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The Restorative Powers of Hospitality III

Less than a month after Memorial Day, I found myself wondering what the kids and I would do for the July 4th weekend. Maybe even a year before, a long-time friend had extended to me a standing invitation to take the kids out to his place in Suffolk County, New York. We had kicked around some possible dates, but nothing seemed workable…until he suggested a visit just days before the holiday. Done.

My friend and I have been in contact for better than ten years. He’s seen me go from Dangerously In Love to I Will Survive. I’ve seen him go through his share of changes as well. He has always seemed to handle his business with an admirable poise and I consider him something of a mentor. When he first talked of the kids and me going out to his place, I was pleasantly surprised, but I was in such a state at the time, I could hardly conceive of such a visit.

Months later, the opportunity to head out was staring me in the face like a hungry puppy. For me, there was nothing to think about: Eastward ho!

I think I suffer from a kind of neurosis that interferes with my ability to follow any plan I make for an outing. As carefully as I might lay out a schedule, there will always be some detail I have overlooked. During the execution of my plan, discovery of and clearing up that detail will throw me off schedule like a bucking bull does a cowboy.

Such was the case the morning the kids and I were to be on our way. Instead of leaving by 9:00 AM, clearing up details pushed our departure time to noon. I wasn’t pleased, but the kids, bless their hearts, were intrigued that we would be going some place new.

This was one of many hot, sunny days we’ve had this summer. There was hardly a cloud in the sky. I had no DVDs — yet another detail left unresolved for lack of time — so I hooked my phone up to the car’s audio and ran a playlist. Lucky me…for once, the kids were accepting of, or at least tolerated, my musical selections. We had been on the road about three hours before I even heard the first “are we almost there?”

When we actually were there, we felt as if we had invaded on-location filming of some family-themed movie set in small town New England. My friend’s town should be in a snow globe.

I had notified him and his wife, our co-hosts, that we were parking in front of their house. Seconds later, our hosts pulled up behind our van. Greetings, introductions and pleasantries were exchanged, then we were escorted inside.

Once the kids and I had our things set up in our sleeping quarters, we were treated to a tour of the premises. Our hosts’s home wasn’t so much a place of residence as it was a living exhibit of their family, their history and their personalities.

The tour ended at the backyard, and the kids set about exploring every square inch of it, especially the small antique barn on the property’s border.

Dinner time fast approached. It was a perfect day to dine out doors, so we chose to do that. There were a couple of picnic tables out in the yard, and we worked hand in hand to set one. In no time, our hostess was carrying from the kitchen a platter of burgers bordered with onions, tomatoes and lettuce, arranged as might be seen on a Rachael Ray TV show. Yes, it was special. We ate to our fill, then took a stroll around the neighborhood to walk it off.

Our hosts live within blocks of a lightly used beach and we made a bee-line to it. Beach combers, sun bathers, kids playing in the sand, boats off in the distance, all basking in the late day sunshine. Food for the soul? No…pistachio gelato. Back at the house, the grown ups — and I — sat on the wrap-around porch talking while the kids played on the lawn.

Soon, bells could be heard in the distance. Not church bells, but the kind a child’s ear can distinguish at 1,000 meters. The kids ceased their activities at the first chime, their eyes scanning the surrounding streets. As the bell sounds grew closer, we adults suddenly drew their scrutiny. “The Good Humor Man is coming!”, they cried, the request for funding implied in the declaration. My friend picked up the tab the first night despite my protests. When I saw what that ice cream guy was charging, I was actually relieved.

We had had a full day. We retired to our beds, as well adorned and comfortable as any on display at Bed Bath & Beyond, replete with towels arranged atop the bed spreads. Wow. I read the kids a story, said my goodnights and sunk into my guest bed, which was like falling back onto air wrapped in velvet.

I woke up before the kids. I cleaned myself up, then followed the scent of freshly brewed coffee down to the kitchen, where a mug and preparations awaited me. Just then, my friend came into the kitchen and told me the action was on the porch. I joined our hosts there and we ran our mouths until we heard the thumping that signals to any parent that “the kids are up”. It was time for breakfast.

A platter of scrambled eggs, bacon and assorted fruits and berries was brought out to the dining room table. Soon, the platter was bare and we were off on a tour of the town and surrounding points of interest, including a lavender field like none we had ever seen. And the beaches: No obnoxious mobs, pristine and packed with shells ripe for the picking by tiny hands. Just ethereal beauty, the kind that leaves one appreciative of life with all its peaks and valleys.

The kids and I spent the rest of the day lounging on a hammock in the backyard, biking back and forth to the beach and generally enjoying each other’s company.

Our last supper was a platter of some of the finest fried chicken with which I’ve ever shared a table. Joss must have eaten enough to make up two whole chickens by her lonesome.

As the sun set, my friend treated us to a ferry ride across the Long Island Sound. The water, the setting sun, the swaying boat, the company. If the experience could be saved to a thumb drive for later implantation in the brain, there would be no need for anti-depressives. Once back at the house, we finished the day with outdoor showers in the garden. Incomparable.

The next morning, the kids and I prepared to head west. Before we piled into the van and engaged the after burners, our hostess suggested I take a trip into town with her to pick up some knick knacks for our house. Turns out both our hosts are avowed advocates of helping the less fortunate while helping themselves: they donate what they no longer use to thrift shops and buy quality goods for steep discounts at the same places. She took me to a local outlet.

Our hostess had me walking out of the place with enough dishes and glasses to fill a restaurant’s kitchen. OK, maybe not, but considering I had been eating off paper plates and drinking from plastic cups for who knows how long up to then, it was a startling, refreshing, homey kind of change. It never dawned (an accidental pun unless you think it’s good) on me how dishes give a sense of permanency to a kitchen. I liked it!

The time had come to say farewell. I can’t speak for the kids, but for me, something had changed in a definitive way. I had seen a flash of what I was striving for: A level of comfort for myself, a home packed with family history for my children, a new foundation on which to raise kids with a real chance of withstanding — and overcoming — life’s myriad challenges.

This trip represented for me the completion of the grieving processes for my marriage, for my grandmother…and for my life as it had been.

It was a long goodbye, but not a final one. Once again, our hosts had provided the kids and me a domestic setting in which we could be ourselves, less the drama. This time, however, we were all well on our way back to a sense of normalcy. See, we now had a house for the three of us as a unit, but the goal has become to make that house a home. And what an example our hosts set for us to follow.

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The Restorative Powers of Hospitality II

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The Restorative Powers of Hospitality — Epilogue

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