In the years I spent interviewing people about the ways they are living now (for my book, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century), I found one person after another who came up with innovative ways to get the two things they wanted in the proportions they wanted them: (1) the human connection and togetherness they craved, and (2) the time and space for themselves that they savored. I was intrigued by the committed couples (including married couples) who wanted to stay in the relationship for the long haul but live in places of their own – so much so, that I devoted an entire chapter to them.
Those couples are described as living apart together (LAT) or as dual dwelling duos. I also discovered that it is not only romantic couples who create variations of the living-apart-together lifespace. Friends, for example, can do this, too.
Here is the next article in my occasional series on the people and lifespaces I wrote about for How We Live Now that did not make it into the final version of the book because I had way more to say than could fit within its pages. I so admire these two women and their friendship with each other. (At their request, I’ve changed their names and some of the details.)
Taylor and Savannah: Side-by-Side Homes, Interconnected Lives
On the other side of the country, in a mid-Atlantic university town, two married women lived next door for years without ever getting to know each other. Savannah, 65, had raised two kids and is now retired. Taylor, 69, raised three stepchildren and worked full-time in a challenging profession the whole while; she still does. She spent a decade caring for her mother, and then for her ailing, much older, husband until he died in 2004. Savannah’s husband died several years later. That’s when the two widows became close.
Savannah was in her early 60s when her husband died; she was living alone for the first time. Taylor spent a few brief periods living alone in her university days when she was between roommates, but that was decades ago. She said of her initial adjustment to an empty house: “If you’ve been living with other people all your life, the silence is a little shattering…So you have to adapt to a quiet house. But there are a lot of things that you have not been able to do for so long – travel, go out to movies, just live, really.”
Live, she did. All those things that Taylor told me she loves – traveling, gardening, music, movies, theater, going out for dinner and drinks – well, Savannah does, too, and the two have come to enjoy them together. Savannah keeps up with the reviews and news about arts and culture, and has a great sense of what’s coming and what’s worth seeing. Taylor really appreciates that, and so much more about Savannah. “She is really a great friend,” she told me.
When I was first making the transition from writing only for fellow academics to writing my first non-academic book, Singled Out, I didn’t know how I should think about my audience. A colleague who had already succeeded in publishing said I should write for smart, thoughtful people who read the New York Times. Taylor and Savannah are just those people.
Both live in two-story homes, with windows framed by dark shutters, in a neighborhood with a colonial sensibility and lots of old growth. The two houses are set back a bit from the sidewalk by verdant lawns and big, sprawling trees. In each house, the more formal living and dining room areas are in the front, and the more casual spaces in the back. The sitting room and kitchen in the back of Taylor’s home are part of a beautiful, open, airy space with skylights, a piano, a glass-top kitchen table, and end tables topped with exuberant plants. Floor-to-ceiling built-in bookshelves grace several walls, and glass doors lead out to a spacious deck hugged by leafy trees. Down the hall in one direction is Taylor’s study, and in the other, her bedroom. In the back of Savannah’s house, the stylish sunroom with its exposed brick wall also looked out to a big deck and a serene yard with tall flowering plants in magenta and white.
Taylor and Savannah both have other important people in their lives. Taylor has a sister who has always been single and lives several states away. They see each other every couple of months, travel together and sometimes celebrate birthdays or holidays together. Taylor’s kids and grandkids live out of town but she sees them, too. She also has close friends nearby, and other friends from work and book club and garden club who are not as close but still a valued part of her life. Savannah, too, has lots of contact with other people who matter a great deal to her, such as her daughter, her siblings, and her friends from college.
On a day-to-day basis, though, there is Taylor and Savannah. Every week or so, the two of them and two other friends get together for movie night. They are in a lecture club together. They introduce each other to their friends. When one is returning from her travels, the other is there to pick her up, and perhaps invite her to her home for dinner. Even on those evenings when they do not see each other, they have a sense of each other’s presence. “There’s a light on next door that you can see,” Taylor told me, “and you know that if you needed anything…” It was a sentence she did not need to finish.
Now, not all that many years after she found the silence of a newly empty house “shattering,” Taylor cannot imagine sharing her home with another person – except maybe her sister. She would still love to have a serious romantic partner, but would not want to live with him.
Mostly, what she experiences now is wonderful contentment. “You know I think the 60’s and I hope 70’s are one of the best times of your life, if you and your family are healthy. If nobody in your immediate circle has terrible health or financial problems, it’s a wonderfully free time because you’re not trying to climb a career ladder…your kids, if you’re lucky, they’ve been launched, and they’re off doing their own thing and they’re independent and you still got your wits and your physical strength; that’s hard to beat…This right now is probably the most consistently comfortable time of life.”
I asked each woman separately how she would feel if she continued to live just the way she was living now, in the same place, for the rest of her life. “Oh, I think it would be a great thing,” Savannah answered. Taylor said much the same thing. She was also concerned, though, about whether she would still be able to live on her own as she got older. She had a question for me: Had I heard of the Village concept?
[Note: To see some of the articles and reviews and interviews relevant to How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, check out this page of my website or the Facebook page for the book. I’m also on Twitter and I post updates there, too, @belladepaulo.]
Victorian homes photo available from Shutterstock