiti, and wade through the murky water to get to our beach made of smooth stones and small shells. Our visitor is cautious and wonders if it’s “against the law” to go into the creek, and I remind her that there are no signs, we mean no harm, and we’ll do no damage. Even the geese and ducks seem to welcome us, and come very close to investigate. It pleases me to share this world.
Our new friend gets a splinter on her foot on our adventures, her first badge of tribal initiation. At home, I make up a warm footbath with crushed lavender from the front yard, and my son tells her that the lavender will help with the splinter and with her emotions, too. “It’ll make you feel okay with having a splinter until it gets better. It will give you a peaceful feeling.” I smooth her hair down, kiss the top of her head, this sweet girl. She holds her foot up to me to investigate.