Illustration by James Callahan
To a kid, there is no space more sacred than your room. It's your office, your classroom and your kingdom, all in the same few square feet.
If you're lucky, you've got it all to yourself; most kids seem to these days. Growing up in the smaller houses of the 1970s, I was not so fortunate. I shared a room with my sister. It would probably be more appropriate to say that she was the unlucky one. As the "good daughter," she kept her half of the room neat and tidy, using it mostly for reading and doing her homework. I, on the other hand, kept my side of the room littered with rock magazines, records and holey dungarees in various stages of grubbiness. The top tier of our shared bunk bed was my private hideaway, complete with a small black-and-white television perched atop the bookcase. In the wee hours, after my sister was fast asleep, I would watch Wolfman Jack on The Midnight Special, turned up just enough so I could hear it, but not enough so that she would rat me out.
Lest you think I exaggerate, picture this: Two walls were hers and two were mine. Every square inch of flowered wallpaper on mine was covered with Kiss posters. When I ran out of space, I plastered my side of the ceiling as well. On my sister's walls hung only one picture — a postcard-sized portrait of the Virgin Mary. She was a tough act to follow, that's for sure. Not that I tried. By the time we were teenagers, she had retreated to a tiny room downstairs that used to be a side porch. Apparently poor insulation and cramped quarters were preferable to having to share space with Gene Simmons' blood-covered mug times a hundred.
My own child will never know the misery or joy of sharing a room, since he has no siblings. His room has been his own since day one, cluttered only with the things he loves and unburdened by anyone else's tastes, desires or needs. There are Hot Wheels and Pokémon and Legos — mostly Legos, of course — in bins and in baskets but mainly on the floor, where they inevitably end up jabbed into the softest part of my foot when I bring in a load of clean underwear to stick in his dresser. His room is a wreck, and I try not to be too judgy or scoldy about that, because I recognize that the creative process is not an orderly thing. When I do lose sight of that, he is all too happy to remind me.
Last week, for instance, I happened to walk past his room and notice that he had assembled a colorful jigsaw puzzle on the floor, exactly in the middle of the doorway. Around the puzzle, he had built an elaborate frame out of Tinkertoys. It was an impressive installment. I tried to be helpful.
"Wow, Buddy, that's really neat," I said, and I meant it. "Do you think we could move it out of the doorway, to a place where it is less likely that someone will step on it?"
"No!" He jumped in between me and the puzzle like a pint-sized Helen Marie Taylor. "I want people to step on it! When they step on it, it will scramble up the pieces, and it will be a whole new picture!" He stepped back and looked at me sadly, like he was disappointed to have a Philistine for a mother. "I mean, it's basically a type of performance art."
Can you see now why I try not to interfere?
Underneath the mess — excuse me, the performance art — the room itself is a masterpiece all its own. Back when The Boy was still in production, my brother spent long hours painstakingly sanding and refinishing the floors, painting the walls and trim, and skimming the ceiling.
"What should we do about this ceiling?" he said, gesturing toward it with his paintbrush.
"Nothing," I offered. "He's a baby. He's going to spend a lot of time lying on his back, staring at the ceiling. The cracks make it more interesting."
"I don't know," he replied, casting a disapproving glance at the plaster. "With a ceiling like that, he might grow up to be a juvenile delinquent." I went out to buy some Onesies, and when I came home, I had a lovely, freshly painted, crack-free ceiling.
Reform school has been avoided, at least so far. We are knocking on wood, but we are knocking gently, lest we cause new cracks.