This summer, my kids will swim in a series of private pools. My son will golf at a country club. We will vacation in Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. And it won’t cost us more than the price of a ferry ticket, a few good bottles of wine and some choice hostess gifts. That’s because, lucky for us, some of our closest friends not only possess swimming pools, country club memberships and vacation houses, but are also unflinchingly generous in sharing them.
Somewhere along the way, between unforeseen job changes, unplanned expenses and a worldwide economic crash, we stripped our budget bare and jettisoned luxuries like vacations. But thanks to our friends, we haven’t had to let that get in the way of our taking them. Rather than spend all summer in an un-air-conditioned house in an empty town, we will be enjoying a swim in our neighbors’ pool and sunset cocktails on a breezy deck overlooking Nantucket Bay.
We are master freeloaders. And while it’s not a position I aspired to, it’s surprising how easy it’s become to accept. Partly that’s because our friends are particularly gracious in making us feel like honored guests instead of poor and pathetic hangers-on with no where to go. But I am not so naive or self-aggrandizing so as to believe that our delightful companionship is all that’s required. Freeloading is hard work. Being a perennial guest, I am always performing calculations in my head: how many times must I empty the dishwasher, sweep the floor, make pancakes, wash and dry the towels, before I’ve earned my keep? Does preparing a really good dinner count for extra credit? Should my husband offer to fix the broken shower door? Should I lose at Bananagrams on purpose?
Freeloading has its down sides, beyond the obvious ones like having no money or vacation house. I worry that we’ll overstay our welcome, or that our friends will grow weary of accommodating my 16-year-old’s vegetarianism and my strong preference for half-and-half in my coffee. I fear the whole arrangement will create imbalance in the friendship, and that we’ll never be able to repay the generosity. And I worry that my children will become entitled and spoiled, and take for granted all the kindness and opportunity they’ve been shown.
As always, the kids remain the biggest obstacle to our being invited back. My little daughter, now 8, has been known to walk into a well-appointed living room in a lovely light-filled beach house full of games, books, toys, people and pets, and announce, “I’m bored.” Once, while swimming with our neighbors in their pool, she and my son, who’s four years older, had a knock-down-drag-out screaming fight complete with tears, as if they were in their own backyard. I was mortified. “There is no fighting when you’re swimming in someone else’s pool!” I hissed, and made them go home. Last summer, while visiting our friends in Nantucket, my son, then 12, instigated a wonderful little game called, “Let’s see how many rocks we can land on the roof of that car,” eventually shattering its rear window. For the $900 it cost us to replace it, we might as well have rented our own place.
But then we would have missed out on the things that make sharing a house with friends so delightful, at least for the freeloaders: the hanging out in PJs over morning coffee (and half-and-half), the late-night rounds of Catchphrase, the private chats conducted while making up the guest-room bed. If things ever turn around for us, and we find ourselves with a vacation house somewhere–maybe the Berkshires, or Vermont, or the Cape–I know we will fill it with friends, food, wine, laughter and endless rounds of hide-and-seek in the twilight. Until then, I promise to cheerfully wash as many dishes as it takes.