Monday, February 13, 2006

Getting You Where You Live

A while back, I read a thought-provoking piece about old houses and the stories they tell. Among other things, it notes that large families used to live in relatively small spaces:

Because they had so little space, children and parents alike learned what it meant to share. They loved through compromise and sacrifice. Someone once told me that the breakdown of the modern family began with the introduction of the second bathroom. I’m not so sure they’re wrong.

If that's true, my family is being lovingly preserved by our house, which has only one full bath. We have four bedrooms, but one is very small (and is designated "storage" on the original house plan. At least they added windows.) That room accomodates R.'s desk, a futon for guests, and nothing else. The girls share a room, not-so-little R. has a room, R. and I have a room.

Sarah Susanka's Not-So-Big-House franchise posits that we are making a mistake in building bigger and bigger houses--"McMansions"--in our search for the perfect house. She designs smaller houses with beautiful details and thoughtful design that makes efficient and abundant use of every room (they often end up costing the same as a McMansion but without the hollow doors and soulless corners of those structures). One key feature is an "away space" that is small but somehow separated from the living or family room, where people can go to read or watch TV. R. and I were pleased when we bought our house and read Susanka's book at roughly the same time, because our 1927-vintage house fulfilled this aspect of her design and others--built-ins, nooks, fine materials and well-crafted details.

I love my house like a member of the family--in fact, just like that, like a child, because first I loved it just because it was mine, and later because I got to know its lovable qualities. At the same time I get constant messages from extended family, from TV, from magazines, from friends, from "society" and my own unconscious, that my house is not enough. That it will be torture to have only one full bath when the kids are teenagers, that it is not fair to make S. and M. share a room, we should finish the attic, shop for a bigger house, bump out the back, knock out the wall between the kitchen and the dining room...there's too much baggage here for one past, because as my title implies, homes are by nature a sensitive subject.

What I'm really thinking and wondering about today is why some people have more ability than others to buck the social prescription for what home should be--where it is, how big it is, how it's decorated, what the yard looks like. Is it because R. and I are both oldest children that the ghosts of our parents' opinion have haunted us every time we chose a place to live?

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