By Marie Muir | Photography by John Michael Simpson
“Herbal, black, masala chai …” Zane Sawin, 12, and his sister, Leela Sawin, 9, take turns reciting the names of tea while their grandfather Jonathan Larson serves each person seated around the table on their screened-in back porch. Teacups, saucers and stories of global excursions float across a patterned tablecloth like sailboats on the sea.
For Jonathan and his wife, Mary Kay Larson, this afternoon ritual of sharing stories over tea is a tradition they’ve maintained across multiple states and continents for years.
Mary Kay was born in Asheville, North Carolina, and was 4 months old when her family moved to India to continue their work with the Mennonite church. Mary Kay met Jonathan, whose family worked with the Swedish Baptist church, while attending boarding school in the Himalayan foothills.
Jonathan and Mary Kay’s first two daughters, Karin Krisetya and Jennifer Larson-Sawin, were born in the Congo. The couple volunteered as teachers in a training school there in the early 1970s. Jonathan and Mary Kay moved back to the U.S. for a few years to earn their master’s degrees, but brought their family back to Africa in the early 1980s. Karin, Jennifer and their third sister, Erika Larson, spent the majority of their childhood in Botswana while Mary Kay contributed to the fight against the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and Jonathan worked with refugees as a grassroots leadership trainer.
Mary Kay has since retired from an extensive career in public health while Jonathan, a retired Mennonite pastor, shares snippets of their world travels on his blog, “Traipse.”
“The reason that global wanderings continue to haunt our back porch chatter is that they yield, beyond novelty or romance, some mysterious quality; that some detail, an unexpected gesture or turn of phrase, an odd coincidence or nuance invites probing or reflection,” Jonathan says. “And that in turn leads to wonder, laughter, self-recognition and even poetry.”
Each of Jonathan and Mary Kay’s daughters has chosen their own life path – traveling, studying, working, falling in love and starting families in various parts of the country. The Larsons, who most recently lived in Atlanta, decided to find a smaller city closer to their children.
Erika’s “lobbying campaign,” as the family calls it, as well as the desire to be nearer to one another, led her family to Durham. Erika was the Larsons’ first daughter to plant roots here; she works in global health and was drawn to the idea of a career in the City of Medicine. She met her now-husband, Gagan Gupta, while attending Davidson College. The couple held a microwedding ceremony at the Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsborough on Sept. 5, 2020, followed by a reception at Vin Rouge. The newlyweds just bought a house near Hope Valley.
Already familiar with the area, Erika and Gagan helped jump-start the house hunt for Jonathan and Mary Kay as well as for Jennifer and her former husband, Gregory Eshleman Sawin, who were living in Boston with Zane and Leela at the time.
Jennifer settled on a kid-friendly house in Duke Forest where she could build a mother-in-law suite for her parents on the same plot of land. But Adrian Brown with Inhabit Real Estate redirected the Sawins’ plan when he found Mary Kay’s dream house on James Street in Tuscaloosa-Lakewood. Mary Kay felt guilty about breaking her promise to live in close proximity to Jennifer’s family, but serendipitously, the house next door in Lakewood went up for sale the following week.
Jennifer got on a plane and bought that house, and subsequently her parents’ purchased the home next door. Both families closed on their homes in December 2019; Jennifer’s family moved in right away, and Jonathan and Mary Kay moved in February 2020.
Living beside one another made a positive impact on Jonathan and Mary Kay’s well-being, especially over this past year. In the peak of the pandemic, Jennifer and Gregory helped Mary Kay and Jonathan out with grocery shopping, and Jennifer would often send the kids over to play and work in their grandparents’ backyard. The families exchange home-cooked meals along the stone path that connects their homes.
“What I love about the neighborhood is the diversity of this area,” Mary Kay says. “You’ve got all kinds of people, and we especially like sitting out on the porch and getting to know them.”
The family also enjoys staring up at the thick branches of a willow oak from four black rocking chairs on the front porch. A white picket fence and perennials frame the front yard. Jonathan and Mary Kay’s house was built and moved to its current Lakewood location in the early 1910s (where it originally sat is unknown). The folk Victorian-style “Triple A” house was popular among Durham’s early working class and features three identical gable pediments – one at either end of the house and one above the front entrance.
“We like that it was a worker’s house historically because we’re people who believe in simplicity,” Mary Kay says.
Mechanics, electricians and laborers alike lived in Lakewood’s historic district and enjoyed close proximity to the Lakewood station, where a streetcar carried residents to downtown. Johnny Burleson and Walter Clark, the historic home’s previous owners, renovated the majority of the two-bedroom, two-bath cottage.
“They spared no cost or effort in putting it all together,” Jonathan says. “And we are so delighted to have ‘inherited’ the house from them.”
But Jonathan and Mary Kay also love the vintage elements of the house that remain – a wide central hallway, peaked roof, exposed brick fireplace and original windows, light fixtures and front door. The house, like the Larson family, has grown over time with the addition of an enclosed porch and a few rooms. A white bookshelf in the office hides a Murphy bed, and Jonathan and Mary Kay are turning the basement into a guest apartment, which they may offer on Airbnb.
Art and artifacts from around the world fill every corner of the house. Jennifer points to the elaborate tablecloth that covers the formal dining room table. “Each item is the embodiment of a memory,” she says.
Next door, Jennifer, Zane and Leela’s Lakewood bungalow (built in 2013) has four bedrooms, two screened-in porches and a two-car garage. Zane walks to school at Lakewood Montessori Magnet Middle School while Leela attends Lakewood Elementary School. A hidden bookcase door that reveals a passageway between their bedrooms and a central playroom/office space is the siblings’ favorite part of their house. Erika and Gagan are expecting their first child in September and jokingly refer to Zane and Leela as “built-in babysitters.”
Settling in while in the midst of the pandemic temporarily stalled the family’s exploration of their new hometown, but thanks to the steady rollout of vaccines, they feel hopeful to resume their “Bull City bucket list” soon. “This is a town of rich history, compelling stories,” Jonathan says. “We’d love to venture into all of that at a Lakewood block party with our neighbors as a kind of festive jailbreak. Our potluck contribution would be a thali of rice and curry and a pot of masala chai.”