When I wanted to know how single people were creating homes and families for themselves, I traveled around the country and asked people to show me their homes and tell me about their lives. One of the people I interviewed was Maria Hall. I was instantly smitten. She was witty, wise, self-deprecating, open-hearted, and generous. Maria was one of those people who loved having time and space to herself, yet over the years, she invited nearly two dozen people who needed a place to stay to live with her.
I wrote about Maria Hall in How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. I want to share that excerpt for a sad reason. Maria died just a few days ago (October 21, 2017). This blog post is my tribute to her.
From How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century (pp. 67-70):
All I knew about Maria Hall before I met her is that she opened her house to kids with nowhere else to go and made it their home. That sent me into full stereotype mode, and I expected to meet a wispy woman with delicate, flowing hair and wearing one of those soft Indian-print skirts that were popular in the ’60s.
My friend Susan, who put me in touch with Maria, drives us past the front of the two-story Southern saltbox—where a white rocking chair sits on the porch and ivy meanders over the railings and around the posts—to the driveway in the back, where we park next to Maria’s black pickup truck, then we walk past a shed and a cobalt-blue bottle tree and knock on the back door.
The sixty-five-year-old woman who greets Susan and me from her kitchen is wearing stone-white canvas pants, a black T-shirt, and glasses. The house is as surprising to me as Maria is. Every room is distinctive. The first floor sports a “Jimmy Carter room” (Maria’s office, filled with whimsical political memorabilia), an elegant Asian-themed sitting room, and a rustic dining room. Upstairs, there’s an impressively-equipped music room and a fun-filled crafts room—Maria calls it her woman cave. Maria’s bedroom is there, too, with its blue-cloud wallpaper and two cats sprawled on the bed like they own it. In another bedroom are pictures of Michael, the guitar-playing teen living there now.
Homages to the people Maria loves are all over the home. Dozens of framed photos are arrayed around stenciled letters spelling out family on the landing at the top of the stairs. On the refrigerator door, on tabletops, and in bookshelves, photos, mementos, and works of art remind Maria of the children who have lived with her. On the back of the chair at the head of the dining room table is a gray sweater. It belonged to a man, now deceased, who was like a brother to Maria. In keeping with a tradition of Zimbabwe, the country he was from, the sweater will stay there always.
Twenty-five years ago, Maria bought the house for eighteen thousand dollars. Since then, twenty-one people have lived there, and not all have been children. When a professor at the local college died suddenly, a scholar from Costa Rica was hired to take his place. The school asked Maria if she could put up the man and his wife and two kids for a few days until they found a place to live. They stayed for four years. A friend of the professor, from Costa Rica, wanted to study in the States; he stayed for a few years too. The local college used to have an international dorm but had to close it; a Japanese student moved in with Maria for two years. Other housemates included eighteen-year-old guys who became just too much for their parents to handle.
Maria was born in South Carolina, but she doesn’t know exactly when. She was adopted by a family with a home so small that she had to share a bed with her mother. Her papers, she tells me, had the word bastard stamped on them. Maria did not do well in school and was sure she was “dumber than a brick.” The professionals at the junior college she attended realized she wasn’t dumb—she was dyslexic. Maria loved the school and the people who took an interest in her. When her parents came to get her after the first year, thinking that she should quit college and work in a department store, she locked herself in a closet. Now she is forty-two days away from her second master’s degree, and she already has a long history of successes at career counseling (which is what she is doing now), drug and alcohol counseling, and advising Veterans Affairs on civil rights.
When new people move in to the house, Maria encourages them to make it their home. Food, drinks, art supplies—all are there for the taking. For the teens and young adults, there are a few rules: no drinking, smoking, or sex in the house.
Regardless of how many people are living with her at the moment, Maria hosts supper on Thursdays and lunch on Sundays, to which those not living in the house are invited too. Typically, between two and fifteen show up. Sometimes Maria does all of the cooking; other times different people bring or prepare different dishes. Afterward, each person scrapes his or her own plate.
The night before my visit, a Saturday, Maria hosted eight people. She had studying to do, so she went upstairs after she finished her dinner. Hours later, she came back downstairs and found all eight of them still there, enjoying each other’s company and the welcome feeling of being home.
In between all of the scheduled events are plenty of informal visits. Maria has an open door policy—her friends are welcome to show up without calling in advance. That’s something she especially appreciates about her life as a single person—she doesn’t have to apologize for having friends stop by, as she did when she was partnered.
When she was twenty-three, Maria tells me, “I did what every girl thinks she is supposed to do: I got married.” She and her husband were not a great match. He loved Waterford crystal; she liked Lego bricks. He wanted her to learn to sew and gave her a book called The Perfect Virginia Housewife; she preferred to ride her bike. When her husband read an article about the huge number of children in the foster system, the two decided to adopt. After eighteen years, the marriage ended, and Maria turned to the relationships that seemed more natural to her all along: those with female friends. She lived with one of the women for more than a decade. It was the loneliest time of her life. For the past nine years, she has been single.
Maria’s stories of connecting and socializing with and nurturing other people are punctuated with heartfelt odes to solitude. At age nineteen, by signing up to be a resident assistant in college, Maria had a room of her own for the first time in her life: “I could smell it, feel it, taste it.” During the summers, even after she graduated, she returned to the college to work. “There was a little stream that ran by one of the buildings there. It was called the prayer room. I used to stay out there for hours. Nobody knew where I was.” When she was married, her husband recognized her need to have time and space to herself. “That shed out there—for many years, that was where I really lived.” Nowadays, when no one else is at home, “I love it. I study at this [dining room] table. There’s something warm and wonderful about every room. I like the freedom of being able to come down here and work on a paper for a while, sit in the Jimmy Carter room.”
Looking back over her life, especially the early years, Maria thinks she “had a lot to not recommend me.” Yet
At some point, I just decided that I’m going to have a good time. You have the power to write your own story. Most of us, even in our brokenness, can unbreak and stick ourselves back together and have a good time.