A few months ago, I had one of the most sublime reading experiences of my life. I was traveling through Greece, from city to city via ships of various sizes, and I read the Odyssey. I'd read it before-- twice, I thought, once in high school and once in college-- and perused my copy of the Robert Fagles translation many times. I'd always read it on a certain timetable, with questions to answer and particular perspectives on Athena and Poseidon, and there are certain chapters (they're called "books" within the epic itself) that I felt I knew entirely. But on this trip, I read it as I would read any novel, first word to last word, just to experience the writing.
Soon I became convinced that I'd never truly read it before. Had these long passages with Nestor and Menelaus been skipped over in favor of the more thrilling Scylla and Cyclops? Had I ever known who Alcinous was? Were you, dear reader, aware that Odysseus is home in Ithaca (albeit in disguise most of the time) for a whole half the epic?
What I had known academically a decade ago I now knew in minute detail: the Odyssey is about hospitality. Almost every episode is frought with questions of how to behave, how to treat guests, when to leave, what to serve, and how to be a guest. The plot is nailed to these customs: Penelope's big issue is that her guests have overstayed their welcome. Calypso doesn't want Odysseus to leave. Cyclops himself can be quite formal with his sarcastic hospitality, promising gifts as awesome as "I'll eat you last." But there are finer details, too, ones we skip or forget. At times Homer reads like a Miss Manners column, pointing out that it's wrong to expect guests to explain themselves before they have clean clothes and a good meal, or that it's just as wrong to hold a guest too long as to kick them out too early.
All of this I contemplated while staying in a hotel as a tourist, at the heart of the hospitality industry. I'd actually met and adored Miss Manners not long before, and was starting to take the ideas and customs of manners more seriously than I ever had before. Manners, she'd said, were meant for other people's comfort, and paired with hospitality it seemed like a worthy topic of contemplation.
Home from vacation, I put away the book and let the subject drift into my subconscious. Greg and I had people stay over at our apartment a few times, and hosted a cookie swap-- the usual. We bought food and drink and changed sheets and things, but mostly we went about our business. Hospitality often feels much too simple to matter. "Sure, come over whenever," is a sentence I say all the time. It hardly feels like a gesture worthy of a Homeric epic. We agreed to host a whiskey tasting in March, for which I'll try and cook something, but I haven't given it much thought.
And then today I received some bad news which made me reconsider the subject. An aunt of mine had died-- but exactly what sort of aunt, it's hard to say. My mother's sister's husband's mother. The grandmother, not actually my blood ancestor, of my cousins. Got it?
Gloria owned a tiny cottage-- I think the proper term is a bungalow-- in Wells, Maine. It had three small bedrooms each separated by a wall so thin, you could hear the person in the next room sighing himself to sleep. It had a porch, a kitchen, and a living room, and was a brief barefoot walk across scalding pavement to the beach. In this small house, we would fit Gloria, my aunt and uncle, my cousins Jessica and Jordan, my parents, my brother and sister and I, and our grandparents Baron and Kay, who would stay in a hotel across the street but hang out with us during the day. One or two weekends a year we'd go up there to Gloria's house in Maine.
The house, by virtue of its size, kicked us outside. During the day we swam in the numbing Maine ocean, and crawled out on our towels to read. Since we were always there in late August, I sped-read every summer reading book of my life on that beach: Anna Karenina, stories by Native Americans, To Kill a Mockingbird. We swam, body surfed, boogie-boarded, and eventually surfed on that beach. Whole days were dedicated to building sandcastles that would, perhaps, prove that the tide might not destroy everything this time. The water came up, came in, slowly and gently at first, and my siblings and cousins would never say die. They were always bailing out a sandcastle until the bitter end.
At night, the house was still too small for us, but we mashed ourselves into a dinner arrangement so tight that everyone agreed there would be no getting up to use the bathroom. We would walk down to the candy store for turtles after dinner, or, briefly when we were teenagers, stop into the arcade. As we got older we went for nighttime walks on the beach, and talked about the games of Cops and Robbers we played until we were way too old to be playing it. Actually, we were never too old at Wells; we have a mutual agreement that time stops there, as well as at our grandparents' house at Cape Cod.
For a long time it seemed to me that everyone must have a Wells, in order to be a child. It so closely matched my idea of growing up. When I began to accept that I was an early riser, and liked coffee, I would walk over to the corner store with my dad and get a cup and a couple of postcards. It was, I see now, a breath of air for us both, ten minutes together with our commonalities. I called my freshman year roommate from a pay phone in Wells because I didn't want to spend any money on Gloria's long-distance bill, and I wanted to meet this person who would change my life (I was sure) in the only privacy that Wells had: outdoors. One summer, my brother sprained his knee one summer and sat on the beach in misery. One summer we all tried to learn to surf by sharing a single surfboard, and I was awful. One summer Greg came, and the sleeping arrangements were all messed up. One summer, it rained the whole time and we watched some very bad television.
Auntie Gloria was not always present-- she was, rightfully, completely overwhelmed by this influx of energy. Sometimes she was there, offering up sweatshirts of the most gloriously tacky variety. Like many people who spend a lot of time near the beach, she took the ocean as a simple fact, and did not seem overjoyed or taxed by its presence. The sea was just there, to be wondered about in the most prudent terms: when is high tide today? What's the temperature of the water? It and she were around, seemingly for good.
But of course, there is no "for good" where people are concerned. She died this morning, surrounded by family, in a hospice in Massachusetts. And, as I wish I could go and tell myself half my life ago, not everyone has a Wells. Not everyone knows how to look at a wave and know exactly where and when it will crash over you. Gloria and I had no great talks, no deep understanding, nothing in common but the two smallest and biggest things: our family and the ocean. And the house. Her hospitality.
It's not that she unlocked the door for us: it's that the door of that bungalow was never locked. There was no question of locks. I believed, in a childish way, that that place was mine, was ours, was one of the places that my brother and my sister and my parents and my cousins and everyone was meant to be. One of the places we could always go back to. Walking distance from wonder. I hope, now, paging through the Odyssey (which smells like sunblock, which smells like Maine), that we were good guests in her home and in her house. I hope that she saw, even when we were very young, that this all-American weekend each summer would lead to a set of five cousins who would, as adults, go snorkeling fearlessly with jellyfish. Who would sign up for an insane obstacle course race together. Who would, at every beach everywhere, swap books. Who would never refuse a swim. Who would silently agree to go together through an epic, in which we would always be in medias res.
What I did not understand about hospitality, the other times I read the Odyssey, is that it makes a space. It is unrelated to the gifts, the anointing, the feats, the suitors. It is about the rest, or it is about the adventure. Hospitality makes a space for a person to be, at least a little bit, a new person. I am a person who loves to swim in a cold ocean. I might not be, were it not for Wells, were it not for Gloria choosing to vacation there. I should have thanked her more. I thanked her, I'm positive, at my father's anxious behest, but I wish I had known then how much manners matter.
There are other places, and other oceans, that I love. There is a dock where I threw crumbs to seagulls. There is a holly forest. There is a backyard in New Jersey, there is a stoop in New York, there are the bedrooms of my childhood friends, there are many dining room tables that have changed my life. One of the hardest thoughts to me is that they will all be gone someday. One of the harder thoughts is that all of the people who invited me to come over, sit down, hang out, eat something, and try something will be gone too. The hosts. It is a terribly sad thing, isn't it? At times I find it paralyzing.
My wonderful cousins and my siblings would say, not in words but in action, that we should continue to hurtle through life as we have been. We will, the next time we see each other, try to bail out each others' sadness with comfort or distraction or jokes. The four of them know how to keep up the walls of beautiful sandcastles, screaming with joy and terror at the water as it inevitably comes.