Monday, January 17, 2011

Family Compound

L.G.C. Smith

I always thought that once you grew up, you moved away from your family. Three of my grandparents lived in South Dakota all their lives and the fourth most of her adult life. In total contrast, my parents and their siblings skedaddled immediately after college. One aunt and uncle and their kids ended up in Minneapolis and stayed there. Another set landed in Denver and stayed there. The rest moved a lot. At one point in the late 60s, we lived on Guam, my mom’s sister’s family was in Alaska, and my dad’s sister’s family was in Hawaii.

When we returned to the States, my parents set to making up for lost family time. Every vacation we took was to some sort of family get together. My mom’s family met every summer at my grandparents’ ranch. We visited the Minnesota gang a couple of times, and they came to see us once. My dad’s family met up at Blue Bell Lodge in Custer State Park or at his parents’ house in Rapid City. Once we met at Estes Park, Colorado. There were a few reciprocal visits with the Denver camp. Even now I have trouble wrapping my brain around the idea that a vacation might NOT include family.

Then my mom’s oldest sister’s family moved from Bremerton, Washington to the same place we lived in California. For two years while I was in high school, I had cousins who lived a mile away. Wow! I loved it.

More than twenty years later, I had been living in my house – back in the same community where I went to high school – for three years when one of the houses behind me went up for sale. My youngest sister was looking to move out of her condo and into a house with enough room for dogs. Within a few months, she’d moved in kitty-corner behind me. We share a three and a half foot property line. Just enough for a gate between the back corners of our yards.

The gate.

I won’t lie. I had a stray thought or three about the wisdom of living next door to my sister. Our other sister, the middle one, accused us of being so enmeshed as to be embarrassing. Living next to kinfolk was for the very wealthy or the very poor. Excessive amounts of higher education (me) and owning a successful business (my youngest sister) meant little. We had given up all pretensions of aspiring to the upper middle class and sunk into a lower-order mire.

It’s turned out to be a lovely mire. Our zip code isn’t prestigious, and our houses are forty-five year old tract homes without much architectural distinction, but that doesn’t matter.

Living next door to my sister has been great. Now my parents are in on the deal four or five months of the year since they built a granny unit addition at my sister’s house.

This picture is to make up for my last post. My mom can smile,

and we have lots of fun family parties together.

There’s a certain sitcom aspect to our lives sometimes. We have our storm in a teacup moments like when my laid back Arkansas born-and-bred brother-in-law’s sense (or lack thereof) of timeliness butts up against my dad’s pathological need to be at the airport three hours ahead of flight time.

We've had our Real Life Drama moments through the years like when my sister suffered one miscarriage after another, and then finally, we all celebrated her daughter's birth. Or when one of the dogs, Magoo, was diagnosed with a terrible cancer that took a quarter of his face and an eye. It took all of us working together to figure out the diet changes, supplements, make the dog food, and get him to all his appointments. Everyone took a turn holding his paw when the chemo treatments melted half of his face. (Three years on, he’s doing well, and all the fur on his face grew back.)

Magoo lying in the grass, healthy and handsome.

We have our cozy homespun moments, like yesterday morning when my niece, now almost five, called to announce her mom was making pancakes and would we like to come over for some? Oh, and bring some powdered sugar, please, --and the plum jam that I made with the Elephant Heart plums from my sister’s tree.

My neighbors across the street aren’t related, but they have the same sort of family relationships, those fictive kinship ties that Juliet spoke of last week. I’m as likely to see them at each others' homes as their own. Over the past fourteen years, I’ve seen them walk back and forth thousands of times. It’s a fine thing to witness.

Within the confines of my small neighborhood, I know of at least six instances of family members having bought houses next to or within a few blocks of each other. My parents and my brother are moving into next-door houses in Austin this spring. My dad’s sister and her husband, now in San Antonio, live in a family compound with my cousins and their families. For many of us, living in close proximity with parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters and their families works surprisingly well.

Then again, why wouldn’t it? Living surrounded by family seems to be a pretty common default setting for human beings.


Martha Flynn said...

Those pictures are beautiful - I feel so teased - I want to see the rest of your house. :)

Want to know a weird coincidence? When my dad was getting ready to retire he had me and my brother pick out two cities in the United States to look at - my pick (which he did not select) was Bremerton, Washington. No joke.

We took a vacation there one summer and I fell in love with the place.

Basically what I'm saying is WE'RE CONNECTED AT A COSMIC LEVEL.

Mysti said...

Sounds lovely, a place to call your own and a support system across the back fence. Sounds like you all have mastered the art of when to speak up, and when to just let something be...

I'm the only one in the family that likes city living. It would be a hoot to fill a coop or TIC in San Francisco with family, fictive or blood relatives!!!!!

Martha Flynn said...

Haha, Mysti, I tried to talk my brother into getting a TIC with me - I was all think about it - built in babysitter and dogsitter RIGHT NEXT DOOR but alas, he did not take the bait. :)

L.G.C. Smith said...

Hey, Martha. I tried to get Bob to move up to Washington or Oregon before we bought the house here. I dragged him on trips. Tried hard. He wouldn't do it.

And your brother is a fool. I'm the built in babysitter and dogsitter, and I love it (mostly). It makes child rearing easier on parents. It enriches my life without my having to be a parent. I like that.

But, as you say, Mysti, all of us work hard at watching boundaries. It's necessary. Not always easy. We blow it occasionally. (Adrienne can attest to that.)

Juliet Blackwell said...

I love this, Lynn. I've always dreamed of having a bunch of kin and fictive kin living near each other -- I'm not so much of an idealist that I'd suggest living *in the same house*, but next door or all in our little cabins on one property...I LOVE that idea ;-) I know there can be problems, but in my mind they're generally fewer and less intense than the problems associated with isolation and loneliness, from which so many people suffer in the modern world.
Family compounds unite!!!

Unknown said...

I am totally serious about a friends' compound once my kids are grown and gone. I think it would be a blast. Kind of like an extended writing retreat. :)

Rachael Herron said...

I would LOVE IT LOVE IT LOVE IT if my sisters lived so close to me. And my brother-in-law and the baby. I see I have to work on this.