In-laws, in house, in harmony
My mother grew up in the 1920s and ’30s in a Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment upstairs from her aunt’s family. My childhood was spent many miles away from relatives, so that seemed like a tale from a distant era, until it turned out my children would relive their grandmother’s experience.
In the mid-’80s, my husband, David, and I lived in a cozy rent-controlled apartment near Harvard Square. When David’s brother and sister-in-law decided to relocate from North Carolina, the four of us searched for a two-family house. Every Sunday we perused the Globe’s classifieds, checking out homes in Belmont, Arlington, Cambridge, and Newton. Our requirements were basic: two equal units with at least two bedrooms each, some outdoor space, in a quiet neighborhood, and commuting distance to the city. After years in the South, my brother-in-law also longed for a decent Chinese restaurant nearby.
Finally we found a hulking dark-brown house on a steeply sloped lot in Newton. It wasn’t pretty, but it fit our criteria. A concrete slab took up a good portion of the small backyard, and the dated interiors cried out for renovation. We moved into the second-floor apartment, John and Debby had the first floor, and we shared the basement, garage, driveway, and yard.
Just after the closing on a sunny June day, David and I revealed that we were expecting our first child at Christmas. Our housemates, shocked at the prospect of hearing the pitter-patter of little feet so soon, asked when we’d been planning to tell them.
“Today, of course,” we replied.
Soon after we moved in, my architect husband swung a crowbar in the kitchen, dismantling it before designing its replacement. So for the rest of my pregnancy, we cooked meals in a microwave and washed dishes in the bathroom. Reluctantly, David realized he couldn’t finish the renovation in time, so he hired a builder. When baby Stevie arrived, we had a quintessential ’80s kitchen complete with white laminate cabinets and a generous expanse of bluish laminate countertops.
Sharing the house with in-laws gave us a built-in social life, and we often got together, especially for meals, board games, and celebrations. The evening after my water broke, we cooked spaghetti carbonara, and the four of us played a game of Scrabble that was interrupted periodically by calls from my obstetrician urging me to go the hospital. Another memorable meal was the time we got takeout from a new Chinese restaurant, when the two brothers got horribly sick. (Debby and I felt fine and snickered about weak stomachs running in our husbands’ genes.)
Eventually we had another son, and our in-laws had two daughters, doubling the number of humans under our one roof. The little cousins enjoyed having playmates just steps away. Our boys would come home with barrettes in their hair, and we would indulge our nieces with tasty treats seldom allowed in their kitchen.
All of us loved sharing the house, but after seven years, John got a job in Worcester. We drew up the documents to divide the house into two condominiums. Both families decamped for bigger homes in different towns farther out in the suburbs. It truly felt like the end of an era. As each family got caught up in the maelstrom of activities in our new towns, our bond was never as strong as when we shared that first home.