Under One Roof

My wife is teaching out of town this year. Our son seized the opportunity.

“Dad, you’re going to be rattling around in that old house by yourself,” he said. “Why don’t we move in?”

Wow. Big decision. My wife and I thought it over carefully.

We said yes.

So here we are–son, daughter-in-law, year-old grandson, me and, occasionally, Grandma, all under one roof.

The result? Complicated. Wonderful.

The hard part isn’t what you might expect. It’s this: Baby is a great excuse for goofing off.

I work at home, but nowadays it’s more fun to feed him banana slices and then drop a damp dishtowel over his head. (It cleans him up. He thinks it’s a game.)

Then, when it’s really, really time to get to work, he reaches for my finger and we walk around the house together–maybe with the muslin see-through towel still over his head. He loves this. I defy anyone to resist taking that little hand.

My goofing off notwithstanding, I think the live-in baby arrangement works.

I can watch him sometimes, so his stay-at-home mother gets backup. Other times, I’m insurance against her going bonkers for lack of company. That takes pressure off my son. She’s new in tonw and hasn’t built a circle of friends. So, her husband is not her only social choice. Grandpa helps.

Me? I get structure. I need it, given my limited self-discipline.

Not least important, the baby gets extra attention and early exposure to the ways of the world. Grandpa bends the rules, see. When Mom and Dad are out at night, baby and I stay up late playing. Then the bedtime book is Robert Frost or Jack Kerouac or Ernest Hemingway.

Whatever I read, baby still pokes his toes out for a goodnight tickle. I finish the page–skipping words of course–and we say our prayers.

His name is Justice, but we call him Banana Monster or Mister Silly Toes or–most fitting–Commander Chaos. In his wake, cleanup is chronic. Everything reachable at baby level is fair game. He carries it away and hands it back–wet–when we’re busy.

Babyproofing is perpetual. Drawers don’t open. Cabinets are latched. I’m learning to hurdle the baby gate that guards the stairs.

Next, I must master teh practice of sneaking out. Wehn I leave without baby, he cries. I carefully time my departures for when he’s out of sight with someone else.

Grandma comes home every other weekend or so. I have to get in line to see her. She’s instantly all over the baby. She talks, shops and bakes with my daughter-in-law. She wants to hear all about my son’s job and then visits her friend next door.

I wait my turn. All that family stuff, however, is a lot of fun just to watch.

Who made the rule that once we’re 18, we’re supposed to move out and live on our own? In history and prehistory, extended families lived together.

In some cultures, new husbands move in with brides’ parents. In others, the bride comes to live with her husband’s people. In either case, families surround children and nobody’s alone.

A professor told me once that in Bible times people knew right away if Grandpa died overnight–because everybody slept in the same bed together.

Even now in the United States, it’s not unusual to have grandparents and grandchildren under the same roof. The U.S. Census estimates that 5.7 million grandparents had grandchildren yournger than 18 years old living with them in 2005. Of those, 2.5 million grandparents were responsible for the basic needs of at least one grandchild.

My own family’s arrangement is temporary–but you never know. In 2005, the Census says, grandparents and grandchildren had lived together for at least five years in nearly one million homes.

In our three-generation household, my grandson cuddles in roots he might not otherwise have known. He points to the oversized heirloom photos in our front hall. I have to stop and think: Let’s see. That’s Great-Great-Grandma and Grandpa. Five generations.

Our fourth generation–Great-Grandma–works hard to remember the new guy when we visit. Eventually, she gets it. Meanwhile–so what? Baby takes us all for a long walk around memory-care center. My mother loves it.

He’s surrounded. In fact, we’re all surrounded–which is how we live most fully, is it not?

Back in my kitchen-when I’m finally, really, really ready to get to work–baby reaches for my finger yet again, and we go for still abother aimless little stroll.

My wife wonders why he does that. “He walks fine on his own,” she muses.

But his instincts are good, I think. Isn’t it always better to go for a walk with someone else?

Do I have my priorities wrong about getting to work? Taking that walk with the baby–isn’t that the real work of the family?
Courtesy May-June 2008 issue of Grand, “Under One Roof” by Marc Hequet.
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