Our houseguests from Australia had just arrived, when the tufted titmouse began warbling from its perch over our kitchen sink.
The family of six fell silent. “What was that?” Greg asked.
I pointed to our Audubon singing bird clock on the wall. “A different bird every hour, on the hour,” I chirped.
Greg threw back his head and laughed. “Kids, welcome to America.”
His wife, Natalie, laughed, too. “Well, yes, you mean welcome to Connie’s America.”
And with that, the gap of 13 years of separation evaporated.
Our beloved Aussies were back, bringing memories of a time when we depended on one another for everything from borrowed milk to the sturdy shoulders of a most trusted friend.
For two years in the mid-’90s, we shared a house on what I nicknamed “Divorce Street.” Many fractured families, including mine, inhabited its stretch of two-family Tudors. My 7-year-old daughter and I were cobbling together a new life. The Scalias had left tropical heat for Midwestern snow so that Greg could serve a fellowship in cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic.
I remember the first time I laid eyes on the red-nosed, shivering foursome at our door. Two-year-old William clung to Greg; baby Isabel was attached to Natalie’s hip. They all wore faces of startled newborns.
“It’s a bit colder here,” Natalie said in the delightful accent my daughter, Caitlin, soon would adopt as her own. “Do you know a place nearby where we might buy coats?” I mapped out directions to T.J. Maxx and giggled at the ensuing avalanche of gratitude.
Two nights later, they joined us for dinner. Then they invited us for tea. We soon merged menus and grocery lists. Caitlin said “dummy” instead of “pacifier” and “nappy” instead of “diaper” and soon insisted she looked just like baby Issy.
“She thinks I’m her sister, Mommy,” she said, beaming.
The Scalias came with a deadline: For two years, they would be in our lives, and then they would go far, far away. My little girl had fallen in love with a family she felt completed our own. Was it fair to let her commit to a life with an expiration date?
As it turned out, there was no choice. We were two families in upheaval. We needed one another. After failed attempts to hire a reliable after-school sitter, Nat volunteered to pick up Cait, who relished the chance to be a mother’s helper. I cherished the respite from working-mother’s guilt. We went on vacations together, celebrated all the holidays, and grew into a family that would endure long after time and distance ran their course.
In the days before the Scalias’ recent visit, my anxiety kicked into overdrive. I was older – and married. They were more settled, too, their lives brimming with accomplishments. They had two more children, too – Rosie and Richie.
I warned Cait, now 22, that Will and Issy would not remember us. She rolled her eyes.
“I was surrounded by so much love growing up, Mom, and the Scalias were a big part of that,” she said. “That doesn’t change.”
She was right, of course. The moment they rushed through the door, we were hugging and laughing and offering introductions all around. We pored over old photos and shot hundreds of new ones. Over long dinners, we told our children stories of how they used to be.
On the second evening, Nat turned to me with tears in her eyes. “Aren’t you glad we took the chance on each other, that we didn’t let the temporary nature of it all get in the way?” Indeed. Our two years together changed me. I try to give my all now when I meet someone, regardless of the amount of time together. A single conversation can change a person’s life, and I don’t want to squander that opportunity.
I am reminded of a moment on day two of the Scalias’ visit, when 9-year-old Richie called out to me as he ran up the stairs.
“Is it too early?” he yelled, stopping in midflight.
“Too early for what?” I asked.
“Is it too early to tell you I love you?”
I assured him that any time is the perfect time for love.
• Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “...and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate.