Dustin and I had a large house in Florida. Most people there do. Perhaps it is the heat, which even in the middle of October still can feel as hot as the air from a hair dryer (only with less wind), but most homes in Florida are sprawling. Two-story houses are an anomaly; the bigger the footprint of a house in Florida, the better. This makes it so that no one ever has to touch or be near anyone else in their family. And in that type of heat, who would want to?
Our house was also typical in that it was covered almost entirely with tile and wood floors. Carpet gets too sticky when you’re hot. And just like the majority of children nearby, our boys had a large playroom and separate bedroom. They had their own bathroom, too, which I am told stayed remarkably clean most of the time, but I can neither confirm nor deny this because unless I had a reason to venture into the boys’ bathroom, I didn’t see it. That’s how big our house was. We had two extra bedrooms and one extra bathroom that were furnished but ultimately not used. We could have stored a minivan in our attic.
So you can imagine our surprise when we received military orders to Maine, and an online search revealed that very few homes are larger than 2,000 square feet. I fell in love with one that is just barely 1,500 square feet.
“The house is perfect, but it just seems, I don’t know, kind of small,” I said to our real estate agent.
“You’ve never had to pay a heating bill, have you?” he said.
On moving day, our boys shamelessly cried when we gave away almost three-quarters of the toys that once filled their playroom in Florida. There just wasn’t any room for them. It was my turn to pout, however, when we had to store my piano and the dining room set my grandmother gave to me. I was beginning to believe that our rented storage unit was roomier than our new house.
But then an interesting thing happened. While I swept the kitchen floor, I could hear my boys through the wall, playing in their bedroom, talking to each other about the scariest dream they had ever had, their favorite new friends, and their best and worst subjects in school.
Had they always conversed with each other like this? I wondered.
Whereas they used to go up to their playroom to watch movies and cartoons, now they had to share the living room with everyone else. As I typed on my computer in the kitchen, I could hear the dialogue of the television program and intervene when necessary.
Was “The Clone Wars” always this violent? And when had the boys stopped watching “Franklin”? What other conversations and insights had I missed when my children were upstairs, shut in their playroom?
Once I was in the basement folding laundry when I heard Ford and Owen teasing their little brother, Lindell. I directed my mouth at the ceiling and yelled, “Cut it out or you’re both grounded,” and like a snake sneaking up on its prey and bouncing forward to strike, my voice came through the vents on the floor into the boys’ bedroom. They were stunned into silence. Maybe Mom does have eyes in the back of her head, I imagined them thinking.
One year later, I can’t imagine living in a large house. Much like soldiers in barracks or college students in dormitories, my family is bonding. We are under each other’s foot, in each other’s business, but finally living with each other, if not on top of each other. Before, I wasn’t sure how my boys would handle sharing a small room and not having a playroom. “I never had my own room until I joined the Navy,” my dad said. “And I never had a playroom.” He turned out just fine. Maybe even better because of it.
In hindsight, our old house was excessive. Our voices echoed off the tall ceilings and wide, open living room, signifying to me the distance that had grown between my family. Our voices don’t echo anymore. They seep through the floorboards, out the open screen windows (maybe our neighbors know us a little too well), and through the vents in the next room.
One day, as I was getting dressed upstairs, I heard my boys talking in their room below. “Remember how Mom seemed kind of sad before?” Ford said.
“Yeah, she’s much happier now,” Owen said.
I smiled to myself, my heart full and grateful. Then I put my lips to the vent on the floor and whispered, “I love you guys.”
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. Her book “I’m Just Saying …” is available wherever books are sold. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.