The Joys of a Small House

I know I usually write about running, but I am going to take the time to explore something different today…

More than five years ago, my husband and I started the process of buying our first house. After renting across different neighborhoods and parts of town, experiencing everything from apartments that made you wonder each morning if your car would have all its windows intact, to a sleepy house in a dark wooded community with poor insulation and happy-go-lucky ants, we found ourselves approaching the market with an impending heavy sense of permanency. He is a country mouse and I am a city mouse, but by all standards, we were both very lucky to grow up in spacious family homes with wonderful back yards and, quite uniquely, houses that remain in our family to this day. Neither of us had moved around much as kids, and with our own baby daughter quickly gaining her mobility, we were hungry to put down roots and find our Family Home.

We looked at many different houses. Some were suburban and expansive. Some appeared straight out of the Brady Bunch. Others were Victorian, narrow, and only slightly terrifying. Houses that had curb appeal only to be followed by crumbling interiors. Houses that were beautiful but somehow not quite right. Houses that were right on busy thoroughfares; houses in the middle of developments devoid of sidewalks. Finally, a completely unremarkable house was listed in the area of town of our dreams. A place where tree-lined streets and old houses preserved a neighborhood feel that could not be duplicated by cul-de-sac; a place where overgrown gardens and backyard chickens bordered the alleys; where the local elementary school had no bus service because every child assigned lived within a ten minute walk. We fell in love, and we put in an offer on a house that was home to several generations of college renters, beige carpets oddly stained, white-washed walls hiding, I’m sure, a multitude of sins over the years, and a large fenced backyard overgrown with bindweed.

Over the years, this house has become a member of our family. Slowly, we made improvements to the place; doing what we could afford at a piecemeal pace. The windows were updated and the floors replaced; the walls painted and appliances upgraded. Gardens were built and tended. Our hodgepodge of furniture was configured and reconfigured over and over again to achieve new pathways and spaces. Baby-proofing gave way to play spaces. Play spaces are now giving way to homework spaces. As we embark on the addition of a second child, we must once again find spots and corners for the playpen and the highchair… the swing, the crib…

Our house is small. It is not tiny, but it was built in 1903, when living quarters responded to needs and not luxuries. A transplant from the Midwest built the house for his new bride. There, they lived with her parents and the children that followed. Several other families inhabited the house over the decades, through bad winters, through wars, through illness… and here it is, still standing. As I like to tell my family and friends, the house is full of happy ghosts. Sometimes I think about what it must have been like with several children living under that roof. It gives me pause for thought as I find myself craving, from time to time, the type of basement rec room that could hide away all the toys.

Our house is small, but it is joyful. Of course we dwell on how immediately pleasurable it would be to live in a larger footprint, to have separate bathrooms, rooms tucked away for specific functions, and ample space for guests. But, as I have continued to experience the privilege of living in this old house, there are so many things for which I am grateful. Our family lives a life connected; you can always hear where anyone else is. The creaking floors of an aging house give away clues to the whereabouts, even of our cat, when she attempts to hide. We don’t stay angry, because we can’t stay angry. There aren’t enough square feet to ensconce oneself in a fortress of solitude; the hallways are narrows and the bedrooms are close. One person’s bad day quickly becomes a family snuggle on the bed and an invitation for the sweetest empathy and comfort. Our stuff isn’t that important. We get rid of things without much attachment; there is no garage or basement in which to store crates of tchotchkes we will never again lay eyes on. Over the years, we’ve become much more discerning about what we will bring in. We spend most of our time physically together; our rooms are nearly all common spaces. The activities of living, from making coffee in the morning to brushing teeth at night are experienced in the intimate community of family. The table is a magnet for activity; it pulls us in for meals and for arts and crafts; for math worksheets and dissertation research. Off the kitchen, it is never far from a plate of crackers or a mug of tea. We live at our table. Because our living spaces are smaller… we go outside! A lot! After dinner walks are a ritual that provide us with that breathing space away from the immediate clutter of dirty dishes. We hike, we run, we tend to be active outdoors and tired indoors. A small house is wonderful for being tired and cozy. At night, I can hear the whole house breathe and settle. I can sense my daughter sleeping and well… though down the hall, she is very near. We feel a closeness.

As I reflect on these joys, I feel great fortune to live out a continuing history of family life within the studs and walls of this old house. When I was a child, my family would go to Finland for a few weeks every summer to stay in a rustic summer cabin by a lake. Childhood memory is a fickle phenomenon. Even though those weeks at the summer home were insignificant in length, compared to the rest of the year, they remain the scene for the bulk of my detailed memories. During those summer weeks, we traded our large family home on the hillside for a much simpler life. We slept in a one-room cabin, one larger bed on one side and a metal bunk-bed set on the other. Many nights, and probably at the expense of my parents’ rest, all four of us would end up in the larger bed together. I think I remember these weeks so particularly well because of the fact that we spent so much time in close togetherness. You couldn’t really stomp off and slam a door in any of the small cabins on the property. Stuff was minimal, and most play quickly became imaginary. The outdoors beckoned, and transformed into the ultimate living space. I think of this fondly and bridge it to my own experiences living in our home.

Sometimes I look at newly constructed “family” homes, and I am in awe of the attention paid to sequestering the activities of daily living. I can think of many homes I’ve seen where not even kids had to share bathrooms; each bedroom came with a television; the dining spaces, while expansive, had no marriage to a kitchen. Adults have their own wing; rooms become proprietary… In other words, I could look at the space and appreciate the temptation, but also realize how it invited isolation. Frankly, I think all in my family are better people for the requirement that we share our spaces and our stuff. We must grow naturally to consider each other’s routines, quiet time, needs, and interests. And while we sometimes squeeze to accommodate guests at our table and around our couches, our house is a home that fits us quite well. Let the joy of living closely continue through the seasons ahead.