I. The Bedchamber, Or, Optimism
In 6445 Greene St., Apt. B202 — the 1,699-square-foot Philadelphia apartment that has housed my family for 25-and-a-half years — my mother slept in what she called a medieval bedchamber. Actually, it was a mattress tucked into a wooden loft in the east corner of the family room, across from a Himalayan-size range of clean but unfolded laundry and a five-shelf bookcase overflowing with (among other things) Polly Pocket houses, Bionic Hulk action figures and plastic parking garages. The bedchamber was perpendicular to the trapeze. If you extended your legs while swinging from the trapeze, you could touch a black-framed poster titled “Rainbow Shabbat” with your toes.
The family room/bedchamber is separated from the rest of the house by sturdy pine doors, which we opened at approximately 7 a.m. every school morning, and also in the middle of the night whenever one of us got a headache or had a nightmare or heard a mouse.
My mother lived in my siblings’ and my wreckage with what I can only describe as an unaffected joy. She wanted lots of kids. When she was little, she imagined marrying an airline pilot, whom she hoped would enable her to have children and then travel the world and leave her alone. When no airline pilot emerged, she decided to be a single mother. My older two siblings and I have donor dads, and my two younger siblings are adopted from Guatemala.
My mom always had a knack for deploying words. On Saturday nights when we complained about eating leftovers, she told us we were participating in “Saturday supper.” When we thought we had bedbugs and threw out all the mattresses and the couch in our apartment, she slept on the rug in our front hall, calling it “extremely cozy.” And when we asked her if she wanted her own room, she said she couldn’t imagine leaving her medieval bedchamber.
II. The Living Room, Or, Benevolent Dictatorship
Our living room served as our dining room, our guest room, and my mom’s rabbinical office. We often had young couples sitting on the couch between dinner and bedtime, preparing to get married.
“How did you know that you wanted to spend your life together?” my mother would ask, as I traipsed barefoot behind her chair, carrying a bag of Barbies or a stack of “Baby-Sitters Club” books to the room I shared with my sister.
Most importantly, the living room housed our own family meetings. Family meetings were formal affairs with a rotating facilitator and a written-up agenda. Like Supreme Court justices, we deliberated a wide range of topics and paid careful attention to all points of view. How would we share the one computer we had? What chores would we do for the year? Who got to hang his or her backpack on the first hook in the front hall?
Though my siblings and I were fierce participants in the democratic process, I realize now that my mother was exceptionally conscious of what was to be collectively decided and what was to be unilaterally decreed. She determined who slept in what bedroom and what we ate for dinner each night. She encouraged us to turn our attention instead to the family’s interpersonal dynamics, on which we could have an empowering impact.
I remember writing brilliant documents with my siblings that propelled our family life forward, but once I was in high school, I realized that family meeting discussions might not have been as sophisticated as I thought. When I was 15, my younger brother Joey put “Pillows” on the agenda. He told us that every morning when he woke up, his pillows were on the ground. He was sure that our youngest sister Mozi had moved them there. I suggested that perhaps they had fallen off the bed due to gravity. Mozi argued fervently that it was the guinea pig’s fault.
III. The Bedrooms, Or, Shaking Things Up
Though we never moved out of B202, we constantly moved around within it. From ages 1 to 5, I shared the “blue rug room” with my older sister and brother; after that, I lived in the “big room” with my older brother. When I was 9, I moved into B202’s third bedroom with my younger sister.
I was, at times, desperate for my own room. My younger sister painted part of our mirror with red nail polish and breathed too loudly at night. When I had my history final, I made an elaborate concept map out of index cards and she accidentally kicked it, scattering the main ideas across the floor. Sometimes I just wanted to be able to shut my own door.
When I prepared to leave for college, I packed up everything I wanted to keep and arranged it in my closet. My older siblings have closets full of belongings too. On the peeling blue bookshelf behind hangers of dresses, I put my yearbooks, posters of ballet dancers, the instructions for my laptop and an “Obama 2008” sign.
Three years after I went to college, my mother invited me to a “Room of One’s Own” party in our apartment. She had installed a huge, wall-sized map of the world on one side of the master bedroom, and facing it, her own bed, not tucked away but at the center of the room, with two layers of silky white comforters and pillows in lavender flannel cases. The windows were open, and the sunlight arced through new white linen curtains. After 18 years of sleeping in the medieval bedchamber, my mother was going to sleep like an actual queen.
At college I have my own room, where no one snores and where I can shut the door whenever I want. But this winter break, my siblings and I were back in B202. We brought cousins and boyfriends and godsiblings, and we faced a common question from our childhood: How would we all fit?
We decided to have a “quake,” a word we adopted from my sister’s fiancé, which means everyone sleeps together in one room, on the floor. We gathered our sleeping bags and extra pillows, and we set up next to the medieval bedchamber in the family room. (We moved the laundry heap onto the dryer.) Head to head on the floor, 12 of us slid under our covers. My older brother wanted to tell stories, and I wanted to go to sleep. My cousin was unhappy because she had gotten up to go to the bathroom and her spot was taken. My sister wanted to sing us a lullaby. In the morning, we were totally exhausted, and delighted, and surprised. We had all managed to fit.