This post may hurt some feelings. I hope it doesn't but this was my experience during this time, and my recollection of it. Nothing bad ever happened to me during this time due to having these folks in my house. I was never abused or mistreated. It was just weird.
A whole lot of shit went down when I was ten years old. I wrote another blog post about 1980 about 6 years ago, but this one is about the living situation that unfolded for me at this time. My parents had been divorced for a number of years, my older sister had been hospitalized at the age of 18, and my brother had gone to live with my father at age 15. I was 10, and this left my mother and I alone in a beautiful Craftsman house in Pasadena, with three extra rooms. Two actual bedrooms and a closed in sun porch which was almost all windows, the room that had been used as a play room when we were younger. My mother made the decision to have people come and rent out the vacant rooms. From the age of 10 to 17, at least 11 different people lived in my home with me. These were people my mom knew, or at least had vetted through other people she knew. It wasn't like she put an ad on Craigslist or posted "room for rent" ads on telephone poles. But to me, they were strangers.
Mom had some practical reasons for this decision. Obviously it would help us financially. She was also gone quite a bit in the evenings with her political interests and organizations, and having other adults in the home means she had de facto babysitters. Years later, I asked her about this decision, and she gave this additional reason: "You and I weren't getting along well during those years and I knew you wouldn't yell at me in front of other people." Wow. Teenage girls are, by definition, wretched creatures. I have one and she yells at me too, on occasion. My mom wasn't wrong, we weren't getting along and I didn't yell at her in front of them. But hearing this made me feel like I was not a priority, I was just an issue that had to be dealt with. It was an unpleasant variable, that possibility she could come home after a long day and have to deal with a heinous beast for a daughter, so she found a way to make that variable less likely to occur. This part will never make sense to me, the preference to bury it and not deal with the issues head on. She has never been one to relish hashing out emotional stuff, it just isn't her gig. I think that strong expressions of emotion make her uncomfortable, but I often wonder how things may have been different if it had just been us, and if she had tried harder to understand me. I remember how I treated her at times, and it wasn't pretty. I probably could have tried harder to understand her too. That said, I had a lot of legitimate reasons to be upset and confused, and I needed her during this time. This has come to light recently, as I am realizing how much my own daughter needs me. Teenagers need as much, if not more attention as toddlers do. I was very close to my father, and he wasn't without his faults. He made mistakes and we got it all out in the open before he died. As close as I was to my dad, at the end of the day I think teenage girls really need their moms. There were some awesome moments between my mom and I, memories that are very special to me. But on a day to day basis, there was a wedge there, or eleven wedges.
It wasn't cultish, I didn't have to drink weird Kool-Aid (Jonestown) or worship a head of lettuce (What's Happening). There was a loss of privacy and the relaxation and comfort that comes from being in one's own home. I felt like I was a visitor, or someone else who had simply rented a room in a house. I couldn't always use the kitchen or the washer and dryer when I wanted to because they were using them. I didn't have friends over that often, it just felt odd having to explain who all these people were. As I got older, I would usually just go straight to my room and only come out for food. My dad hated this arrangement, he called it a commune, but my mom called it "living in community." I still don't entirely understand the difference between the two. I don't think my parents were full hippies, but they were definitely hippy adjacent, so sharing things was a big deal. We didn't share everything like they do in true communes, but there was a red silk coin purse with communal money for food. I stole from it frequently to ditch school and go to Numero Uno Pizza on Lake Avenue with my best friend Renee. I don't think my mom ever knew we did that, but I suppose she does now! We DID spend it on food...
The Cast of Characters...I have splintered memories of these people, and I wonder if I even remembered them all. I will do my best:
- Judith was a very kind woman who always listened. She had a daughter Jan who had a child at a very young age, Joey. They all lived with us for a spell, although Judith was the main housemate. I looked up to Jan because she was blonde and pretty.
- Sylvia was also very kind to me. She had wild curly hair and big boobs. The only reason I remember about her boobs is that one day she told me that she had always wanted to become ballerina but her boobs were too big. She helped me name my dog Jasmine. She said that she loved a Carole King song called Jasmine. I loved the song too, but it turns out it was "Jazzman." Whoops. Jasmine was a better name for my dog.
- Jerome was a guy with red hair, a bushy red beard, and a collie named Ollie who looked like the dog version of himself. He had a motorcycle and took me out for a ride one day, much to the horror of my mom who didn't exactly give permission for this. I did have a helmet.
- Anya wasn't there very long, she was from Poland and told me the meaning of Solidarity, which was the Polish trade union. I didn't fully understand it, but I liked that she told me. She also lent me a dress to wear when my friend Matt's dad died because I wasn't really a dress girl and I had nothing to wear to his funeral.
- Jim was a really nice person who continually got on my nerves. I'm not sure why, I think he lectured me a lot about healthy food. One year for my birthday, he made me a dinner of which every dish was made from garbanzo beans. Every. Dish. It was such a nice gesture, and I ate as much as I could manage, but I hated garbanzo beans with a fiery passion. Still do.
- Todd! Dang, Todd was so young. Todd is now my brother in law, married to my sister. At the time, he was a bohemian in his early 20's that cared a lot about social justice. Now he's a bohemian in his mid-50's who cares a lot about the environment and climate change. He's a great guy...the main thing he did back then that bugged me is mumbling jazz. Imagine someone singing to themselves. Now imagine the tune having no melody or structure. Mumbling Jazz...he still does it.
- Raoul was a heavy set Hispanic dude. Once he took me to the mall in Arcadia where there was a pet store. I didn't like the small compartments the puppies were being kept in and I wanted to talk to the pet store person about it. This embarrassed him and he seemed to subscribe to the "children are to be seen and not heard" belief. He wanted me to be quiet and not say anything. Yeah, that didn't work. Clearly he wasn't aware of the type of child he was dealing with, you can't shut me up now either.
- Brooke was a young aspiring actress who wore loads of eyeliner. We had a doberman mix dog at the time named Charlotte whose markings on her face were not dissimilar to Brooke's eye makeup. I remember seeing her on television one time, she was an extra on Moonlighting. Brooke was sad. She was a pretty girl but she had no self-esteem whatsoever. She once told my mom of all the men she slept with to get acting parts, I'm assuming. She told my mom, "Sometimes they don't even want me to talk."
- Jeri was maybe in her early 30's? She was there for awhile and we got along pretty well. She lived in the room closest to mine and once she made a joke about me singing along with my Supertramp record in my room. That embarrassed me and I never sang in my room again while other people were home. Jeri was one of the last housemates we had, and I remember she and my mom had a big falling out. I have no idea what it was about, but she moved out and we stopped renting rooms. I was 17.
Some weirdish stuff happened over the years, but nothing happened TO me. The upstairs of my house had two tiny bedrooms and one bathroom. The bedrooms probably had about 7 feet between them, and Jerome lived in one and I lived in the other one. I shared a bathroom with a grown-ass man who was not related to me when I was around 13-14. At one point, Jeri told me that Jerome thought I was attractive. What the HELL? Not cool. Not a good decision. It put the idea into my head that something bad COULD happen to me and it could have transpired very easily. But it never did, despite the fact that the stage was practically set for it. I was alone with them frequently.They were all good men, but can you ever know for sure?
So what good things came out of this very unusual scenario during my formative years? I'm pretty flexible overall, and college really wasn't that much of a shock because I already knew how to live with strangers. I was cooking for myself and doing my own laundry at ten years old. I was super independent as a result of all this. I can get along with quite a wide variety of people. Not that much throws me.
The more negative things about me that could be attributed in part to this element of my childhood? I'm pretty damn slow to trust people. I have like 6 people I totally trust, and most of them have known me for over 20 years. It's hard for me to let my guard down. I rely on humor and sarcasm a LOT. It's definitely my defense mechanism, and I remember referring to my childhood back in high school by saying, "Oh well, more material for my book!"
I think my siblings and my mom's family sometimes don't understand why I don't make getting together as a family more of a priority. Both my brother and sister experienced our nuclear family as a unit. I really didn't, so trying to recreate it feels foreign to me. My parents were divorced by the time I was four, I have zero recollection of them being together. And by the time I was ten, both my siblings were gone. I love them both very much, but I don't look at our experiences as kids as "growing up together" like most siblings experience. When it comes to the way I grew up, I didn't have my siblings with me to experience all of this together. It was just me. I did have more of a family unit at my dad's house, which is where my brother lived. When we were all home at his house during these years, it did feel like home.
As a parent, it's still hard to reflect on these years. My children are 15 and 11 now and when I think about the possibility of being a divorcee and renting out vacant rooms in my house and allowing people to live here with them? And allowing them to be alone with my children when I was often out and about, doing my thing? HELL. NO. In fact, I am extremely hypersensitive about being away from them, other than times I'm at work. Opportunities pop up, like perhaps being an adjunct professor at Sac State, which is something I would adore doing. However, it would require me being gone in the evenings, and even though Mike would be home with them, I won't do it. Even evening church activities, study groups, and youth group...it's all important and I get a lot out of these things, but I won't take chunks of evening away from my kids on a regular basis, I just can't. Friends ask me to do things after work, and I do sometimes, but I usually feel ridiculously guilty about it. Even though they can totally take care of themselves now and they don't need me to bathe them and put them to bed, I still want to be here. This is probably something I should learn to deal with sooner or later, because the unintended side effect of this is that I often end up feeling pretty isolated. No matter what, I don't want my kids to ever feel like they take a backseat to other things.
I did feel that way growing up.
So to my friends and coworkers who may not have known all of this, there are approximately 93 reasons I ended up being an educational psychologist. This is one of them, yes indeedy. But I don't need a pity party, all of these things transpired and made me who I am and on most days I think I'm a fairly productive and decent human being. I also love my mother very much and if she could go back, maybe there are some things she would have done differently, I don't know.
What I do know is this: Children have to feel like they are incredibly important. I'm not a perfect parent and I screw up all the time. I spend a decent amount of time wondering which horrible things they'll remember and what they'll write in their blogs in 20 years from now. I have great memories of both of my parents, and we did incredible things together. But when I think about feeling warm and comfortable with my parents, I think of these things: Being at my dad's house as he was making dinner, watching MTV with my brother when it first came out. And after the Housemate Years ended, being in my mom's house with a fire burning, bread baking and classical music playing as we both studied; she for seminary and me for my AP classes. Security. Familiarity. HOME.