Thoughts from the journey… Excerpts from a day in the life of Sherry McLaughlin

19Nov/090

How to Have an Open House

Let me live in my house by the side of the road, where the race of men go by;

They are good, they are bad, they are weak, they are strong,

Wise, foolish—so am I;

Then why should I sit in the scorner’s seat, or hurl the cynic’s ban?

Let me live in my house by the side of the road,

And be a friend to man.

—Sam Walter Foss

My earliest recollection of being alive was when we lived in a tiny apartment on the East side of Detroit. My father and mother worked opposing shifts at Doctor’s Hospital, located a block or so away from our home in the Pasadena Apartments on Jefferson Ave. I remember it being small and the hallways dark. I even recall having to step over a drunken guy who used to pass out in front of our door occasionally.

Considering my father was born and raised in a one-bedroom home, the apartment was a step up. It was actually big enough to entertain friends and family—and he didn’t hesitate to invite people over.

By the time I was 7, we moved to the northwest suburbs of Detroit, into a house that must have felt like a castle to my father—a large, gray brick home with 5 bedrooms, 2 ½ baths and a basement. Each of us kids had our own room, fully furnished and tailored to our personalities.

Being slight in stature, Filipinos don’t usually require a lot of square footage to be comfortable. They might long for a bigger kitchen, but the bedroom situation is often times negotiable. Truth be told, our family of six didn’t really occupy all of those rooms—at least not in the traditional sense. On the nights my father worked a 24-hour shift, all of us kids would pile onto the king size bed in my parent’s room.

You might wonder how we all fit. We simply oriented our bodies horizontally across the bed—you can do that when everyone stands less than 5 feet tall. Sometimes, I woke up with an arm lying across my face or my toe stuck in someone’s mouth—but the tradition continued and it didn’t occur to any of us that sleeping in another room would even be an option. When my oldest brother broke the 5-foot barrier, he simply laid some blankets on the floor and continued to occupy the same room as the rest of us.

That left a lot of empty rooms in our house and what good was a house with empty rooms?

I don’t think it was so much the empty room situation as the generosity of my father’s heart that began to fill those spaces. First it was an uncle that moved in—he was going to dental school and needed a place to stay. Years later, I found out that my father not only provided him a rent-free space, he also footed part of his college tuition.

Then, there was another uncle—well, he wasn’t really an uncle, we just called him that. That’s another thing about Filipino families—if you meet someone that is Filipino, male and a little older, you call him Uncle. If he is Filipino, male and a lot older, you call him Lolo (grandpa). The same goes for Filipino females, you just change the titles.

I’m not sure why this particular uncle came to stay. All I know is that he occupied my younger brother’s room, and he used to play the guitar and sing. We would all huddle outside the door and giggle as he sang, “Sunshine on my shoulder makes me happy.” There’s nothing like hearing John Denver with a Filipino accent. Really. Nothing like it.

People would come and go. Some would stay for a week. Most would stay for months at a time. A room was offered to anyone who needed a place to stay, a helping hand or a listening ear.

The most memorable houseguests were a family from California. That’s right, an entire family. Turns out, the mom and dad were having marital problems. Somehow, my parents caught wind of it, an invitation was extended and before I knew it, I had 4 new brothers and sisters. They arrived with their mother—two boys and two girls—about the same ages as my siblings and me.

What fun that was! It was sort of like the Brady Bunch, only there were eight of us—and we had better tans. Imagine the first day of school. The bus pulled up in front of our house and six kids came flying out of the house, with the two little ones waving good-bye. The bus driver almost had a heart attack. My father not only shouldered the added grocery bill, he treated those kids like they were his own. Bought them presents, threw birthday parties, took them on family vacations and paid for their tuition at our local church school.

Late at night, I would find my parents and the mother of these kids sitting at the kitchen table. I didn’t know exactly what they were talking about, but their tones were hushed and sometimes there were tears.

A few months into their stay, the father came to visit—and moved in as well. Two complete families under one roof—now there were four adults at the kitchen table late at night in deep discussion. It would be years before I realized what my father had done. He was not only a physician and a provider—he evidently was also a marriage counselor.

Nine months later, the family packed up their car in preparation for their journey back to California. Relationships mended. Hearts healed.

I remember that day. They tried to leave once, but as we all kneeled in the family room to pray for their safe travel, we were all crying so hard that they ended up staying one more night and leaving the next morning.

We still hear from them. The kids are all grown up and they have kids of their own. We’ve attended weddings and graduations. One is an architect, another a civil engineer and the two girls are raising beautiful, happy families of their own. The mother and father? Still together after all of these years.

When my father became ill, it was this very couple that dropped what they were doing and flew to Michigan—to cook, clean and sit beside my dad and talk. They did it several times, without hesitation. When my father passed away, I remember seeing the father of this family sitting alone in the corner of the funeral parlor. Broken. Sobbing. Mourning the loss of a friend who was closer than a brother.

I went over and put my arm around him and he looked up at me. In that silent gaze, I felt the depth of his gratitude to the man that saved his family—and his life. It made me proud of where I came from. I will never forget that moment.

I think God grants people big houses for a reason. When it boils down to it, people require about three square feet of space to not feel violated. What you do with the rest of the square footage is entirely up to you. You can fill it with furniture that never gets used. Or you can open your house to the ones that need some food, shelter and a kitchen table.

If you choose the latter, there will be relationships formed and history made that will outclass and outlast the best furniture money could buy. And if you are ever witness to that kind of generosity, you are given a gift that you feel compelled to pass on.

It changes lives. It changes you. Trust me, I know.

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Life Lesson #5

Have an open house.

Whether you charge rent or not,

The lessons learned and relationships built

Will be more than enough to cover the cost…

For a lifetime.

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