catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 1, Num 1 :: 2002.09.13 — 2002.09.26


Bean-counting and babysitting

The triumphs and challenges of community living

I park along the curb and gather my supplies for the interview—notebook, a pen, a tape recorder, and one other item whose place among the expected tools strikes me as strangely appropriate. It is a bowl, sent home with me a couple of months ago with leftover jambalaya after my husband and I had dinner here. I’m just now getting around to returning it to my interviewees.

And now would probably be a good time to introduce the interviewees before the facts get any more confusing. Mary Boerman Lagerwey teaches senior Bible at Illiana Christian High school in Lansing, Illinoi. I interviewed her at home along with her three children: Caleb, 11; Hannah, 9; and Esther, 3. Husband and father Rob (also a teacher at Illiana) was off on an errand as were all three members of the other family living in the same house. These would be Mary’s sister Amy Boerman-Cornell (grade school teacher), Amy’s husband Bill (another teacher), and their four-year-old daughter, Catherine (known to most as Cricket.) So, to summarize, that’s two sisters and their families (four teachers, four kids) living in one house in South Holland, Illinois.

I take note of the structure of the house as I ring the doorbell and wait for an answer. Though the house is built like a quad-level duplex, both families use one entrance. Numbering up from the basement, the Boerman-Cornells' "pod," as both families term the designated space, is floors one and three, while the Lagerweys' pod is floors two and four. The bedrooms are on the extreme levels with living spaces in the middle. On floor two, which is at ground level, is a large room that serves as kitchen, dining room and family room's major deciding factor when the two families bought the house.

Mary tells me that while she wished there were more options for families desiring to live together, finding an ideal house was not very difficult. After moving back to the Chicago area from New Jersey, they looked at about ten houses before they purchased their current house. Finding the perfect place depends largely on the area, Mary admitted. From the backyard of their two-family home in New Jersey, they could count at least 30 similar homes. In the South Holland area, there weren't many houses to look at and there is still the feeling that they could have done a little more shopping. "There's a great need for more places to be designed this way," said Mary. But overall, finding an ideal place, even in South Side suburbia, was far from impossible. In fact, a similar quad level is for sale across the street from the Lagerwey-B.C. house right now.

Suddenly, a face peers through the textured glass next to the door and Caleb lets me inside with a "Hi, come on in!" Mary is at the table making notes for parent-teacher night, Esther is taking a nap, Hannah is begging to make mandu (a Korean dumpling), and Caleb is…"wait a second, where did Caleb go?" We have three choices either A) outside playing with neighborhood friends, B) upstairs building with Legos, or C) in the B.-C.'s pod reading comic books.

As I get settled in at the kitchen table built for ten, Mary gets me a glass of ice water and jokes with Hannah about how I'm doing a story on her amazingly famous and talented mother. "Your mom's our cover girl," I tell her. Hannah's face lights up with giggles, but then Hannah is almost always giggling, like most fourth grade girls. But unlike most fourth grade girls in this area, Hannah was adopted from Korea. "We wanted our family to look more like God's family," is Mary's routine, yet sincere explanation.

Mary calls Caleb downstairs (option B was the correct answer) and while I make small talk with Caleb and Hannah, Mary starts dinner. And guess what? It's jambalaya night. Mary tells me later that she got the recipe from their friends, Joe and Tat, with whom they lived for two years in New Jersey. In fact, there have only been about five years since their marriage in 1985 that Rob and Mary haven't shared a home with another family, which is perhaps the reason Caleb and Hannah don't fully understand my first question.

"I want you to think about the people in your neighborhood and the kids you go to school with and tell me a little bit about how your house is different," I say.

The first thing Caleb thinks of is not the fact that two families live together. Later he says, "We've been here so long that I can hardly imagine life without them." He hasn't really known any other way of living. So what comes up first is that their family doesn't have cable TV or any game systems and they don't "get to watch fifty hours of TV a day." And, according to his classmates, "we go to bed extremely early."

Hannah chimes in with, "We read more than anybody in the whole neighborhood." Posted on the nearby bulletin board, she's got a five foot tall paper ice cream cone to prove it. Last spring, Hannah read the most pages in her class and received a record number of colored paper scoops.

I ask them next about the people they live with. "What's the best part about living with your aunt and uncle and cousin?"

"More presents," jokes Hannah, before being overcome by another fit of giggles.

"Hannah, that's a little bit selfish," says Caleb. But it comes out that she’s referring to the present the B.-C.'s gave her last year for her Adoption Day.

Caleb gets serious again. "They do a lot of things that our parents wouldn't normally do, like Uncle Bill takes us to museums and builds forts and stuff," he says. I wonder if this will make Mary feel badly, but she tells me later that it's one of the perks of raising kids in a house with four adults. Amy teaches at Calvin Christian School, where both Caleb and Hannah are students. "It helps to have connections at school," says Caleb, "for kind of persuasive issues. You know what I mean."

While Caleb sees this as a benefit because among other things he can borrow something from Amy if he forgets to bring it to school with him, Mary appreciates the fact that Amy can keep an eye on what's happening at school. For example, she'll let Mary and Rob know if one of the kids is the target of taunting so they can be more sensitive to their child's issues.

Another benefit of living with Bill and Amy, Caleb tells me is that "Auntie Amer cooks a lot of new dishes, so we eat different foods than we usually would." The whole family eats supper together and alternates cooking and dishwashing nights. "[Dinnertime] is very, very long compared to my friends," says Caleb. First, there is prayer for which each person gets a turn on a different night. Then there is the matter of serving eight people while holding discussion about everyone's day. Finally, there is a Bible reading and a song, after which the clean-up detail takes over.

But Caleb is on to even more benefits. "If Esther were here, she would say she likes having Cricket here because she likes to play with her," he says. I talk to Esther about this later, who emerges from her nap wearing a "Love Sees No Color" button and immediately puts on her ruby slippers. Her favorite part about living with Cricket is being able to play her favorite game, which is dress-up Wizard of Oz-style. Ever since Mary directed The Wizard of Oz last spring at Illiana, Esther has been staging the musical again and again, even remembering the names of the actors who played the main characters. As far as dress-up goes, "sometimes Cricket be’s the Lion and sometimes I be Dorothy." They're learning to share the coveted lead, like so many other things when they play together. It's certainly an ongoing process.

Which leads up to the hardest parts of living with so many people. "Too messy!" says Hannah, while Caleb goes on to say, "We have to cook with a lot of people and we have to travel and do a lot of things with a lot of people."

"Mess, mess, mess," says Hannah.

"And our table does get a little bit crowded during dinnertime," says Caleb, ignoring his sister. "Especially when I'm sitting next to my dad, who's the Left-handed Man."

"I got voted the messiest room for six weeks in a row!" says Hannah, revealing (with giggles of course) that she does her share to exacerbate her favorite complaint.

But it is not long before we are back on the benefits. "Auntie Amer’s the only one who really bakes brownies," says Caleb. "And she makes the best brownies."

"Except it comes from a mix," pipes in Hannah, who is a self-professed dessert chef and is always asking Mary if she can make something.

My next question for Caleb and Hannah is whether they think they would ever live together with their families after they're both married. Hannah responds with a resounding, "NO!" Caleb wisely accepts the fact that things will be different when they're older. "They won't know the effects of [living like] this for a long time," says Mary later. So I ask them what they think is the benefit to adults.

"They don't have to cook as much," says Hannah.

"Yeah, they can alternate cooking and they can share the electricity bill and the water bill," says Caleb.

"And the wood expense," says Hannah.

"Wood expense?" Caleb asks incredulously.

Hannah is giggling again and pointing to the backyard at a freestanding, towering wood structure their "non-tree tree fort" built by Caleb, Bill, and Jim Kamphuis, another teacher from Illiana.

I ask them if living with another family teaches them anything. "It teaches me that as families, we should all cooperate together," says Caleb. He extends the definition of cooperation to academic, emotional, and spiritual well-being. "If somebody suffers a loss, like they lost their grandma or something, they'd be there for [that person] all the time so they wouldn't feel as lonely," he explains.

My next question is if they have any advice for families who would like to try living together. "Keep your lives separate in some ways and together in other ways," says Caleb. "The majority of things you should do together." This echoes one of Mary's pieces of advice, which she mentions later.

At this point, I am done interviewing Caleb and Hannah and they are sent off to play while I get Mary's perspective. Eager to answer some of the same questions I've been asking her kids for the past half hour about community living, she readily offers, "I personally like the idea that you can tell a funny story or a bit of news more than one time. I can tell it to Rob, and then I can tell it to Amy, and then if Bill comes home later, I can tell it to Bill." She laughs contagiously, evidence of the pervasive joy that is part of the reason I find myself coming back here again and again. I know where Hannah gets it from.

With Esther now awake from her nap and settled in with some art supplies, I am interested in knowing what shaped Mary as she was growing up to desire this way of living. "My mom is a very quiet person, as you know, but she has always had the gift of hospitality, so there were always a ton of people around our house. Which, thinking back on it is so funny because my parents had no money, but there were always people around. And I remember the first time our friend Chris Opie ever saw my parents' house," she said, "Your parents lived at that house and thought they could fit a whole other family in there!? Because when I was a senior in high school is when the Zayabouth's came to live with us."

I know some members of the Zayabouth family, having gone to Illiana where Mr. Zayabouth is on the maintenance staff. His daughter, Noly, was a year ahead of me in school. The six Zayabouth's came to Chicago as refugees from Laos. Their situation was so dangerous that they were not able to return to their country to visit for almost twenty years after they fled.

"We had gotten rid of three kids so my parents thought, "We can fit six people in the basement?" says Mary. "Seriously, My mother read this magazine and I remember her coming up to me and saying, "Look at these pictures! We could fit six people in that basement." So what did we get? Six people." The original intention was that they would stay with the Boermans for two weeks, which quickly turned into four months. The Zayabouth's lived in the Boermans' basement while Mary slept in the sewing room with her dad's desk and typewriter, the ironing board, and her mom's sewing machine. However, she's not resentful at all, but grateful. One of her first essays in college and the first piece of writing she got paid for was an essay on why refugee families should stay with other families when they come to the U.S. The Boerman family still gets together with the Zayabouth family on Mother's Day.

While the situation at her parents' house may not have been completely ideal, the biggest reason Mary says she still lives the way she does is because, with planning, it's a wonderful combination of theory and practice.

"I'm not going to say that [the biggest reason] is economics right now, first off, but it's very true that we could never afford this house on our own or even a house 60% as nice." The practical financial benefits are many to owning a home with another family, in addition to adhering to principles of not using more than a person needs. But Mary has two important pieces of practical advice in the area of finances. The first is that the big things be established first. For example, if the larger family is going to pay a larger portion of the utility bills or the mortgage, the exact percentage needs to be agreed upon ahead of time. Once a structure is in place, the participants have the comfort of knowing what to expect. The second piece of advice is that "you cannot enter into a relationship like this, a community like this, as a bean-counter. You know, Tonight's chicken was bought by me, tomorrow night's chicken was bought by Amy. You cannot do that. It will ultimately just kill you." Beyond the big things, which are easily quantifiable, a certain level of trust is required that the other family is not trying to get away with something unfair.

This leads to another related principle: compromise. "Compromise has such negative connotations, but why? It's okay to compromise, isn't it?" asks Mary, and then she shares her unofficial principle of considering whether something will matter in five years. Will it matter in five years if they spend the money to leave the air conditioning on so that Amy can be comfortable when she comes home from a hot classroom? Will it matter if Bill wants to leave for school earlier than Mary does? No, it won't, so it's not worth holding onto. All members of the household have got to think this way in order to have a balance of give and take.

Eventually, we return to the topic of parenting in a community living situation. Esther is at the table making "notes" (orange construction paper cut, folded, taped and decorated with a series of lines) for everyone "because they need notes because they have to do notes so I make them notes." Hannah is yelling from the other room to find out the spelling of "melon" for a mini-cookbook she's typing out. I ask Mary what she hopes her kids are learning. She hopes her kids are learning the opposite of individualism, which is community. She hopes they are learning "that your family can be your friends or that your friends can be like family." And she knows that she is in a better situation for teaching her kids than if she and Rob were trying to do it by themselves.

"[Successful parenting] starts out with two parents and with four people, it increases your chances of covering all the bases," Mary says. "There is so much pressure to be a perfect parent. And it is so hard to be a parent, let alone to be a perfect parent. When you think family and community are so important, there are two other people who are there to help you say, "This is so important." As a team of parents in the same house, they hold each other accountable and compliment one another in their strengths and weaknesses. "Bill can fill in gaps when there's something I can't do or Rob can't do. Everyone always jokes about that, that Cricket's going to have to learn how to throw from Uncle Rob, but the fact that he's there to do that is so important."

My next question regards the nature of their witness as a family that is trying to be practical about living out their faith. "The neighbors across the street thought we were missionaries," Mary says, laughing, but then she becomes serious. "People ask me sometimes why I teach at a Christian school rather than a public school and I say, ‘So I can be a missionary to the close-minded’ or, ‘That's a mission field as well.’ Maybe our witness is not so much to non-Christians as it is to Christians who haven't really thought about these kinds of options." As far as what her friends say about living with another family, "a lot of people think it's cool because you can run off without worrying about finding somebody to leave here with a napping kid, but a lot of people think it's weird and they're mostly worried about the privacy thing. I had a student last year who said, ‘Don't you ever want to run around in your underwear?’"

Privacy, while important and respectfully observed, is not the primary source of stress for Mary. "It's not privacy vs. no privacy, it's reaching that balance of alone vs. together. Even at the dinner table, giving everybody a chance to talk rather than just the people who talk the most—that’s a consideration too. It’s achieving that balance in the little things and in the big things," she says.

Aside from the careful balancing of togetherness and alone time, "everyday stresses are everyday stresses—work and scheduling just like within a family." Mary's advice about everyday stress is to be very intentional and never assume that someone's going to cover for you. In this effort, she and Amy sit down every Sunday night, sometimes for up to an hour, to coordinate schedules around vehicles, meals, and childcare. It’s this planning that minimizes so many potential problems.

By now, Mary has prepared as much of dinner as she can before she has to bring Caleb to French horn lessons. But I still want to know about her philosophy of community living as a Christian. "I'm not sure it's always right to use the early church as a model for everything," she says, "but there's the idea of sharing, you can look at your whole life like that and say the people who were in need got what they needed and the people who had plenty shared with those who were in need. In a way, we've got that same theory, with our strengths and weaknesses, our plusses and minuses."

Before I go, we look at the calendar to find a good date to get together for something more than an interview. We settle on Bill's birthday, which is so near Caleb's birthday that the two have worked out a deal. Since they both really like pumpkin pie and cake, they have pie one year and cake the next. I forget to ask what is on the schedule for this year, because I am distracted. Esther is giving me one last "note" to take home to my husband Rob "whose name is Rob like my dad's name is Rob," though she confesses to me that sometimes she calls her dad "Daddy-O."

Realizing that Mary would have to pack up all three kids to bring Caleb to his lesson at the local community college, I offer to drop him off and agree to watch him until he gets in the door of the building. He is, after all, her "precious cargo." I say thank you and good-bye as Hannah finally sets up to make her mandu. She promises to freeze some so I can try it next time I'm there.

Driving home from dropping off Caleb, I realize that even though I only went ten minutes out of my way, the principle of such a favor is what the afternoon was all about, starting with the returned dish. Offering to bring Caleb can be seen as even repayment for leftover jambalaya, but that suggests a finished deal with no larger implications. I prefer to see it instead as part of a continuous effort to build community, to challenge ourselves to new levels of servanthood, to prepare ourselves to enjoy the perfect communion of the saints. As Mary said, bean-counting will take the life out of you, but the joy of service is life-giving. The comfort of knowing that you are part of a relationship in which the other person is putting your needs first while you are pursuing their needs is exactly the reason we continue to strive for community.

While I have no wish to give the impression that life is perfect over at the Lagerwey-B.-C. house, I do want to thank them for challenging us to a higher standard of community than the template we are given by the status quo. And I want to thank them for giving us such an intimate perspective on the practical challenges and gratifications of community living. See you all on October 10. We'll bring a salad, sound good to you?

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