THE old house, 179 years old this year, is sheltering a new young couple upstairs. And we downstairs are beginning a period of discovery, of learning little by little, in chance meetings at the door, what they are like. We are still in the polite stage of "hello" and "how are you?" and they are an unopened book. But they are there. And there are light young feet running up and down the back stairs, the flash of a smile as we meet. We feel a certain exhilaration of beginning again. The apartment was empty for about a month, and a deep silence settled on the house. There were no footsteps crossing the wide boards over our heads, no sounds of a stereo, cries of a baby, or strange thumps that go with living. Perhaps it should have been a relief. But to me it was lonely.
We have owned the house for 35 years and can recall all the different couples, their babies brought home from the hospital or the children who moved in with them. They usually stayed three or four years until they bought their own houses. Even in that short time we got to know them well, taking part in their emergencies and rejoicing in their successes.
The tenants have always been young, but now we feel more like their parents than their contemporaries.
Living upstairs now are Bob and Sunny and their dog, Max, and cat, Mocha. He is a student of music and she has a part-time job. The apartment is nearly empty, but they have big plans and have been known to spend hours refinishing a sturdy dining room table. They once asked if we thought $20 was high for a roll of paper for the dining room. We gasped when they offered to pay half.
We add them to the collage of young faces, some of them our age now, who have occupied the second floor. One of the earliest and dearest couples used to tap on the steam pipe to summon us upstairs for coffee. Oftentimes, when we were watching TV, they would knock on the door to ask, "What are you laughing at down here? We can't stand it." They didn't have a TV, so we'd invite them in; and the program would seem twice as funny because they had joined us.
Most of the tenants have borrowed from us at one time or another, and we have had an easy system of four slices of bread equaling a stick of margarine or a cup of sugar canceling out a cup of flour. This backstairs exchange has created a cozy feeling of friendship.
Our borrowing and returning has made us feel not like two separate families but like two halves of one family. On many cold nights with sleet pelting the windows and a fire blazing in the fireplace, it has been nice to know that there was someone nearby. We'd often get together to "borrow" comfort from each other in our slippers and old clothes while two sets of babies slept within hearing distance.
We have only once rented the two-bedroom apartment to a family with more than two children. Our real estate friend asked if we would consider taking a couple with six children whose new home was not quite finished and whose former house had already sold. He said it would only be for a few months, and that he could guarantee the children were well behaved. But ... six boys and girls between the ages of three and 12 running up and down the stairs? After some hesitation, we decided to talk with them.
A few months later, with handclasps and kisses we bade farewell to the eight of them, a most remarkable family. During the months there had been no screaming, no quarreling, only laughter and quiet sounds. We fell completely in love with their littlest girl and enjoyed delicious dishes that they shared with us in return for our shelter.
Anyone who has always lived in a cottage or in a large apartment house cannot know the intimacy of a two-family house. If you hear footsteps and water running at 3 a.m. you wonder if someone is ill or if it is time for the baby, and in the hush you wave at the window as their car starts up.
You learn that most people live up to what you expect or hope of them and that problems that drive you to distraction and always seem to come at the worst time do get solved and even laughed at later.
At times I have daydreamed of throwing a big party and inviting everyone who has shared the house. I can see Phyllis talking to Nancy and Bob about their grandchildren while Louis and Marcella recall Christmas Eve parties. Helen would be without Vernon, and that would be sad. Tom and Jean would meet John and Pat; they must both have grown-up children now. Then there would be a crowd of younger ones, the single nurse and the single teacher who shared the rooms followed by Mark and Jim, our first and only
experience, a noisy one, of two young men upstairs.
It would be a great time of story swapping and "do you remember... ?" and "wasn't it awful when... ?" and "do you ever hear from... ?"
I'm sure they have all left a little bit of themselves here, a first home for many. This old house and the people downstairs must occupy a little niche in their memories too.