By Marla Jo Fisher
The Orange County Register
My kids oohed and aahed when we walked into the huge house, as if they were tourists at the Taj Mahal.
Then they each ran off to claim their own sleeping wing, like European powers dividing up the New World.
We were spending the weekend in this oversized “Hummer home” in Escondido, Calif., as part of a home exchange, so my son could attend football camp nearby.
I couldn’t help wondering why the owners would agree to swap their ranch house on steroids for our tiny shack near the beach, but didn’t muse too long.
These days, we all feel like we need bigger houses. Bigger is better, right?
The average American home built in 1950 was 983 square feet. Last year, it was 2,521 square feet, according to the National Association of Home Builders.
I grew up in a tiny box, where we fought bitterly over who would occupy the single bathroom. Mom had to hide the kitchen knives, to avoid bloodshed over contested territory.
I don’t want to go back to those bad old days, but nowadays people seem obsessed with owning houses bigger than they could possibly ever need, unless they’re lodging the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Just for one weekend, three of us occupying this 5,000-square-foot home seemed like a terrible waste. And only two people live there most of the time.
It wasn’t my first encounter with “Affluenza” — the disorder that causes you to buy things you don’t need — but it was the first time I’d been immersed in it.
The granite countertops in their kitchen comprise more square footage than my entire house. And the kitchen is full of gadgets that look like NASA testing devices. Juicers. Green Algae mixers. Water purifiers. Moon rock sanitizers.
The kitchen has so many and varied lighting systems that we never entirely figured out how to turn them all on.
We could get the lights on over the sink, but not over the breakfast counter, which is longer than Harry’s Bar in Venice, though I doubt Ernest Hemingway ever sat there.
After my teens got over the idea that they were spending the weekend in all this opulence, they started running around and shouting dibs on which bedroom they wanted to occupy.
The house has three wings running off into different directions, and each kid picked a different one.
I disliked that idea, and told them. I thought we should have some family bonding time — impossible when we were all off in separate wings.
“I think you two kids should share a room, so you can spend time together,” I told them.
They looked at me as if I’d suggested they should share a cell in Alcatraz.
No way, they informed me, as they happily carted their luggage five miles each way, wishing there were a moving sidewalk.
Meanwhile, in all the excitement, our dog, Buddy, escaped the house into the pool area. I wasn’t sure if the yard was fenced in, so I started shouting at the kids to help me chase him.
Now, I tend to shout louder than an air-raid siren, but to no avail. I could have been a Boeing 747 coming in for a landing, and those kids would not have heard.
A reader with a big house told me she used a whistle to summon her five kids for dinner. Perhaps a megaphone would be a better idea.
Family togetherness, Marine Corps style.
Esther Sleek, of Laguna Niguel, Calif., told me that when she was married, she was seduced into buying a 5,000-square-foot home for her family with four children, thinking that the six bedrooms and luxurious master bath would be sheer heaven on earth. She imagined bubble baths in the huge master tub.
But she was quickly disillusioned, discovering that her toddler kept disappearing, it was impossible to put up baby gates on massive archways, she had to hire a housekeeper to clean, and she never had time to take a bath, anyway.
The family only lasted two years in the big house, before moving back to a more manageable 2,800-square-foot place in Laguna Niguel.
“When it comes right down to it, you want your children near you anyway,” Sleek said.
Of course giant houses can promote family togetherness, if you’ve got 12 kids or 35 grandkids. And you’ve got room to add a pool table, pingpong and maybe even a gym.
They’re also great if you dislike your spouse or children — you really don’t ever have to see or hear them.
Not for me, though. I trust my teenagers, but I also want to know what they’re up to. That’s not hard in our tiny, post-war shack, where as soon as you walk in the door, you know who’s home.
If my son’s having a knock-down-drag-out fight with his girlfriend on the phone, we can hear it through his closed bedroom door and can lend sympathy and maybe some ice cream when he finally comes out.
We have one television, in the living room. So I know what they’re watching, most of the time. Ditto with one computer, in a dining-room corner where I’m sitting and writing right now.
Though, living in a small house doesn’t provide much exercise, since nothing is more than a few steps away.
A friend with a large house told me she hates it when she forgets something on one side of the house and has to hike back to get it. And she never hears her cell phone ring.
“Someone could completely steal the contents of one side of my house, and I’d never even wake up,” she told me.
If you want to know how much times have changed, think back to the Brady Bunch TV show.
Dad was an architect and they had so much money they could even afford Alice, a live-in maid. But all three girls and boys shared one bedroom per sex — and six of them shared a jack-and-jill bathroom.
You know that would never fly today. And Florence Henderson would certainly be demanding her own walk-in closet.
During our weekend in Escondido, I tried to talk to my kids about the huge house with which they were so enamored.
I explained to them that we actually could live in a house like that — an idea that had them bouncing up and down with joy.
But, I told them, we’d have to live somewhere far inland, away from the beach, because land was too expensive near the shore. Did they want to move?
No, they didn’t.
Also, I explained, I’d have to change jobs.
Because, even though I love being a writer, I earn very little money as a single mom, barely enough to keep us afloat in the middle class.
I’d rather spend my days doing what I love than have a job that bores me — just to earn enough money to live large, I told them.
I hope someday they feel the same.
Because we live in a small house, we are often on top of each other, which means we stay closer as a family, I told them.
I believed I’d be lonely living in a giant place, with each of us inhabiting our own wing. And I certainly didn’t want the job of cleaning all those spaces.
The teens looked skeptical when I first explained all this to them, sitting at the giant breakfast bar in the dark, because we couldn’t find the lights.
But something interesting happened.
By the last day of our trip, their attitudes started to change. They began to miss each other, and were spending time in each other’s rooms.
They got tired of walking the length of a football field to get a drink of cold water.
And, though they didn’t tell me this, maybe they even missed their mom.
“I’m glad we’re going home,” they told me, as we loaded up the car to head back to the shack.
Me, too, I thought. Our house is shabby and small, but it’s cozy too.
And it’s cheaper to heat than the Taj Mahal.