It was early one morning, and the light was beginning to stream in the upstairs windows at my mom’s house, when I was awakened by a knock at the door. I peeked out the window to check for a car in the circular driveway. There wasn’t one. That wasn’t good.
Our house wasn’t in a neighborhood, like the one where we’d started out, the one where my mom’s friends who would stop because they were passing by, and that we had friends – not close friends, mind you, but neighborhood friends, ones that would do, in a pinch, if you needed somebody to ride bikes with on a summer day – down the street. When our family outgrew that house, and it came time to move, it was the spacious, woodsy lot out near the country that my dad fell in love with, and it was there that my mom mourned her impromptu visits from friends, and, in the blink of an eye, even the man who’d convinced her to move there.
Anyway, at this house we had plenty of car traffic pass by, enough that just about everybody knew the cute red house on Old Mill Bottom Road; my own kids would remark years later how much they loved sleeping with the sounds, through the open upstairs windows, of the cars passing by on the way to the waterfront properties, horse farms, or a detour from beach traffic that only the locals knew. But the only pedestrian passers-by tended to be folks who had broken down, were down on their luck, or had lost their way. It was from those upstairs windows where we would, on rare occasion, notice them walking past, and, if we were home alone, become suddenly aware of both the isolation and the unspoken hope that they wouldn’t approach the house for help.
But this day, it was early and I’d been sleeping, not watching the road, when I awoke to rapping on the front door. I was immediately aware that it was only me and my brother Brian, 7 years younger than me and perhaps in junior high at the time, alone in the house, with someone on our doorstep and no car in the drive. Immediately, I was scared to death, and tried to think of the best thing to do. Clearly, as the oldest, I would be in charge. Of course, I would not open the door – that would be much too dangerous – with just the two of us here. I wished we had a scary dog. I wondered if I should call 911.
Hurrying downstairs in my pajamas to the kitchen phone on the wall, I found Brian, his back to me, at the counter. I glanced over my shoulder at the front door, which was open already, and could see, beyond the light streaming through the flimsy storm door – oh, God, was it even locked?? – an unkempt man peering at his shoes. I pulled my nightshirt down, wishing I’d brought a robe, and feared further for my virtue as I walked toward Brian. He didn’t seem nervous at all. Oh, God, why did he open the door?? He doesn’t even see the danger! Why didn’t he come get me first?? And now, I shuddered, the door is open and I bet the storm isn’t even locked and no one is going to hear us when we scream.
I sidled up to Brian. “What’s he want?” I hissed.
“He needs help,” my brother said, not looking at me, pulling the bag of white bread out of the drawer.
“What should we do??” I asked, figuring that I could still make a break for the phone, and then, noticing the items on the counter, “What are you doing??”
Brian’s hands kept moving, and he still didn’t look at me; his tone was resolute and sure, as if there was only one thing to do, as if I was the little sister with the learner’s permit, as if he had been in charge the whole time.
“I’m making the man a sandwich.”
I felt like an adrenaline-crazed idiot, and a jerk – and I still do, when I think of it – but it is one of my favorite memories, the morning that I was schooled by my baby brother. I love remembering the way he said it, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, and how I realized when I got close that he was a little nervous, he was just trying not to show it, and had chosen instead to focus on the fact that there was a man – not a guy, a man – on our doorstep, asking for help. What were we gonna do? Hey, how about a sandwich. We could do that. And how just by being himself, with the skills he had (which now far exceed sandwich-making, let me tell you) and with no judgement for the man, for his idiot older sister, heck, for anyone, he coolly changed the paradigm in the process.
That’s who Brian is, and that is why it makes my heart sing that this week, he has “taken his talents” as the new recruits say, to his new position as the GM at the Light House Bistro in Annapolis, a social enterprise serving up fabulous food right along with job skills and mentoring and opportunity and homeless prevention in a town made up, below the surface, of so many more communities than just the water- and otherwise-privileged.
Because even in Annapolis, lighthouses aren’t just for the boating set; they shine for anyone trying to find their way.