I wake to the sound of heavy footsteps and a low, rumbling voice above me. The large mass of black fur next to me lifts his head to listen. More, lighter, footsteps sound and the creak of the basement door being opened follows. The mass quickly sits up and with as little grace as possible, ambles over my body, stepping on my bladder in the process, and jumps off the bed to run up the stairs. “Ow, thanks Chowzer. At least I get the rest of the bed back now” I think, as I roll over to check the time. 6:30am. Ugh. My morning doesn’t need to start for another couple hours, so I close my eyes hoping to fall back asleep. “No one can defeat El Drago!” resonates through the floor in a loud, deep, commanding voice followed by slightly maniacal laughter. Ok, so maybe I won’t fall asleep again, but I’m definitely not getting up. As I doze, the usual hustle and bustle of morning sounds continue with the occasional “Dong! Dong! Dong!” ringing out from that same deep voice. I smile and snuggle under the covers some more.
Around 9:00am I’m unable to feign sleep anymore. I rub my eyes, stretch my body and, like any good Millennial, pick up my phone to scroll through my social media feeds. All while still lying in bed. Once my brain has warmed up after a couple minutes, I throw off the covers and ease out of bed, lamenting any aches I have as if I were middle-aged woman with a failing body. It certainly feels like it. Then I don a sweatshirt and slowly climb the basement steps.
The kitchen is bright and inviting, with happy blue walls and the smell of coffee welcoming me. I immediately grab my favorite mug, one that pictures two woman walking and reads “Walk faster! The children are catching up!”, to make myself a cup of that necessary morning elixir. Just then, 12-year-old Cooper Jones rounds the corner, clad in Super Mario pj pants and his unzipped winter coat, but no shirt or shoes. “HI STEPH.” he bellows, even though we are three feet from each other. He is the culprit from the earlier shouting and “donging.” “HEY COOP.” I bellow back.
“What train are you on today?”
“Um, the eleven-fifty something”
“The 11:54. What train are you on tonight?”
“Hopefully the 7:11.”
“Oh! I’m gonna take the 5:54 that gets in at 6:39 and then I can take the 7:11 back with you! Can I?”
“You’re gonna have to ask your Mama about that buddy.”
“MAMA!” He shouts as he walks out of the kitchen. I laugh to myself a little. Coop is one of the most charming and most difficult children I’ve ever had the chance to be around. Being a “high-functioning autistic” kid means his intelligence is unique and his desires, specific – such as taking a NJ Transit ride to NYC. Trains are a slight obsession and he knows more about them than I’ll ever know about anything. Being on the autism spectrum also means he has a hard time understanding social norms and often does what he wants regardless of what he’s been told. Each day is peppered with various arguments about what he can and can’t do. The debates that don’t end in him flipping a piece of furniture over are considered tame. For some reason I’m one of his favorite people, though he’d never admit it. Still, I’m honored, he’s a tough boy to click with and to have done so makes me happy.
“Well, hello! Good morning Sunshine!” says a voice behind me. I turn to see Doreen Chila-Jones, still in her pjs and holding, probably, what is her second cup of coffee. “How’re you this morning?” she asks. “Mornin’ Mama. I’m good.” While I finish making my coffee, Doreen gives me a run down of the upcoming day. Play dates for the kids, cleaning goals for the house and maybe organizing the dreadful finances. Being a stay-at-home mom is no joke and I’m constantly impressed by what this woman gets done each day. She also makes sure to update me on the latest news about the pregnant giraffe; still no baby, surprise, surprise. I ask if she would mind dropping me off at the train later. “Oh of course I’ll bring you, you know that.” she chides playfully.
I mosey into the den and find Ruby, the youngest at 9, already at the computer playing some game that I think is a combination of Legos and The Sims. I greet her with a “Hi Ruby.” She ignores me. “What? I don’t get a ‘good morning’?” Nothing, but I know she hears me. I walk over and stand right next to her. She slowly lifts her head and fixes me with the most withering look she can muster. “Well, excuse ME Miss Thang.” I say and proceed to tickle her. She giggles and squirms away from me, pretending to hate it, but loving every second. I stop and she squints at me. As I turn to go she lifts two fingers to her eyes, then points them at me. “I’m watching you.” she warns. I laugh at her and walk away. Oh Ruby-toots. She’s definitely the Jones with the most attitude. Growing up with two older siblings, both of who struggle with their own mental disorder, has forced Ruby to create a sarcastic, funny personality. Because of her siblings’ needs, she can be overshadowed but any time spent with her is full of laughter and silliness.
I settle down in the living room to enjoy my coffee. Chowzer, the 4-year-old black lab mutt, and my sleeping buddy, climbs up on the couch next to me looking for pets. Nora, the 3-year old spaniel mutt, brings me a toy looking to play. I manage to multi-task, scratching Chow-chow’s butt and tossing Nora’s toy into the next room, all without spilling my coffee. Olivia, oldest of the Jones children, is sitting on her throne in the corner of the room. Even though she’s only 13, it’s obvious her girlhood is fading fast. A few more years and she’ll have model status. She is oblivious to the rest of the world, with headphones on and a make-up tutorial video playing on her phone. Livi has bi-polar disorder and her biggest coping mechanism is music. Her anxiety runs hot and the littlest change can make her seize with worry. When she’s content though, she is one of the sweetest kids and her confidence is fierce. When she sees me a meek “Hi Stephanie” escapes her lips. “Hi Liv” I say with a smile.
The morning goes by and I get ready for work in the city. Being a stage manager and working in the theater business has it’s perks, but decent pay isn’t always one of them. Especially when working in New York City. So living in New Jersey and commuting in certainly helps save some money. Doreen and Cooper take me to the train station about a mile away. Doreen, whose second home is the car due to all the driving she does, has probably made this trip a zillion times in her life. Cooper loves to watch the trains come and go, so he’s just along for the ride. As my train pulls up, I let Doreen know when I’ll be back that evening. I jump out and catch my ride into NYC.
After my last show of the week is over, I head back to Penn Station to catch the train back. I stop at one of the many food kiosks and buy two draft beers and a bag of popcorn. I check the monitors for which track I need and climb on the train. I head to the front car and find Julia waiting for me in a four seater. I hand her one of the beers and put the popcorn in easy sharing reach. Julia Jones – face of the Jones household and entire reason I’m a part of her family. Julia is also a stage manager, has been for over 25 years, and is successfully a staple on Broadway. About six years ago our worlds collided at a smaller theater in New Jersey. I was an intern for the year and she was between gigs in the city. I worked as her assistant on a bizarre new play which inspired a bond between us that only a weird play can. Since then I have lived on and off with the Joneses over the past few years. My first gig in the city paid peanuts and Julia invited me to stay with the family while I tested the waters of the Big Apple. My relationship with NYC is a tough one. It has never felt like home, but I’ve been lucky enough to get work there. Any time I need to be in the city for a short period, I call Julia and ask if my bed is free. It always is.
Julia and I ride the train home, enjoying our beer and popcorn. We talk shop and discuss what my next steps should be to get my next leg up in the theater business. I have learned so much about stage managing from this woman that I think of her as a mentor. I certainly wouldn’t have had as many of the opportunities I did without her help. Doreen is waiting for us at the train station. All of the kids came along for the ride this time. Coop is riding shotgun, so Julia wiggles her way into the back and I squeeze in next to Ruby and Olivia. Ruby squeals that I’m cold, so I proceed to hold my icy fingers to her face, causing more squealing and giggling. Cooper is shouting about something he did today that he thought was funny. Olivia is jamming away to whatever music she’s got feeding through her Beats. Doreen is chipper and chatting away. Once we get home, Coop demands that I play a game with him, Doreen offers Julia and me a glass of wine and let’s us know dinner is on the stove. I change into sweats, grab some food and join Cooper for a game of mancala. By 9:00pm everyone is ready for bed, adults especially. We all close up shop, Doreen ushers the kids upstairs, Julia throws one final load of laundry into the dryer and I do what I can to help clean up any leftover dishes. After all the lights are off, I head to the basement and I find Chowzer already curled up in the middle of the bed. I shove him to one side and slide under the covers.
As I wrap up my night and I lay in bed, I think about this family in which I’ve become an integral part. I think about Julia, who calls me “the daughter she had when she was 20 and straight.” Her passion for her family is unbridled. Her joys are their joys and her sadness is their sadness. She is the hub of the household and is continually adding spokes to include anyone in need of a home. I think about Doreen, who is the steel frame supporting the household. With sarcasm and wit she manages to contain the whirlwind of errands, meetings, children, chores, pets and guests that is the Jones home. These women have been together for 20 years, adopted three kids, fostered countless others and given support to anyone in need of it. I think about Olivia, Cooper and Ruby and how each has to overcome difficult obstacles that they don’t always understand. Yet, more often than not, they are happy kids that only want the simple joys in life. I think about how living with this family has helped me to better understand what love and family is and should be.
Being a Jones is not for the faint of heart. It requires a thick skin, a strong determination, the ability to adapt quickly and a good sense of humor. Each day is full of high highs and low lows. There’s little opportunity for privacy or peace and quiet. It’s common to have the urge to run and hide rather than deal with whatever is happening. But when you overcome that urge and face life head on, being a Jones is pretty rewarding. The love and laughter that encompasses you is some of the strongest support I’ve been given. I don’t know who I’d be if I had never met this family. I am so grateful that I get to have these wonderful people in my life, craziness and all. Being a Jones is awesome; I’m so proud to be considered one.