My childhood home was not particularly large. A few years ago I happened to see it up for sale (by its fifth or sixth owner, I think), and I toured it during an Open House. It was much, much smaller than it was in my memory, just as your elementary school seems shockingly misproportioned when you revisit it years after you graduate.
Small as it was, it was large enough that our living room could be used, as my mother put it, only “for polite company.” This meant Fuller Brush Men and Avon Ladies, visits from pastors, the occasional neighbor paying a courtesy call, and strangers. These were the Good Old Days, when strangers were still allowed to cross one’s threshold without fear of theft, rape, torture, and murder.
The living room was decorated in shades of blue. Calming, pleasant, slightly formal. A proper sitting room. No plastic on the furniture, of course; that would have been tacky. (The plastic flower arrangements, however, were not. Go figure.)
And it was not to be used by me, and never never never by any of my friends. I could, on occasion, sit in the living room if I were being quiet and wanted someplace to read, provided that I (a) didn’t bring anything to eat or drink with me, (b) took my book with me when I left, and (c) smoothed out the cushion on the sofa after I finished sitting on it. The living room was to be in perfect shape at all times for visitors. The rest of the house could be a terror, but the living room was to be maintained as a museum piece. Just In Case.
When we moved down the street, we had another untouched-and-untouchable living room. When we moved to the Virgin Islands, each of the houses we rented had the same approach to the living room. It wasn’t until we moved into a tiny condo and had to use the living room, or else watch television in the kitchen, that our living room was actually lived in. When we moved back stateside, we once again established an inviolable living room.
This morning I read in David Sedaris’s Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim that the same approach was followed in his Raleigh, North Carolina, neighborhood. But he points out that it was the Methodists on his street who did this; they always had a separate family room for living in. The Catholics actually used their living rooms, probably because they needed the extra room for a bedroom. Suddenly I realized that the two Catholic families on our street (or, as my father called them, “those damned Papists”) also used their living rooms as their family rooms, whereas the Protestants uniformly had a mid-century adaption of the Victorian parlor.
The Jews in Sedaris’s neighborhood used their extra room as a combination darkroom and bomb shelter. We had no Jewish families in our neighborhood, but we did have a number of Seventh-Day Adventists. I don’t know what they did with their living rooms. They didn’t generally socialize with non-Adventists, which only tended to confirm our vague impression that they were members of a dangerous religious cult.
In the house I now share with my mother in Florida, we used the living room for the first two years. Mom had the master bedroom, I had a bedroom, and I appropriated the third as my office; the living room was all we had left for the television. When I moved to Vermont, Mom used my bedroom as a guestroom, and turned my office into her TV room; it would have been called a family room had the family been any larger than her and her chihuahua. After the chihuahua died and I moved back down to Florida, we resumed our previous arrangement, but now that Mom is pretty much bed-bound, her bedroom is our family room. We watch TV there, and her other sons and their wives, when they come to visit, visit her there. I have moved much of my office into her bedroom as well, though it’s a little hard to concentrate when Judge Judy is on.
But I have no doubt whatsoever that my house, when I buy one of my own, will have one of those carefully kept, always-clean-and-neat, permanently-ready-for-visitors living rooms. It will be my safety valve, my security blanket, my oasis of sanity in the midst of an otherwise chaotic and disordered world.
Mother really does know best, after all.