When I moved into Rosemary’s 5th floor, railroad apartment in 1992 the city was a stop for me, not a destination. No fan of crowds, traffic and noise, I wanted to get ordained and head to a church some place with rolling fields, apple orchards and soft mountains. Rosemary was open to this possibility but she was also a Hudson County native with a family who had resided there for well over a hundred years.
My introduction to Rose’s family, the McLaughlins, came that Thanksgiving at her parent’s apartment. Their wooden table was unfolded along with some TV dinner stands that took up all of the open space in their tiny living room straight into the even smaller bedroom. There were about a dozen of them huddled there: three, raucous sisters, their anxious, retired, insurance under writer father, a mind mannered, long suffering mom, the rose soap scented, sighing, powdered, twinkly eyed aunt and some nieces and nephews thrown into the mix as well.
Maybe there wasn’t enough space to do anything else, but the McLaughlin’s absorbed me right away. If I ever made an uncomplimentary comment about Bayonne within earshot of my Mother and Aunt-in-law I was promptly reprimanded and reminded that it used to be a rural resort for the Manhattan gentry. When obligated to pay court to Rose’s father beside his living room armchair/ throne I was subjected to one terrible pun after the other but on the way out the door was compensated with the nicest piece of fruit in the house. Once, when Rosemary accused her sister Kathy and me of making things up, we ganged up on her, proclaimed ourselves the superior story tellers regardless of her “hall monitor” accusations and high-fived each other. Many bottles of Advil later, I slowly came to love the McLaughlin sisters cackling laughter and I know over decades it has raised the volume on my own.
After the McLaughlins dubbed me as theirs I started liking what they liked. Instead of despairing about the concrete in every direction, I began to appreciate the pride people took in their perfectly manicured, postage stamp yards. I loathed candy striped petunias and referred to them “gas station flowers” until Rosemary insisted that I respect them for their sunny disposition even in the most compromised situations. At last, she made me apologize to a clump of them planted in a pile of pebbles and dust by a war memorial along the waterfront.
Like Paul on the road to Emmaus, I even had a conversion experience one December while parallel parking near a twelve-foot-tall, blow up Frosty the Snowman lassoed to a driveway on 52nd street. I laughed so hard at how someone had thought the Christmas cheer this house sized, happy monster (that resembeled Mr. Stay-Puff) provided was more important than the most precious, endangered resource in Hudson County: a private parking space. Suddenly, all of the glowing nativities wrapped in blinking, blue lights next to waving Santa Clauses surrounded by plastic, candy cane fences down the block weren’t tacky anymore. They were…. FUN!
That’s how being loved re-wires you. Your happiness gets kneaded into other people’s happiness and even what it means to be “home” starts looking different as you come to love what the ones who love you love.
I think that’s what Jesus must mean when he says that if we abide in his love we’ll keep his commandments. He can’t mean that he only loved the self-disciplined and the noble. Think of the company he kept! Jesus’ frightened, often petty followers didn’t start forgiving, sharing or bringing outsiders ‘in’ because they became suddenly “good”. They did it because Jesus’ love changed what they love.
And once you have been loved, there’s no going back.
See you Sunday,