Our house wrapped around us like an ill-fitting garment. It was cut on the straight when it should have been cut on the bias. Perhaps if it had been let out across the shoulders and down the back to accommodate our growth it may have afforded more comfort. As it was, no one ever tailored it to our needs. Consistent with the rest of our life at the time, we conformed to the unforgiving structure and spent our youth there buttoned-up and tightly collared.
In real estate vernacular, the house could have passed for charming, a euphemism for snug. In reality it was an off-the-rack, early 50’s starter house in a subdivision of others similar, if not the same. Before my sister and I were born, the rest of the family—my parents, two older sisters and brother—moved about the house with relative ease. They could thrust out their arms, cross them, raise them and bend over without fear of ripping. Of course, my sisters and my brother were smaller then, my parents younger and more lithe, making for a much better fit all around.
My oldest sister was 15, my brother 11 and my other sister 7 when I was born. Two and a half years later, my baby sister arrived. She was put down in the crib in my parents room and I was moved, one of the big girls now, into the room already shared by my older sisters. It was tight, but not for long. A snap popped open. My oldest sister left.
In time, my brother moved downstairs into the den. My older sister moved into his room and my little sister moved in with me. My parents stayed put. That done, we gained a little room at the top and so slept better. But with the den gone, we lost downstairs living space and felt constricted around the middle.
There was, of course, the living room. But, despite the fact that it was the largest room in the house, we almost never used it. There was no need to pass through it since it dead-ended at the corner of the house. With the exception of an occasional birthday party or the more frequent visit of a priest or nun who sat on the sofa to take cake and coffee from my mother’s hand, no real living was ever done there. Like the dining room, which was off limits except for mandatory Sunday dinners, the furnishings were fancy French and heirloom English—far too elegant for the “builders special” that housed them. The living room, especially, was my mother’s pride and joy. She mostly liked to look at it, not wanting any further involvement.
Every evening, except Sundays, we sat at the kitchen table for supper. Like a button too big for its hole, we didn’t slide well into the dining alcove. We squeezed in, bumping each other’s chairs and elbowing one another as we made the sign of the cross for grace.
Apparently, when the house was new and my parents bought the kitchen set, the fit was fine enough—two children, the third in a high chair, sat up to the table with their parents and passed the peas. It was the addition of me and my younger sister that created the crowd. When my oldest sister asked to be excused one night—a tear at the seam never to be mended—we were still too many, too big for too small a space.
Once my father suggested to my mother that we add a couple of rooms. He put before her a pattern he had drawn for where the adding on would be. My mother shivered at the thought of the cutting, the opening, and the mess and so he encouraged her to consider moving instead. He had spoken with a real estate agent and had several houses lined-up for her to try on—ones better sized and suited for our family. My mother refused.
From then on my father pretended not to notice that the house was too small around us. My mother truly didn’t know. For her it was a perfect fit. No letting out or lengthening was ever done because she didn’t see the need for it. We were fine, tightly bound to one another and to her. We were good children and good children didn’t take up much room. We read instead of romped. We prayed hard instead of played hard. There was no room to disagree, so we got along. No room to twirl ourselves about, so we threw ourselves into books and study and thought. We were smart children made smarter by a home that cinched us close and forced us to look inward to see outward.
My oldest sister slipped out of pocket. She fled too early—still a child—to a convent and was lost for years. My brother fared better. He left later with a passion for science and discovery and settled first into academia, then medicine. My older sister fell in love with a boy not of my parents’ choosing. She ran off with him to a life of teaching and moderate political activism. My little sister, like myself, left for college and never came back, excelling in graduate school and in a career that takes her around the world.
In their eighties and walker-bound, my mother and my father are still in the house of their children’s childhood. It is still ill fitting, now in ways different from but as pronounced as before. My parents bedroom is upstairs, their bathroom not handicap accessible. The layout of the house does not gracefully accommodate live-in help. But, for my mother, the house is well worn, well loved. In it she is insulated from almost all interaction outside of her family. Little is expected of her. She can pull tight the familiar and be comfortable. It is the garment my mother has always chosen and always will.
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