When you share a house with fourteen other people, space issues go with the territory. By the time my youngest brother was born, my oldest brother was in the Army. There were still times all fifteen of us sat down for meals together and slept under one roof though. I look back on these memories fondly now, and I didn’t feel cheated or shorted then because it was what we knew. We never went hungry or without shelter. That doesn’t mean we were always all hunky-dory with the arrangements. There were arguments and disagreements, but we survived those too.
When it came to meals, we had a long kitchen table, probably seven or eight feet long. To accommodate more children, my parents had benches made that went on either side of the table. They sat in chairs on either end, and our baby brother was in the high chair next to Mom. My friends dubbed us the Waltons after seeing those benches. They really made sense though, compared to trying to put 6 chairs on each side. We all had our same seats usually, and mine was on the bench that was against the wall by the windows.
The other bench would sometimes tip over and send kids tumbling. Those of us on the other side found that humorous, and since no one got hurt that I recall, laughter was fitting. That table was a good training ground for patience and sharing, and Mom and Dad imparted their expectation of manners and at least a little decorum.
Then there was bedtime. Our house had four bedrooms upstairs and our parents’ bedroom was on the main level. At some point, a bedroom was added in the basement, but my oldest brother got that. I shared a room with three of my sisters, two other rooms had two sisters each, and four boys got the 4th bedroom. Of course, things shifted and room arrangements changed as siblings left for school, marriage, or their own places to live. Being one of the youngest, I didn’t get my own room, or a bed to myself for that matter, until I was seventeen.
The space issue that offered the most challenges was probably the bathroom. We had one bathroom until I was 12 or so. One bathroom with one sink, one toilet, one bathtub. Needless to say, there were times when urgency took on new meaning. Older sisters primping for dates would hear the wrath of younger siblings who “really had to go!” In those days we didn’t all bathe every day, but even so the bathroom was often in demand.
There was an outhouse behind the woodshed that would work in emergency situations. And add to this mix the issue of running out of hot water. Each of us was probably on the short end of a cold bath or shower more than once. We typically lacked opportunity for long baths or showers, for many reasons. One of the valuable lessons that came out of this life experience is that my siblings and I are generally good stewards of water and other resources today. Necessity and respect for other people’s needs and time fostered that.
Even more contentious than the bathroom, however, was the living room area and T.V. viewing space. We had one television, a black and white set, as we grew up. We only had three channels, or four if the weather cooperated. Fewer options maybe meant fewer arguments, and we could all agree on shows like The Brady Bunch and The Waltons. Or those special sporting events or awards ceremonies like the Super Bowl or the Grammys. We still had some fights about what to watch, but more so we fought over the choice seats for the watching.
There were some chairs, a couch, a recliner, pillows and floor space. Of course if Mom or Dad was watching, they got a chair. First come, first serve for the seats was usually the case for the rest of us, along with an unwritten rule. If you got up to go to the bathroom or get a snack, you had to say “saved.” If you didn’t say it, your spot was fair game. Definitely a few “discussions” emerged over that.
Though our space and resources may have been limited in ways as our large family grew up together, I appreciate the many values instilled-sharing, conserving, consideration, patience, tolerance, fairness. Limited space, unlimited opportunity to apply those values over the course of the rest of our lives.