The Cocktail Party Contrarian: My Tiny Rental House
In exposing my children to my relatively ‘humble’ beginnings, I suppose I wanted them to appreciate what they had. I didn’t want them to be ‘spoiled.’ I wanted them to see that other people lived differently.
A few years ago, I drove down the suburban street where my parents rented their first home after fleeing New York City in the early 1970s. At the end of the cul-de-sac, I found that the tiny split-level house where I spent my early childhood years had been replaced by a slightly larger one. I took photos of the house and of the others around it that had remained exactly as I left them 42 years earlier.
That evening, I showed the pictures to my children, who were in middle school at the time. “This is where I grew up until I was 7,” I said. “This was your house?” they asked, grabbing my phone to zoom in and get a better look. “No,” I answered, “my house was smaller than this. They tore it down and built this one where mine used to be.”
I expected my kids to be curious. I expected them to struggle to picture their mother as a child, living in a different place and in a different life. What I didn’t expect was their pity.
They didn’t exactly realize what they were expressing as their eyes widened and they asked just how small my house actually was, but I felt it immediately. They simply could not understand. A full three of the homes they were looking at in my photo could have fit inside the Manhattan apartment they were then living in. They were beneficiaries of all the hard work, struggle, and success that came before them, and that they never had to think about.
The most astounding part was that I wasn’t raised in poverty. My little rental house offered me my own room and a generous backyard, and was situated on a quiet lane in a safe, affluent suburb in Westchester County. What most of the world would have seen as idyllic, my children saw as untenable. They were just happy I had survived.
I was very much aware that I had consciously raised my children in circumstances that created this reaction — and here I was, trying to adjust it. In exposing my children to my relatively “humble” beginnings, I suppose I wanted them to appreciate what they had. I didn’t want them to be “spoiled.” I wanted them to see that other people lived differently: Not just other people, but their people, their own mother.
I remember the stories my father told me of his father, who grew up in a tenement building in Lower Manhattan. There was one shared bathroom per floor. I was wide-eyed when he said they used newspaper for toilet tissue.
I am sure I couldn’t imagine that life any more than my children could imagine my little rental house. My grandfather’s story was a beautiful but abstract tale. Did hearing it make me more grateful and mindful? I am not sure it had that power. I could grasp the point intellectually, but not emotionally. In my house, we threw away old newspapers.
I still like to repeat stories about “how things used to be” to my children because, overall, knowing seems better than not knowing. My hope is that the accumulation of stories might have some compounding effect on their perspective over time. I have told them repeatedly about the rug their grandfather had to sell off his floor to pay for their uncle’s private school tuition, and about the car that I didn’t get when I turned 16. My theory is that it is easier to develop a sensitivity to a recurring theme than to something they hear once and regard with fleeting fascination.
Who knows what really sinks in? In the end, personal experience is more powerful than any story I can tell. And just as my parents didn’t replace their Charmin with the New York Times to teach me how to be grateful for what I had, I am not moving my family into a tiny rental house to educate my children. I will have to rely on the stories.