Get the best of Commons Magazine — FREE!

November 22, 2008

House of Commons

Looking back at three decades of friends, family and fun in a shared household

Over time, without my planning it, my house has become part of the commons.

I’ve lived in the same house for 36 years, almost unheard of in this age of family uprootings. I’ve always shared the house with other people, too. I still do.

The first epoch in the house was the time of my children’s growing up. In 1972, I was a newly divorced mother of two small children, and I bought the house in Berkeley, California, with the help of my parents. I was afraid I’d feel isolated if I lived alone with the kids, especially since their father moved away soon after we parted, and I thought it would be good for them, too, to have other caring adults in the household. I chose a homey, shingled house, whose four/plus bedrooms made it plenty big enough to share with others. Two venerable walnut trees arched over the house in the back yard.

This old house: Susan Moon (left) with current housemates in front of their Berkeley home.

Friends moved in with me—and we four adults and three kids lived together for the first few years. The walnut trees bore many walnuts that we dried in the attic and put into pies. The other mother and I took turns making supper for the kids. A housemate painted a sun on the kitchen ceiling, with wiggly yellow rays reaching out.

We had massage classes on the living room floor in front of the fire, and wild parties with homemade music. I see now that it might not have been the most stable household possible for the kids, but in Berkeley in the ’70s, it seemed almost normal. We were transcending the claustrophobic limits of the nuclear family.

The time went by, the people came and went. Those who moved in were always friends or friends of friends. An artist slept in the kitchen hallway in order to use her bedroom for a studio. One man spent hours in his room practicing reflexology on his own feet while wearing a turban and pantaloons. As the tides ebbed and flowed, bringing Zen practitioners, boyfriends, exchange students, dogs and cats, the kids and I remained onshore.

People who didn’t live in the house came to know it, too. The massage classes gave way to more sober events, like monthly letter-writing parties for political causes. There were house meetings about the war in El Salvador and fundraising potlucks for the nuclear freeze campaign. The kids and their friends played music in the house on various instruments. For years, three friends and I, with the help of our several children, produced a family humor magazine—Garlic, the Breath of the People—on the dining room table, pasting down the drawings and typewritten columns with wax and getting it ready for the printer. We had 300 subscribers.

The house grew its own homey culture. If you spilled something on the comfortable, slightly shabby furniture it didn’t matter much. There was usually something that needed fixing—a leaky faucet, or a broken step on the back porch—but the house had a mood of friendly welcome.

Many housemates sat at the kitchen table with me. They stayed a year, or two, or three, and eventually moved on. When my children, too, flew the coop, the house seemed to lose its purpose. In all those years of living with other people, I had been making a home for my children, and so it had been my home, too.

Now it felt big and echoey, not like home. Still, it was home base, if not home, and I stayed on. A college friend from Senegal and his school-age sons lived with me for a year while he taught at the university. A couple, friends of a friend, arrived from Vermont in a gypsy wagon they had built, and stayed for a few years, to be near their Berkeley granddaughter. And my sons came back for visits, sometimes long ones.

I was continually learning the lesson of impermanence. I knew from the beginning some housemates would be leaving, like the friend from Africa who had a yearlong appointment. Occasionally I asked someone to leave. But there were some I wished would stay.

Still, I understood that I was the owner. I couldn’t have my cake and eat it, too; I couldn’t expect people to stay in my house exactly as long as I wanted them to and no longer. So the house was a lop-sided community, privately owned. At one point I almost persuaded dear friends to buy half the house but it turned out there were tax impediments.

When I’d been in the house for 25 years, I had a reunion party, of all the people I could find who had lived there with me. The ones who were living in Chicago, Prince Edward Island, Denmark, Germany, France, and Senegal didn’t come, but local people came, and we sat in a big circle in the living room and told stories: about the time my dog ate a housemate’s lump of hashish and collapsed on the front steps with a piece of it still on her tongue that he managed to salvage, about the comparative croissant tasting event, the visiting teenagers from the Soviet Union, and about the time one of my kids, at the age of five, cut up a housemate’s diaphragm with scissors. To have all those people sitting together in the living room at the same time, 25 years of household history crunched together in one moment, was both wonderful and sad. Was it me or the house itself who had gathered everyone in? And why, when so many people had passed through, did I alone remain?

I was glad when my sister and her two daughters moved in with me, but when she bought her own house two years later and they moved out, it seemed like the end of an era. I thought it was time for me to go, too.

In 2000, I rented out the house and set off to explore other possibilities. I lived in a wine barrel in a retreat center in the country, but it was too small; I rented a room in someone else’s house but it didn’t feel like my community; I rented a beautiful flat by the beach, but it was a long haul to get to my job and my friends in Berkeley, and I was lonesome. After three years, I decided to move back in.

That was five years ago, and I’m still here, still sharing the house with others.

It’s hard work taking care of an old house, endlessly fixing and painting. It takes time, money, and energy. I’m 66. When I moved in, I was 29. I’m able to cope with it now, but for how much longer?

I think about my contemporaries, my friends and relatives: almost every one of them lives either alone or with a partner (unless they are temporarily living with me), except for a few who live in residential Zen communities. How odd that I’m the only one still living in shared housing, like a throwback. It’s not a conscious policy decision for me; I’m certainly not defying the bourgeois lifestyle. Life would be so much simpler if I sold the house and moved into a little apartment or a condo.

But here’s the thing: I don’t want to live alone. As long as I have my own private space, I like to hear the sounds of people I love knocking around the house. I like to smell their coffee in the morning (I don’t drink coffee anymore) and I like to sit down to a meal together, not every evening, but often, and find out what’s shaking.

What does an older single woman do if she doesn’t want to live alone? I could move into a co-housing community with strangers. I could move into a Zen community, if I were willing to get up at 4:30 every morning and dedicate my days to a demanding spiritual practice schedule. I could join with friends to plan a community together, but when a group of us tried that years ago, nobody ever stepped forward to do the full-time work of finding the place and setting it up, and the group fell apart. If the community already existed, if my dearest friends lived in a homey, socially relevant, spiritually grounded community in the country close to Berkeley, with a good view of an unpolluted body of water, shared organically grown vegetarian meals twice a week, and room for visiting grandchildren, I’d move right in. But I’m not holding my breath.

There’s “retirement living.” My mother and stepfather lived happily in an apartment building for seniors for the last 15 years of their lives. But they were older then than I am now, and I’m not ready for that yet.

Community exists through time, not just in space. By now the house itself has become a member of my extended family. When friends or relatives strain their backs, they let themselves into the yard through the gate and get into the hot tub. They celebrate birthdays and anniversaries in the back yard. My grown sons, my daughter-in-law and my granddaughter come visiting. The house is a way station for friends in transition. It’s become part of the commons, and I’m currently its steward. Others, through use, have gained a right of way. I don’t quite feel I have the right to sell it, not yet. I keep it open as a place of possibility. The sun is still shining on the kitchen ceiling.

In recent years, like chickens coming home to roost, people who lived in the house before have returned. My sister recently cycled through a second time, and a young woman who lived here as a child turned up briefly. Now a niece lives in the house with me—I hope she stays—and I’m waiting to see who else is coming.

Having said that, I know the time is approaching when I’ll quit being the housemother, and I don’t mean by dying. I’ll get too tired to figure out what to do about the muddy basement, or I’ll get too sad when someone I love moves out. A change is coming. Maybe someone will move in with me and promise never to leave, or someone will invite me to live with them. Maybe I’ll divide the house into two apartments and rent or sell one of them to a friend. Maybe I’ll be ready for a retirement community, or surprise myself by wanting solitude.

It’s not going to be an easy transition. I’ll need courage. But the commons is a living, breathing organism that stretches beyond the walls of my house. I’m part of it, and these days I have faith that the commons will take care of me in ways I can’t foresee.