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For most of our 47 years together, spending time with extended family has required my wife and me to plan ahead, climb on a plane, and treasure whatever time our loved ones’ challenging geography might allow us to squeeze in.
For the past couple of years, though, Carol and I have tried something new. Instead of hurtling across the country in a metal tube, we open our front door and wander across the hall. Over there live our younger daughter, Kate, her husband, Marton, and their kids, Leila, 4, and Mateo, 2.
Although we considered a three-decker, happenstance delivered us to our new address in a courtyard building near Coolidge Corner. When friends alerted Kate that they were moving, they mentioned that their neighbors across the hall were, too.
Before we relocated, friends warned that we were about to become built-in baby sitters for neighbors who happen to be our grandchildren. Some friends of Kate and Marton said a built-in like that sounded pretty good.
Others raised concerns about too much advice from parents too close for comfort. One of our blunter friends asked, “Are you sure Kate and Marton really want you across the hall?”
In the spirit of good fences making good neighbors, we bought a $5 OPEN sign that, for the first year or so, we hung on our door indicating when visitors were welcome. Over time, we learned enough about one another’s clocks that no sign was needed.
For a while, the early-rising Mateo would end up in the care of his early-rising grandfather. Now he marches across the hall to announce that he’s ready for a snack, a book, or maybe a trip to the playground.
As some of the novelty of our arrangement wore off, we extended a bit of across-the-hall hospitality to neighbors we’re not even related to. It’s amazing how much community a few plastic Adirondack chairs in the courtyard can build.
Dinner continues to unfold as a joint venture mostly at our place, with cooking and cleanup shared by both households. Although we have no set duties, Carol and I often engage one of the kids when the other needs particular parental attention.
For two summers now, when the time came to haul the air-conditioning units from the basement, I have hesitated not a moment in crossing the hall in search of Marton. I don’t hesitate as much as I should when it comes to advice, but I’m trying.
With each family spending $2,350 a month for rent, this setup cannot be called frugal. Carol and I sold our eight-year-old Volvo and rely on the T, Hubway, car services, and occasionally the SUV registered to the people across the hall. Sharing our wireless account is easier, because it’s simultaneously usable in ways that even late-model Hondas are not.
But the heart of this arrangement is not about logistics or the occasional efficiency. It’s more a matter of enriching the ups and downs of everyday life with the gritty love and affection of family. Discovering Carol and Leila at work with a mixing bowl in our kitchen, Kate paused for a moment and said, “Sometimes this across-the-hall thing really makes me emotional.”
With much of the family still at a distance, we’re always hunting for ways of pulling them closer. Most mornings, Marton sets the breakfast table with a Skype connection seating his parents in Budapest directly across from their Hungarian-American grandchildren in Brookline.
Navigating family geography is all a matter of perspective.
“Amma and Papa live too far away,” Leila told her mom shortly after we moved in. “I’m not going to walk.” Whereupon she buckled on her orange helmet and rode her scooter the 12 feet from her front door to email@example.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.