Finding Family, Right Next Door

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“Are you living here now?” one of us asked her 13-year-old son when he answered the door at the other one’s house. “Yeah, kind of,” he said, and promptly turned and jogged back up the stairs.

The question was rhetorical, of course. Our families have lived on the same Philadelphia street for the last 17 years, and through everything — births, christenings, bar and bat mitzvahs, graduations, divorce, the loss of a parent — we have been there for each other.

With four kids now ages 13 to 17 between us, we created a kind of modern version of the traditional network of aunts, uncles and cousins that many Americans took for granted in previous generations.

Geography brought us together when we were both young mothers. We spent days, weeks, months, years eating meals together, celebrating birthdays, helping raise each other’s children. We made enough chicken nuggets and pasta for all of the kids, and delicious meatballs and jerk chicken for us. We swept up leaves and drank wine, and borrowed Benadryl and ketchup. We took vacations together and grocery shopped for each other and put Band-Aids on whichever little daredevil had fallen off his or her skateboard. We welcomed the other’s kids if one of us had to work, or had to take care of an aging parent, and during those times the kids never felt like guests, they felt like they were home. Being there, actually being there in physical proximity to each other meant something, something significant.

As young mothers, each with two kids, we both knew that our traditional support networks were vital, if not indispensable — spouses, helpful grandparents, lifelong girlfriends. And these mattered, of course. But husbands weren’t always available, grandparents became sick or lived too far away, and lifelong girlfriends, well, they had their own lives with their own families. So luckily, we found our lifelines in our next-door family.

We became each other’s grown-up wing women. Instead of going out dancing to help one of us meet a cute boy, we baked cupcakes for a school birthday party when the other had a late meeting, or bought ointment for the hot tub rash all the kids got on one of our weekends away together. Literally living our lives beside each other made us close, and made all the hard things easier and all the good things better.

Of course, we were there for the crisis moments — when one of the kids had a severe allergic reaction and had to be rushed to the emergency room, or when there was a kitchen fire or gas leak or a mouse in the house. And on the hardest days, we shared our pain, too. There was the early summer afternoon when all the kids were gathered in one house, and one of us sat with her mother, who had been suffering from a long illness. When the call came that she had died, the other mourned the loss — not just because a friend had lost her mother, but because she had lost something, too.

But what mattered most, what meant the most, was the day-in and day-out of life, the way we held each other up in the tiny moments that are actually not tiny at all. If one of us was sick, the other would set up all the kids at the dining room table to do homework. If one of us was sad, we would let the kids play video games for hours in one basement or another so we could talk and eat chocolate chip cookies. When one of us panicked over finding what looked like a nit in a child’s hair, the other would cheerfully respond, “Send her over. We’re having a lice shampoo party down here anyway.” All of that added up to a lifetime spent as a family — one that we chose, one that wasn’t actually related by blood, but bound by proximity and connection.

This gave our kids a sense of security, a particular comfort and trust that only comes with family. Even today, now that the kids are practically adults — grown-up boys with facial hair and a young woman about to start college — that feeling hasn’t waned. This winter vacation found three of the four spending an entire day together working on writing and recording a song: One producing, another composing and the third — a usually shy, but extraordinary, singer — on vocals. As he was belting out the chorus, they texted the fourth to come to sing the harmonies. She bounded upstairs to them and after a while, the cheers and laughter grew too loud to ignore.

Thinking they had gotten the song just right, the two of us went upstairs and opened the door to the den. But there they were, almost frozen in time playing Super Smash Bros. on their old GameCube — a practically defunct video game system that they used to play daily when their voices were unchanged and they still had baby teeth. It took a bit of cajoling, but they finally played their song, and we found ourselves singing along with the catchy tune, “I wasn’t looking for you, I wasn’t searching…”

We weren’t searching for each other, any of us. But we found friends who would become family where and when we needed them most. Our relationship became the safe space for all of us to take risks with each other’s support and love. It became the very thing we counted on to get through our days.

And it turns out we are actually sisters, sorority sisters (though at different colleges), which we discovered many years into our friendship. There was always something new to discover as we grew as parents and women and friends. We knew the secret handshake.

Over 17 years, we built a home bigger than the four walls of our individual families. So that if one of us comes home and our kids aren’t there, we almost always know where they are — right next door.