Summer House: Ch. 17

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“When is Dad coming?” I heard Bernard ask his sister.

“I don’t know,” she replied. It was the first time she told him she didn’t know, rather than saying he wasn’t coming.

“Why don’t you know? You know everything! He isn’t coming, is he?”

Bernard raced through the kitchen and out the back door.

“I don’t know what to tell him,” Elise said.

“You told him the truth,” I replied. “That you don’t know.”

“Yeah, but it leaves out a big half of the real truth, which is that we’re not a whole family anymore.”

“There are all sorts of ways to make a family, Elise.”

She looked at me with a flash of hope before her eyes clouded over and she shuffled up the stairs.

That evening, after Bernard was tucked in, and Elise, who’d discovered my Jane Austen collection, was nestled in her room with Mansfield Park, Sonya and I sat in my kitchen to share a pot of mint tisane. We brewed it from our own garden mix of spearmint, peppermint, Bergamot mint, and apple mint.

“We can sell this,” Sonya said.

“It’s good mix. Maybe a bit sharp. I think we should add some basil–round it out.”

“Or chamomile.”

We looked out the window at the narrow garden between the two houses. A porch light hid our reflections, illuminating the canna lilies and hanging fuschias.

“I need to figure out what we’re going to do after Labor Day,” Sonya said. “It’ll be here so soon.”

“Stay here,” I said. She looked at me, as if I’d said it too suddenly. She didn’t know that I’d devoted hours to thinking this through. What I wanted, what I really wanted, was to let them stay rent-free. I didn’t need the other half of the duplex empty all winter. I really didn’t want to rent it out to anyone else. I didn’t need the income–not really. Not with my only housing expenses being property tax and insurance. I had so much, more than I needed, and I wanted to share.

“Are you kidding?” she replied. “There’s no way  I can afford this! We’re only able to be here this summer because he paid the summer rent. There’s no way I can continue with this on my own. No, we’ll move back to the mainland, to some one-room apartment, while I figure out what I’m going to do.”

I wasn’t new to being in a position to share what I had, and I’d learned through experience that even with the best intentions, generosity won’t always be received.

I’d ruined friendships before through giving. I had a student once. He took all the classes from me he could, then during the last few years while he focused on his major, when he was no longer my student, we became friends. He dropped by several times a week during office hours. We took long walks through campus together. We talked about Thoreau and Margaret Fuller and finding ways to live a true life in a false world. During the end of his junior year, he feared he’d have to drop out. He’d run out of funds. I had extra. I found a way to pay his tuition, anonymously. He discovered it was me. My gift allowed him to finish his degree. But it ruined our friendship. We always played that we were equals–peers. And, of course, as humans, we were. So when we were together, we were together as two humans. But of course, I was older. I had completed my degrees. I was a professor. And, he now felt he was in my debt. The power differential between us got jammed up. He stopped coming by as often, and when he did, he felt obliged to ask my advice, as if he were asking permission, and I felt reluctant to give it, as if it would be construed as a directive.

I didn’t trust the power differential between Sonya and me to withstand the gift of free rent. I needed things to feel equal between us. There needed to be an exchange, something flowing two ways.

I researched winter rental rates. I thought carefully about what she might be able to afford, so I was prepared when I suggested that she and her family stay here, and ready when she protested that she couldn’t afford it.

“You’re thinking of summer rates,” I said. “Winter rates are lower, especially if it’s a year-round lease. Saves me the trouble of having to find new tenants.”

“What are you talking?”

“Five-fifty a month.”

“Seriously?”

It was high enough not to feel like charity, but low enough to be affordable, with careful budgeting and good late-summer farmers’ market sales.

“It’s a lifestyle change,” she said. She looked inside her mug of tea and sighed. “You know I love it here. I’ll have to talk with the kids. What’s the school like?”

The island had a two-room school for twenty-five students, eighteen kindergarten through eighth graders in one room, and seven high school students in the other. Two teachers, one for each mixed-grade class, provided the main instruction, and specialists in various fields offered extra instruction. I’d been asked to provide writing and literature courses for the high-schoolers, and Shingo had agreed to teach art workshops for all the kids.

It was a progressive school, with an integrated, project-based curriculum tied closely to the island community, reflecting the peculiar blend of hippie/new-age/artist/drop-out and rural subsistence lifestyles that formed the peculiar culture here.

When I compared it to an amalgam of Rudolph Stiener, Reggio-Emilia, and John Holt, Sonya caught my meaning immediately.

“Now that sounds like my kind of school!” she said. “I’ve been searching for a school like that for Bernard back home, and the closest I could find was a Montessori magnet school run by the district.”

“Do you have an education background?” I asked.

“I do!” she replied. “I used to be a teacher before Bernard was born.”

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