After school and on Saturdays at the Kelleher house in Winthrop, my favorite activity was sitting around the dining room table with my good friend Kathy, her six brothers and sisters, and their friends. Kathy’s dad, affectionately nicknamed the Captain, had built in benches in the small dining alcove to solve the problem of trying to squeeze in a large family. It was a gathering spot where we’d talk and laugh for hours.
The kids ranged in age from 12 to 21, with the youngest ones eagerly listening to the teenagers teasing one another and telling jokes. The Captain often stopped by to offer his opinion on his way to the kitchen to start dinner before his wife, Jane, returned from her job as a nurse practitioner.
Kathy and I had become good friends during ninth grade Spanish class in 1980, the year my parents got divorced. I would hang out at her house after school instead of taking the bus and train to the trailer in Revere owned by my grandmother, which my newly-single mother had moved my sister and me into. My occasional sleepovers at Kathy’s turned into more extended stays, especially because her home was significantly closer to my school than the trailer was. Kathy’s parents didn’t seem to mind an extra person in the house; there was a constant stream of visiting neighbors and old friends who walked through the unlocked doors unannounced and made themselves at home.
The Kellehers’ four-bedroom house was right on the beach, facing the ocean — their front yard was the sand. That beach and part of town, Point Shirley, were familiar to me because my mother had grown up around the corner. “Point kids” roamed the winding beachside streets shoeless from Memorial Day to Labor Day, bringing sand from their bare feet into their houses. Mothers there would complain about always having to sweep sand from their floors back outside where it belonged.
On those long summer days, squeezed together around the table or helping to get ready for July Fourth festivities or staying up late listening to Dr. Demento on the radio in Kathy’s room, I felt lucky, part of something special. There was a type of freedom and little worry about teenage mischief, the daily presence of parents and dinner on the table — it gave me a feeling that this was a safe place where no one would be judged. Kathy’s parents let their kids be themselves and make mistakes. They loved them unconditionally. I was drawn to this family, which felt like the opposite of mine.
The friends of Kathy’s siblings would peel off as dinnertime approached, but I would stay. Jane, the Captain, and whichever kids were not away at their jobs would sit at the table, and we’d eat as a family. I hadn’t had that feeling of warmth around a dinner table before, and it nourished me just as much as the food they served.
The Kellehers had always taken in stray dogs and cats, and my favorite was a yellow Labrador mix with a missing leg. He ran right alongside his four-legged counterparts with no problem and was loved and cared for just like the rest of the dogs and cats that lived there.
It wasn’t until many years later, as an adult, that I realized I was another one of the strays who’d found their way to this refuge.
I still do, sandy feet and all.
Kim Costigan is a writer in Winthrop, pursuing a master’s degree in creative writing at Emerson College. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. TELL YOUR STORY. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to email@example.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.