Three years ago, my husband and I bought an old house in the town we grew up in. Elegant, early 20th-century high ceilings and balconies, nicely symmetrical. A proper front door in the middle. The kind of house you draw as a child.
It has had many lives – a family home, a digs for soldiers, lodgings for nurses and, latterly, a few unhappy years as an old people’s home, which saw the rooms chopped up into small units and the lawn replaced in places by concrete and gravel, to make it easier for ambulances to get in and out. There was a lot of work to do – out came the vanity units, loos and baths (all rose pink), the arthritic lift. The smell of institutional sadness took a while to shift.
But it was just what we needed to house our two teenage children and my mother-in-law, who has lived with us since 1998. Plus, the self-contained ground floor annexe meant my mother and father could join us. As the decades march on, we all need a little more physical support and help. One address, two front doors, three generations.
It was depressing how so many people reacted with raised eyebrows. Both our friends and my parents’ friends thought the cons would significantly outweigh the pros – on the one hand, too many requests for babysitting, say (though our children are 19 and 17!); on the other, predictions that we would become carers. ‘Brave’ was a word that came up a lot. Few seemed to think we might enjoy one another’s company. Surely we can choose to spend time with people we like or admire or love because of what they’re like, not because of their birth date?
My mother-in-law, in her late 70s now, is great company, funny, always playing the piano or knitting. Her living with us this past decade and more means our children have a proper relationship with her, all that listening and talking and sharing of experiences over the years.
Last August, after all the building and dust and skips, the renovations were finished and my parents moved in too. We all wondered how it would work out. If it would. There were bound to be niggles and negotiations. But an Indian summer meant we could sit in the garden in the afternoons, which made popping in and out of one another’s homes easier – an open door policy, if you like.
But the two households operate independently. My mother-in-law lives with us – so there are shared meal times, she does the ironing, I do the shopping, my husband the cooking and the admin – whereas my parents have their separate routines.
Sometimes they come in for supper or my son goes next door for my mother’s legendary roast lamb, but it’s the same as if they lived further away. It makes me smile to see my daughter and my elegant mother sneaking a shared cigarette by the washing line (not the smoking, you understand, but the camaraderie of it). Or to see my charming dad pop in to watch Formula 1 with my husband and son, leaving my mother and mother-in-law, crossword fiends both, free to drink coffee and share clues.
The only alarming development is to discover that both are pyromaniacs! There’s been much stuff to burn – garden waste, old boxes too battered to recycle, sensitive papers spanning generations – and for this purpose an old bath (one of the many left over from the old people’s home days) has permanent residence in the drive. The sight of the two of them standing, pitchforks in hand, watching the flames is a little alarming to say the least.
I have plenty of friends who worry about their parents because they live too far away to help or be involved on a regular basis, and that’s no fun. Seeing each other every day takes away the fuss, a lot of the stress over big arrangements such as who’s going where for Christmas. My sisters live close by, which makes all the difference and means we can all get together without too much hassle. If my middle sister brings her grandsons, then there are four generations. And the dog, too.
All seven of us are finding our way – figuring out who buys the newspapers in the mornings, how much sugar can be nicked, who’s got the nicest wine in the fridge, how many times my husband can be called upon to fix my mother’s computer before enough is enough!
Of course, it wouldn’t work for everyone – space, family history, finance, all sorts of reasons. But there are just as many reasons why it might. So, though it’s early days, so far, so good. Apart from the fires, of course…
Kate Mosse’s illustrated novella The Winter Ghosts is published by Orion, £14.99. To order a copy for £12.99 with free p&p, contact the YOU Bookshop on 0845 155 0711, you-bookshop.co.uk