Fledgling Adults Trying Their Wings - In Our House

FALLEN leaves cover the bare tracks on the back lawn where Matthew parked his car last summer. Nial's ratty brown towel and one swim flipper hang in the crotch of the maple tree, exposed now the tree is bare. The phone bills are back to normal. Our tenants have gone - home to Scotland, to Wales, to New Zealand, to Ireland, back to Harvard, to the New York theater, to a new life in Washington, D.C. My mother and I have our house to ourselves again, along with peace, quiet, and a nice sense of order.

Young people who take summer jobs on Martha's Vineyard, where we live, can't afford the usual available housing. So from mid-May to mid-October we open our house to 20-year-olds. It is a big, old, inconvenient house with rambling passages, attics, and surprise rooms.

Each year we wonder if we're entirely sane to take on other people's newly fledged children, suspended between teenage and adulthood, so sure of themselves and yet so vulnerable. We find ourselves in the reluctant roles of housemother, martinet, psychologist, confidant, protector, matchmaker, peacemaker.

Hywell, from Wales, arrived at our house early in the season before the chartreuse buds had opened on the maple. He kept his surfboard outside, leaning against the big tree. The instant the wind backed around he would head for Squibnocket Beach in his black neoprene wetsuit with its florescent green stripe. While we, bundled in mittens and scarves, hauled wood for our fire, he surfed. Hywell was rebuilding a VW van to take him across America to California and the perfect Pacific surf. He was an intimidating sight when we'd see him unexpectedly in Vineyard Haven, his pale, pale eyes shining through a wild tangle of hair, self-consciously wiping perpetually greasy hands on perpetually greasy jeans.

One night Hywell made a Welsh supper for us with Welsh bread sauce on sliced roast. He told us of his Welsh countryside, the stone house with two-foot thick walls, the hills, his grandmother's recipe for bread sauce. Was our fierce Welshman homesick for his wild country?

Irish Nial met Hywell at Squibnocket Beach, and we agreed they could work off part of their rent by painting. They would come home after painting someone else's house all day and scrape, sand, and paint again for money. Nial painted the houses of homeowners we'd only read about. He was saving to buy a bar in Dublin, had one already picked out, had a girl waiting for him, he hoped, back in Ireland.

Matthew, depressed over an unsatisfactory romance, came to us from the shipyard, where he worked as a rigger. He had a degree in Chinese and had spent a year teaching English in China, an alien in an alien culture. Someday he would write a book, he said. But for now he was going to mellow out. Auburn haired, handsome Matthew, the quiet sophisticate. It was difficult to keep his sophisticate image when he seemed to draw the family's grandchildren without making the slightest overture. Babies would paddle across the floor on all fours and haul themselves up to knee-level on Matthew's neat jeans.

Nine-year-old Sarah once watched with liquid brown eyes while Matthew ate his spaghetti. ``That's my favorite meal,'' said Sarah. ``I'll bet it's good,'' she said. ``My family probably won't eat for hours,'' she said. When Matthew finally yielded, the telephone rang and he heard her tell her parents, ``Matthew and I are just talking.'' He had an eerie premonition of Sarah 10 years from now.

LESLIE's parents brought her here with a carload of clothes when school vacation started. Would this house suit their cherished daughter in her crimson Harvard sweatshirt? Leslie is a most American of young women, but her parents escaped from China in the '60s, uprooting themselves from thousands of years of culture to start over. Leslie would listen, eyes wide with interest, as we told her about our 200-year-old house. Her parents have advanced degrees and a home in Westchester County.

Leslie met Matthew a week later, after he returned from a trip. She was on the phone, chatting exuberantly with her parents in Chinese. ``I should tell you I speak Chinese,'' Matthew told her later, and Leslie flushed hotly.

The rumble of size 12 boots on the attic stairs woke me each morning at six. Kiwi Paul - he was called to distinguish him from Scottish Paul - was off to earn enough money to travel, travel, travel. There'd be a jam-covered knife in some odd place each morning - next to the telephone, on the clean tablecloth, in a drawer. It was his trademark, the jam-covered knife. Odd, the things one misses.

THE telephone! A passion, a mania for the telephone. Leslie, Beth, Matthew. And the New England Telephone Company bills with half-hour calls to New Zealand, Scotland, Ireland. We threatened. We reasoned. A brother-in-law came over and snipped the wire when he found Beth had taken the phone into her bedroom so she could talk comfortably while he had been dialing for an hour.

Beth had come from New York to be stage manager for an outdoor production of The Tempest. For my mother's birthday, Beth gave her two tickets to a performance. She had the room that catches the southwest wind in summer, whispering through the screen, billowing out the white curtains. She, tiny herself, slept in the tiny spool bed.

When we first told her about the West Tisbury dump, Beth thought we meant a clothing store, and she brightened. A new shopping experience. Beth dresses with flair, theatrically, New York style. We islanders plod along in L.L. Bean. But the recycling area of the West Tisbury dump exceeded every dreamed-of shopping experience and Beth brought home armloads of dresses, bathing suits, sweaters, shirts, jeans, all her size, all free, left behind by a super petite someone cleaning out her closet.

One night Matthew hitchhiked home from a rock concert in Gay Head, and was picked up by singer Carly Simon, our local celebrity. She autographed a card for him and said she knew his landlady. Matthew, who is not easily impressed, was.

At times it didn't seem worth it. The upstairs shower leaked through the ceiling onto the dining-room carpet when someone left the shower curtain outside the stall. We tripped over battery cables snaking up the brick steps into the kitchen from Nial's dead truck.

We, who are not tidy ourselves, were appalled by Hywell's incomparable mess. We had to answer late telephone calls at 2:30 a.m., and early telephone calls at 5:30 a.m., while each recipient slept through the insistent ringing.

Then there was the weekend Leslie's parents stayed at our Bed and Breakfast and decided to surprise Leslie (and us) by preparing a home-cooked Chinese dinner for eight of Leslie's friends, not understanding we had sixteen dinner guests ourselves for traditional Saturday night Boston baked beans. The confusion of a Chinese meal underway and Boston beans baking is unimaginable.

It's quiet now. We no longer have to clean the dishes immediately, hoping to set a good example. We hear only echoes of our tenants, their laughter, footsteps, smell only the remains of Nial's overcooked steaks, feel a phantom draft from the front door that Kiwi Paul no longer leaves ajar. We hear again Leslie and Scotty Paul strumming guitars outdoors for Matthew and Beth and Kiwi Paul and Nial and Hywell on a soft evening with dew on the grass and a big moon.

``I read your poems in Chinese last night,'' Leslie's mother told mine, a poet. How do pounding surf, crying gulls, stone walls, and New England textures translate into another world? ``The feelings are international,'' Leslie's mother said.

Matthew didn't want to say goodbye. He left before dawn for Washington, a woman he loves, and a new life involving ties and jackets. He also left behind a small crystal pendant with a note: ``To hang in the kitchen window where you can watch rainbows while you do the dishes.''

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