Sunny was a joy for the whole class. He was an eager student with a kind appreciative heart and sweet hilarious sense of humor. One day as he had us all laughing as usual, I said in admiration “Oh, Sunny. You are a regular riot.” This was just a reflex old-school New Yorkism from seeing The Honeymooners as a kid on TV. At this new compliment, Sunny beamed. With great anticipation he whipped open his English-Chinese dictionary to the letter R, and spotted Miss Mary’s new name for him. Fortunately I was standing right there as his merry face fell in dismay. “Wait, I can explain!” I intervened. “‘Riot’ has two meanings!” With my royal apology and impromptu vocabulary lesson, we all enjoyed a big joke on the teacher.
One day, Sunny showed up so sad and worried that he could not follow the lesson. In deep woe he looked at me over his glasses, his eyes misting over with tears. “Sunny! Sunny!” we cried. “What happened!” It took a while for this good soul to choke out some mention of civil unrest in his home village. He was too upset to say more. At the end of the period, we gathered around as he finally confided in us. Then it was clear: Sunny’s upset was all caused by me, and my exotic housesitting lifestyle.
The whole housesitting saga of 40 years ago came to mind this month. A dear building neighbor going on vacation asked me to spend 10 days watering her balcony plants. Each day I texted her pictures and status reports of her lush flowers. But her trip took place during the longest heat wave in local history (trivial by world standards, but news to us). Every evening I doused her fuchsias in water. But the poor creatures baked in the sun and finally succumbed, covering her balcony in a layer of cornflake-crisp leaves. Before her return I cut back the dead stems and swept up the mess. Then I texted the news that she would need all new fuchsias. Return from world travel is a sensitive transition time, and it seemed important to prepare her feelings. Happily, she is a calm resilient gardener who concluded that next year she would simply buy full-sun plants. She also had the remarkable thoughtfulness to bring me perfectly selected gifts: a long gorgeous silk headscarf for church, and an Orthodox Christian icon (doubles as a needed fridge magnet), and $40 for the time and trouble. I have never been bankrolled before for killing off plants.
The week brought back nostalgic memories as a housesitter, starting in 1980. That was in my new cozy college town, an area of low population density and high reliance on good neighbors. I still miss those social ties. In our close-knit Slavic Department, the new moms juggled studies and family by sharing infants at the classroom door, passing their secure contented kidlets from arm to arm to swap breastfeeding and naptime. Students and faculty lived in easy walking distance, often in group houses, swapping textbooks and typewriters and casseroles and bartered chores. With no internet, no cell phones, and no social media, we kept in touch by taking a walk or hopping on a bicycle to halloo at one another’s windows.
Our university community members often sublet their rooms to travel on a language scholarship, or give birth closer to family, or help Grandad with the harvest. The landlords valued personal contacts through word of mouth, and were reassured when they got to know me as a fill-in who collected the mail and defrosted the freezer and scrubbed the clawfoot tub before departure. Over time, faculty and staff began thinking of me when they needed someone to watch the house. They knew I had no family or pets to care for. If someone with a car was available to drive me, I could move my belongings out of one dwelling to the curb in only an hour, and in another hour unload and set up in the next set of digs. That was just as well with the local Victorian wood houses and extreme climate. A quaint roof or gabled window could flood or fall in at any time. Hail and snow could knock live wires down into the yard. Rattlesnakes or raccoons or rats or brown recluse spider hatchlings made surprise appearances. In one basement near the river, massive tree roots warped our living room wall; to avoid strong electrical shocks we roommates had to leap off the floor and use a rolled-up newspaper to whack the light switch until we finished moved out. All in all, it seemed wise to have backup housing, a symbiotic system of places to stay and the skills to be useful there.
Soon there was a waiting list of people asking me into their homes. I opened a post office box and set up shop in spare rooms in three houses, storing items in this attic and that sun porch. My students began calling the food coop to leave homework questions for me; the amused cashiers would pass on the message on my daily shopping trips. The frequent housing hosts gave me copies of their key. I put them all on a large ring and wore it around my neck on a thick jute rope.
Invitations came in all shapes and sizes. People even asked for a housesitter when they were right there, sitting in the house. One was a rent-free week, to walk the dog and water and eat the zucchini. One request was to come next Friday to let the plumber in, for rights to windfall plums in the yard. Or to camp out Tuesday evenings with a faculty member and her kids, while her husband worked late at the lab. Or a standing invitation to supper and company when severe weather was on the way, for a colleague afraid of severe weather. (That always suited me. I was more scared of it than anybody). Or a week with a wise wonderful droll teenage lad while parents cared for Grandma out of state. Or summer on my teaching supervisor’s lovely little farm, fixing dinner for the family and helping to milk the goats. One year was even rent-free; the housesitting requests formed a solid mosaic of places to stay, in a life rich with new acquaintance and experience.
Naturally, there were quirky incidents here and there. Three houses triggered instant asthma attacks (was it the daily sage smudging? the eight cats? the vintage taxidermy collection?). A faculty member asked me to come clean house for her elderly neighbor in the hospital from heart surgery — but neglected to alert the patient. The neighbor came home while I was scrubbing the floor and nearly had a cardiac relapse, thinking she’d been evicted. Campus Housing alerted me to a neighbor 87 years young who had a free upper floor while his wife was in the hospital; I stopped by, but soon departed when he showed an interest in other personal services. One lady was upset to find that I had used and not replaced some paper grocery bags. (At that time, paper bags were free. And yes, she counted them.) One fellow graduate teaching assistant had an injury and needed me to come in and clean, but was afraid that her friends would judge her for utilizing domestic help; when company called, my orders were to hide the mop and pretend that I was only there for tea, then resume mopping after the guests left. One couple with a bouncy hound dog was departing for a month. Over the phone they let me know they’d fumigated for ants. I showed up to a house full of pesticide fumes and everything sealed in plastic trash bags, from dishware to bedding to towels. All flat surfaces were sticky with chemical residue and dead insects. I kept the hound in the garage to keep him out of the fumes, giving him visits and walks to calm his baying lamentations. It took three days to scrub everything clean, scoop out the bugs, liberate the dog, and find out which bag held the spoons so I could stop pouring cold cereal from box to mouth.
One radiant beautiful accomplished graduate wrapped up a degree in her second language. She introduced me to her friendly doglike cat and the goldfish who had shared her life for years. Then she headed to the airport for her wedding day, leaving me to hold down the fort during her honeymoon. As her taxi pulled away, both goldfish leaped out of the aquarium. I rushed them back into the tank with towels and wooden spatula, but they leaped out again and died on impact. Just then, the phone rang. “Hello?? Lindsey’s housesitter? Uh, your cat just committed suicide. He watched her taxi pull away, then ate some toadstools in my yard and died. Can you come get him?” Meanwhile, Lindsey arrived in her bridegroom’s city to find that he no longer wanted to get married and wasn’t ready to talk. Lindsey went back to the airport with wedding dress in her arms, flew home, and found that her fish and cat companions were dead. She got busy applying for jobs in the safe beautiful prosperous country of her second language. She moved there, met a man who treated her like gold, and they were happily married.
For a month in one upper-class home, every night at the same time I sat on the floor for an hour with back to the sofa, softly tapping a little pocket comb against the floor. There were two purebred Persian cats somewhere under that sofa. The owner was afraid to handle them, and described them to me as aggressive with their teeth and claws. Each time I sat down, the cats would hiss and spit. When the comb started tapping they would lapse into silence. When the hour was up, I’d walk away and go off to bed. One night, one of the cats leaned out and swiped a paw at the comb. I kept my back to him and went on tapping. In a few more days they were slipping out to sniff the comb. Then they groomed their whiskers on it. Then I held a scissor in the other hand, and when they played with the comb I’d snip off felted fur; their coats were all matted. The owner came home to find two smaller motheaten cats missing hunks of fur. They were rolling all over me, demanding their daily combing & smooch.
Still, there came a time to take a break. One evening I was strolling home, and suddenly could not remember where I was going. Who in town was counting on me to sleep over that night? For clues I sat down ticking through the keys on my rope ring. Then I pictured that day as a film running backwards, back to breakfast and the house where I’d woken up that morning. That solved the puzzle. But for that year in grad school, it was time to stop the multi-bedsitter routine, to rent one room and stay put.
Within days, it was Sunny who clinched the decision to settle down. Why was he so upset that day in class? Because back in his home country there was a new gang of thieves on mopeds. The thieves yanked off the wedding rings of elderly women walking to market on village roads. For tight rings, the thieves would steal the gold by slicing off the victim’s finger. That was what alarmed him. “Oh Miss!” Sunny cried, looking at my neck rope. “What if the robber wants your KEYS?” Right away I removed the rope and looped it at my belt to pocket the keys out of sight. I apologized to Sunny for frightening him, thanked him for his good thinking and concern, and promised him never to display keys and never to wear a neck rope again. That promise holds true to this day.
After Sunny told us his story, I went to visit my favorite landlord. He was happy to rent me a little room with shared bath. There were still plenty of opportunities to swap food and activities with the neighbors. But during thesis research and grad school, it made just the right home.
What would drive someone into the pathos and busyness of other people’s lives? Sure, it saved money. It brought in surplus vegetables and windfall fruit. But maybe it was distraction, to fill in for the lack of my own home circle. Maybe it was wanting multiple backup plans and places to run. Maybe it was a wish to feel welcome and useful. Maybe it was the fresh customs and adventures. Maybe it was magical moments like keying in to a house while a napping German Shepherd thumps his tail and goes on sleeping.
But really, it was the hosts and their generous hospitality. Some were reluctant to ask for help, but were pleasantly surprised to find that they enjoyed having a new person around to help out. I certainly liked being there. It was a big step up in emotional maturity to discover that even successful people with good families can sometimes feel lonesome in their nice houses, and are happy to share some everyday experiences. At home, we formed social connections at a deeper more personal level. That’s why those dear people and their houses and support are still a warm vivid memory. We learned how to pool resources, get along, and enrich our lives and our community. Housesitting is a great idea. I plan to do a lot more in the future.