Living in a multigenerational household can be an economic necessity. It can also be a lot of fun.
My kitchen faucet has been booby-trapped. Only after I turn the handle, and water spews all over my dress, do I notice that the hand sprayer has been wrapped with a rubber band by a Home Alone mastermind.
Now I’m going to be late for a meeting.
Hearing me shriek in surprise, my 11-year-old grandson, Sean, runs down from his bedroom, and doubles over with laughter. I’m a sopping-wet mess, dripping from head to toe—exactly the result he’d hoped for. He got me, and he is pleased with himself. I can’t help but laugh through my spluttering.
Teasing me has been this child’s MO ever since he was 8 months old and playing a mean game of peek-a-boo from his high chair. He had plenty of opportunities, given that his mom and dad lived only a courtyard away from me in the Arlington Village Cooperative. By the time he was 4, Sean was routinely trekking the pathway along the lush berm of the Army Navy Country Club driving range to get to my townhouse. He’d come for a handful of cookies, or to sleep over, or to climb his favorite tree.
The year he turned 9, I bought a house in East Nauck, just a few blocks away, on the other side of the driving range. Two years later, in the fall of 2008, my daughter, Tara (Sean’s mom), was single again, working as a personal trainer, making not quite enough and hard-hit by the recession. She decided to sell her townhouse unit. I invited her to stay with me temporarily—maybe a few months—until she found another place.
Before we knew it, a few months turned into five years. The three of us—and their dog, Butch Cassidy—were officially a multigenerational household.
Sean did his chores, albeit in his own sweet time, and as he grew from 11 to 16, continued to play practical jokes. One of his favorites was to hide when I got home from work, then jump out of a closet, scaring the daylights out of me and delighting in my faux screams. Meanwhile, Tara shopped for gluten-free and organic groceries and cheerfully foisted nutrition-packed meals upon us. Butch chased squirrels in the backyard and warded off imaginary marauders. I brought home the bacon, kept the roof over our heads, and created a refrigerator map, meticulously designating the proper shelf for each food type. Everyone ignored it.
Our situation was hardly the first time in history that multiple generations had to double up out of financial necessity. In today’s economic climate, it’s becoming more common for adult children, grandchildren and aging parents to live together and support each other on many different levels. For me, living all together felt familiar, going back three generations, and I liked it.
When Tara was growing up, I raised her in the co-op, a special place where the tight-knit courtyards of garden apartment townhomes encouraged the it-takes-a-village parenting style I knew well from my own childhood in New York. She had two “other mothers,” Jean and “J.R.”, and an extended co-op family. As had I.
My parents were married in Brooklyn after World War II, and the postwar housing shortage forced them to move into my Polish grandparents’ brownstone, where my mother had grown up. Six people—four adults, two toddlers—shared one bathroom, which had a push-button light switch in the hallway. Like Sean, my sister and I delighted in teasing our grandfather, Dja-dja (Polish for “grandpa”). We would turn off the light when he was in the bathtub, giggling as he shouted at us in his thick accent from the darkened room.
At other moments, my grandfather would hold me in his lap as he sang Polish folk songs and lullabies at the old upright piano in the front parlor. I know now that Dja-dja’s piano playing engendered the love of music I’ve had throughout my life. We stayed there for five years.
More than 50 years later, when the need arose, it was only natural for mi casa to become Tara and Sean’s casa. They loved the place, a 1925 bungalow with an old-fashioned screened-in front porch and a huge backyard with two ancient hickory trees, between which they hung a brightly colored Salvadoran hammock that they had given me as a gift. The guest room became Sean’s room. The finished basement with private bath became Tara’s cozy den.
We played Nerf gun wars and Yahtzee, and watched TV—MythBusters and Comedy Central for them, Dancing with the Stars and CNN for me. We traveled to New York for holidays, and to the YMCA camp near Annapolis in the summers. They flew to England with me for a special class reunion outside of London, where I had spent a junior semester abroad during college.
As Sean grew from preteen to pre-adult, his running commentary on activities both inside and outside the house provided a soundtrack for our days. It often included spot-on observations of the differences between my 1950s and ’60s upbringing and his millennial coming of age.
Soon I felt I was not so much a character in Home Alone as one of the parents inside the “Zits” cartoon strip. I could have sworn the cartoonist was lurking somewhere in my house, eavesdropping, hijacking our conversations and laying them to bear in the funny pages, especially when the topic was nagging about chores.
Sharing space in a small house can be a challenge when newspapers, laundry and unfinished tasks pile up. But being physically close also has its joys. Sean would often command Butch to leap up on my bed as I awoke and pile on. Then Tara would join us, and the dog’s antics had us all romping around in a heap, laughing and glad to be together, despite a jumble of mail, worries about jobs and money, and the unorganized refrigerator.
Many nights—whether the day had gone awry or we had cause for celebration—we’d hang out in the kitchen and share a group hug before going to bed. The day we learned that Tara had gotten a new job with Arlington Public Schools, we had a jumping-up-and-down-hip-hip-hooray hug. It felt like the affection of The Waltons, if not Modern Family. We were definitely not home alone.
Cecilia Cassidy served for nearly 22 years as executive director of Rosslyn Renaissance and the Rosslyn Business Improvement District. After her retirement last year, she was named a 2014 Fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA) in Amherst, Va.