March 11, 2013

The Exotic Marigold Idea

From the time before I was born until the day I left home for good, my family home held my mom, my dad, and at least one other adult. My parents, from very early in their life together, chose to share their home with other people. When they moved to my home town, which was a university town in those days, they leased a large house down by the lake shore and 'rented' rooms to various university students in exchange for help with the groceries, the cooking, and the children. Back then, my dad was teaching high school, acting in theatre productions, hosting musical evenings at our house and brewing beer. My mother was also very active in the theatre community, busy raising six children and handing out her trusted words of wisdom and generous love to our various residents and visitors. I made friends with many of our house mates and grew up believing that a house full of children and adults, musical instruments, and a few cats was the norm.

When the lease was up on the big house - it was being sold to a real estate agency for their offices - we moved to a smaller house, and we could no longer house so many friends. Besides, my older brothers and sisters were all getting to the age when more concentrated parental attention would be needed. One of our student friends, however, moved to the smaller house with us. She moved with us again six months later, to a slightly larger house with a good sized private yard and garden, which my parents bought and still live in today. Marianne just felt at home with us, and we were all so used to her that no one minded or thought the situation odd. My parents were happy to oblige. They could remain active in the community, my mother could go back to work without worrying about the cooking - Marianne, with her Italian/French background, took over that role beautifully - or about my brother and I, the two youngest in the family, having no one to come home to after school. Marianne never acted like a second mother, but as I grew up I found her to be a good friend with an open ear, especially as my elder siblings all began to move out, travel the world, marry, and expand their horizons beyond our home. I spent many hours in the kitchen, helping with the food preparation, or just sitting on a stool by the wall and rattling away about my day at school, my friends, my projects, etc.

Years later when I had also moved out, gone away to school, married, and began to have children, I sometimes longed for a third adult in my house too. I often would say to myself as I struggled to learn to cook and look after babies without the benefit of any nearby family, "I wish I had a Marianne."  My husband and I coped just fine on our own, however, and I suppose it was good for me to face up to the challenge of doing everything myself while my husband was at work. He believed I had been a bit spoiled, and I am sure I had been compared to him, the eldest of four children raised in the city by a tough single mother; in my experience, eldest children always think the youngest are spoiled. Still, at times I was lonely and felt isolated. I sought out mothers groups and relied on my friendships to fill that void. Fortunately, I have made many wonderful friends over the years.

These days, as far as our home life goes, I am what my mother calls 'it'. My husband does what he can for our kids and our house and garden on his days off, but with a demanding job which requires many long days,  I do the majority of everything else it takes to run a household. We have three children still living at home, and they are all helpful, but before too long they will be gone away, too, at university or travelling, and expanding their horizons beyond our home and family. Our little family community will be broken up and life will continue adjusting to the changing patterns. At times, I know, it will all feel a little strange. And very quiet.

And then there is the ageing factor. My parents, now in their seventies, my father seventy-seven, have a third support in Marianne, who is in her fifties. The three of them work together to maintain their large garden, their home, their admirably healthy diet and lifestyle. As my parents age further they will, perhaps, be able to stay in their home much longer than if they did not have Marianne as a house mate. I often wish I could be closer so I could be of help to them when they are ill or need something, but for now I can rest assured they are managing all right in their small community of three. I remember a couple in their nineties, who, with the help of a supportive community of younger friends, was able to carry on in their own home and with their garden. A routine was established among the friends, and the elderly couple never went without anything they needed. Another family, who are very good friends of ours, created a beautiful living space in the second home on their farm, and are helping their ninety-seven year old friend live out her days in dignity and comfort in beautiful surroundings. If only all of us could have such good friends around us as we shuffle off this mortal coil.

Sometimes I think about how my life will be when I am elderly. I see many elderly people in our neighbourhood, which is home to two assisted living residences. Some look happy, healthy and self-sufficient. Some who are physically or mentally impaired appear well cared-for by family or friends. Some look lonely and fragile, as if it takes everything they've got just to get through the day. Perhaps, like in the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the secret to ageing with grace and dignity is to live in a supportive community where each person has their role and takes their turn being the caregiver or the cared for; the comforter or the comforted; the bestower of wisdom or the grower of good things to eat; the person who is good with money or the dispenser of remedies for whatever ails you. Yes, the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that we need to create and foster communities of people, ideally of varying ages who can support each other as we all make our way through life. In other, non western societies, these communities are created within families who naturally look after their elder members. Perhaps we need to work on renewing and expanding that practise in our society, too, making supportive communities we can count on among our friends and families. That, at least, is what I am working toward in my own life. I'll keep you posted.

I posted this on my son's laptop. My own PC has just been in the computer hospital recovering from a virus. I will be catching up on everyone's blogs over the next while. Thanks for your patience! Have a great week.
The photo above is of the primo actors from the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, including Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, and Maggie Smith.


  1. This is wonderful, Rebecca. I just watched a very interesting documentary called "Happy" and in it was a wonderful mixed community in Denmark. I'll see if I can locate it and post it to your page. It's about much more than communal living but it does focus on this topic as well. As we too age and life changes for us we think more and more about 'down the road'. I love the idea of generational living or even an arrangement like your mom and dad have, something different that what most of our North American families experience now. Thanks, your writing always gets me to thinking :)

    1. I will have to look up that documentary. My parents told me about a group of six people who have built a house together - they each have their own bedroom/sitting room and share a kitchen and common area. Thanks for reading, Roxanne...and for your always welcome thoughts!

  2. Sooooooo, you know there is a single word for 'live in helpers'. :-D

    1. I knew I could count on you for a cheeky comment. The thing is, I know it sounds a little like 'maid' but it's really not what I mean, for the idea is to share the responsibilities and just have more people doing them. We'd all be each others 'maids' or 'servants', sharing the load, so to speak.

  3. issues....i am sorry...i cant stand them...viruses at a few hard drives a few years ago....not fun....

    i think community plays a huge role in our lives...aging or not...but i think it does come in handy all the more when we grandmother, in her 90s fell again this weekend and she is so resistant to the community thing, rubbing up on her independence...its really a struggle to find that balance for her...and getting her to accept help...oy...

    1. Apparently, there are new viruses trying to take over our computers every week. Our computer savvy friend told us that most viruses want to take over, rather than ruin your computer, so the hackers can use your computer to hold companies, like online poker sites, hostage and charge them big ransoms. I don't know how much of that goes on, and I don't play any online poker, but if the latest James Bond movie proves anything, it is that our enemies do indeed lurk in the shadows and hack our computer based lives for their own evil ends!
      Best of luck with your gran and helping her to be real about her age and needs, God bless her :)

  4. Now I'm curious to see that movie!

    Another fascinating story about your upbringing, Rebecca! For one year, I lived in a multi-family household. My mother and father had separated and ultimately divorced, and we moved in with my grandmother. She had a man there renting a room, another of her daughters, and a grandchild who was close to my age... oh, and a dog. Mr. Brown, the roomer, smoked a cigar and made the best fried corn!

    Thank for bringing back memories to me. :)

    So Marianne never married, had kids, and moved out?


I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!