Stories: Personal & Community

My Grandmother’s House

My grandmother's house in 2021

The renovated version of grandmother’s house in 2021, almost 100 years old. Same tree on the right. The angle, looking up a slight hill, gives the illusion of being larger than 600 SF.

My grandmother’s house was a white frame, very neat and tidy, on the corner of two unpaved roads and with an outhouse in the backyard next to an apple tree. A rusted barrel was used to burn trash. The neighborhood smelled of burning coal all winter.

To the west were acres of cornfields; to the east a block of 12 identical houses, six on each side of the street. The perennially muddy roads led to a larger road with a city bus and eventually to the city.

When she and my grandfather bought the house, they were moving in from the family farm and had six children. The house had two bedrooms, no bathrooms, and one electric light bulb hanging from an electric wire in the center of each room. There was running water in one faucet in the kitchen. No central heating. Water was heated on the stove to take a bath in a tin tub brought into the kitchen from the back porch. A wringer washing machine took up a quarter of the kitchen. The pie safe had wire screens over the decorative breathing holes to keep out the field mice.

It was 600 SF including an enclosed but unheated back porch.

With additional plumbing and upkeep done by her sons, my grandmother lived in her house from the depression in the 1930s until she needed skilled care in a nursing home in the 1980s. In the 1970s, the light bulbs were still hanging in the bedrooms from electric cords in the center of the ceiling.

A Family Home, Again and Again

My grandfather had skipped off to California during the depression and my grandmother’s oldest son helped her pay off the mortgage. As my five uncles grew up, they went off to war. My mother hitchhiked to Texas where the boys were—a military base in Corpus Christie. The last sons were just out of the house when the oldest started returning, one by one, and brought their brides home to live until they could afford their own homes. At least four adults with or without children and pets lived there for the next two decades. When I was a teenager, my mother and her four children moved in.

Until the 1950s, there was no basement. No bathroom or toilet. No garage. And no attic. The house still stands, renovated, and with a basement, central heating, enlarged attic, and a bathroom. Most of the other identical houses remain as well. And the streets are paved.

An Affordable House

Today a 600 SF living space is considered the minimum for two people — and is normally only available in a rental apartment—where the rents rise regularly and the buildings are often not well-maintained. Most are not built to last even 30 years. My grandmother’s house is still lived in almost 100 years after it was built. Now, newly constructed homes are 1200 SF or more, usually much more. And a two-bedroom house might also have three bathrooms. And a two-car garage. And perhaps a livable attic. They are no longer affordable for a household with six children and one working adult with a little better than minimum wage job washing dishes in a hospital.

When I lived alone in a 500 SF studio apartment in New York City, the biggest problem was where to put all my things, some of which I never used. Things I was saving for my children from their childhood. Printmaking paper when I hadn’t made a print in over 30 years. I now have enough books and art supplies to take up 300 SF all by themselves but am fortunate enough to be living in 825 SF. And I have more than one window. I could move to a smaller unit—my cohousing community does have 615 SF units—but it would cost more than mine does now because I have been here 20 years.

Housing costs are upside down but the ability to stay put is one factor that benefits a family financially and socially.

Ownership Means Family Stability

Because my grandmother owned her home, she was able to remain in a stable neighborhood with people she had known for 50 years. Three generations either lived in those 12 houses or returned there for holidays and to family’s when they were financially unable to live anywhere else. They all attended the same high school I attended years later.

The house was not only my grandmother’s lifetime security it was a stable home-base for more than 15 extended family members who moved in and out several times over four decades. By the late 1950s, 35 inlaws and outlaws gathered there for holiday meals. In 600 SF.

My grandmother’s house is my model for believing that it is more possible to live in a small home and to live there more securely than in a rental—even one in a government-subsidized housing project. And for believing that ownership is necessary for this to happen.

Expecting a small space to double as an art studio or carpentry workshop—or even a writer’s den with a million books—would be difficult for most of us. But most people don’t need a space large enough to both live and work. And minimalism and sustainability are teaching us how to do more with less, and that less means more freedom.

The key factor for the whole family was my grandmother owning a family home.

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