This Old House
WHAT MY CHILDHOOD HOME TAUGHT ME ABOUT RAISING TEENS
MY PARENTS HAD 10 KIDS and lived in a 1.5-storey, three-bedroom home in Sudbury, Ont., and I’m thrilled to report that I’m writing this story sitting in the front room of that same house.
What’s more, even though I’ve lived in Toronto for 30 years and my three kids are grown and well launched, because I’m here—staying with my older single sister Mary, in the house we were raised in—I’m still learning a thing or two about bringing them up.
My son, Michel, and I arrived last night at about 9 p.m. There’s a family wedding later today. After some late-evening KFC, we went upstairs to bed. I was given the back bedroom, which we called the boys’ room; and Michel was across the narrow hall in the girls’.
In both, there’s one twin bed that pretty much takes up the entire space. But before going to sleep last night, I pointed out to Michel how—when I was a kid—the boys’ room had one set of bunkbeds for my brothers, Ed and Alex, across from a twin bed, in which I slept with my brother, Tom. By the time of my earliest memory, my oldest brother Pat had already moved out.
The girls, pretty much, had the same setup.
My parents slept on the main floor, immediately off the kitchen. Quarters were tight.
As I type, I can hear Michel’s shower going upstairs. In the kitchen, I can tell when Mary opens a drawer or moves cutlery. The whole place smells of bacon. I just heard Mary turn on the kitchen tap so I’m thinking Michel’s shower just got a little less comfy.
Meanwhile, Mary’s hairy cat Alpha (sheesh!) is taking offence at the fact that I’m on his chair and using the opportunity to remind me how allergic I am to his species. (Growing up, we had so many cats and dogs I can’t even name them all. And a lot of us were allergic.)
While I type, I have YouTube on. “Best Epic Soundtracks” makes terrific writing music, fyi. And I’m also carrying on a conversation with Mary about the double-yolk egg she just found in her fridge. “Does that mean the hen gave birth to twins like [my wife] Helena?”
Mary: “Having twins was a big yoke on you. Haha.” My brothers and sisters and I, we don’t converse, we compete.
Of course, Mary and I don’t have to raise our voices to hear each other. That’s how small this house is.
I just heard the shower turn off and a toilet flush.
Another thing: When we were teenagers, my genius mom had mirrors set up, so if her bedroom door was open, she could lie in bed and see, via two strategically arranged looking-glasses, exactly what was happening in the living room, at any hour of the day or night.
Here’s the thing.
Growing up in this noisy and crowded house in which every footstep could be heard and every motion sensed—we teenagers actually believed we could (I hope you’re sitting down)—get away with stuff.
Like sneaking in drunk, for starters. Or sneaking in a date. Or making a private phone call. Or wreaking of who knows what kind of smoke.
We really believed our mom and dad didn’t notice.
This house overflows with happy memories. The wedding that’s happening today? It’s my nephew Peter’s. My sister, Norma, actually named a son after me, her spoiled baby brother. All my brothers and sisters like nothing more than to get together and party. (An acquaintance once said this: “You Carters are weird. You all seem to like each other.)
I believe the whole thing worked because even though my parents knew—how could they not?— everything their herd of teenagers did, they had turning a blind eye down to an art. Picking only really important battles. Best example of teen raising I’ve ever had. ■
Peter has four brothers, four sisters, one wife, two daughters and a son, the last three of which all recently graduated from teenagehood with all their limbs and sanity intact.