midpoint (2007-03)

Eight grownups + two children = one home

Full House

by Stephanie Piper

“How old are your children?,” a new acquaintance asks me. I shrug and smile. I forget, I answer, only half kidding. Really old.

They’re not, of course, not by any objective standard. But they’re not kids anymore, either. They’re full-fledged, mortgage-paying grownups. One of them is even a parent, a fact that still takes me by surprise each time he and his family visit and I wake with a start to realize that the baby crying down the hall is not crying for me.

I get up anyway and make my way to the kitchen, planning cups of cocoa and words of wisdom for the night vigil. I’m on vacation this week; I can rock the little one until dawn if need be.

Then I turn a corner and come upon a scene that stops me in my tracks. My oldest son is seated on the couch in the dimly lit den, his arm around my youngest son, who is holding his fretful toddler. The two adults are singing the favorite lullaby of their childhood: Sail, baby, sail/over the western sea/only please remember/to come back to me. They sway together gently in rhythm to the old song. I move away from the door and creep back to bed. It seems they have the situation covered.

Teach them to take care of themselves, a wise mother of 10 children once told me. And teach them to take care of each other. Then, no matter what happens, they’ll never be alone in the world.

Visits from adult children get plenty of ink in advice columns, I’ve noticed. There’s a lot of hand-wringing about colliding values and generational issues and too many wet towels on the bathroom floor. I’m not saying our capacity-crowd-everyone-home holidays are stress-free. Eight grownups and two tiny children under one roof create a fair amount of domestic chaos. But by and large, it’s the cheerful kind. As long as everyone’s healthy and fed and reasonably clean, I can live with the guest cooks who use every pot in the kitchen and step around the spilled juice and crumbled Saltines. As long as we all sit down at the dining room table and linger over dessert and laugh out loud at the old stories, as long as we listen to each other and bear with each other and accept our differences as more interesting than annoying, I can deal with shoes in the front hall and unfolded laundry everywhere and someone playing the piano way too fortissimo.

My three sons are grownups now. They sailed a long time ago, over the western sea and far beyond. They sailed away to college and junior years abroad and first jobs in big cities. They sailed into passion and loss and heartbreak and unemployment and they sailed back out again into calm waters and clear skies. Now, once or twice a year, they sail back home and put in at the old port.

 I’ve learned over time that it’s not refitting or overhauling they’re after on these trips. My life lessons were imparted decades ago; some of them printed and some of them didn’t. The guaranteed recipe for holiday harmony is to make peace with what is.

They are grownups now, with grownup worries and real-life problems. I’ve got a few of my own. We may not share them all in our brief time together, but in this bursting-at-the-seams house, we share another kind of transparency. For a handful of days and nights, we see ourselves as we are: unguarded, unadorned, and safe in one another’s care.