It might sound odd, but when I think about family, I think about our spare bedroom. My family isn’t particularly large or close-knit, although there are enough interesting characters to keep a conversation going when a few of us get together. But when we do, and start to reminisce about past Christmases or Easter weekends or other traditional times for us to all see each other, the conversation often turns towards remembering who was staying in the spare bedroom that year.
Our house had a spare bedroom early on – I was probably about ten when my older sister first moved out. It wasn’t always the same room, as my older brother and I had a penchant for up and moving whenever we decided one bedroom was more desirable than the other. But out of the four bedrooms we had, there was always one free for an extra guest or two. And my mother had a hard time saying no to anyone in need. I can chart phases of my teenage life – moody angst, first boyfriend, high-school formal, first overseas holiday – against the particular combination of people who happened to be staying in the house at that time.
If we’d never had people stay in our spare bedroom, we’d have missed out on a lot. For instance, my mother would have never learned to play Tomb Raider on the Playstation. Two of her friends, a couple, moved in during my early teenage years, and after watching me demonstrate the finer points of navigating Lara Croft around the jungle one evening, they decided it might be fun to play on weekend nights when my brother and I were out with our friends. I think they managed to complete at least three games in the series together before they finally moved out. It always made me laugh to come home late and be getting ready for bed, only to hear my mother exclaim from the living room, “No, use your shotgun! Get up on the ledge and kill it from behind!”
I learnt about other cultures without having to travel. Through our German exchange student I learned that The Simpsons are only really funny in English, and that the Germans are so fond of dubbing, instead of subtitling, foreign films that there are particular voice actors who make a career out of being the “voice” of a particular Hollywood actor. She told me that Tom Hanks didn’t sound one bit like she’d imagined. I also learnt how to make sushi and okonomiyaki from a much-beloved Japanese house guest, who I in turn counselled through a break-up with many cups of strong tea and boxes of tissues. It worked out happily for her after that though, as she sent us wedding pictures a few years after moving back to Japan.
My brother got to know a few of his best friends even better, as we had a revolving cast of them in the spare bedroom over the years, sometimes with partners in tow. I think he always liked having extra guests for Christmas, as an excuse to buy more beer and another kilo of prawns. The spare room meant that we always had at least ten people at the table for lunch that day, even if our extended family weren’t able to make it. One year we had so many boyfriends/girlfriends/houseguests/siblings of houseguests/random others, that we had to join our two largest tables to stretch the width of the front room of the house and dine Godfather-style.
It wasn’t always fun, but it was usually interesting. Sometimes guests outstayed their welcome, leading to whispered conversations in the kitchen and tense showdowns. And sometimes they left mysteriously in the night without any conversation at all, taking nothing more than a backpack and leaving most of their clothes behind. In the case of the latter, the mystery was soon solved with the arrival of angry people to our front door, wanting to know where their money had gone. In other cases, we missed our guests long after they were gone and still think of them as proper family members, welcome to come back and claim their old room at any time.
These days, the house is occupied only by my mother and my oldest nephew (who also stayed in the spare bedroom when he was a baby and my sister was off training in the Navy). It’s possible that the house will see no more new occupants before Mum finally decides that it’s more space than she needs and puts it on the market. I think I’ll be a little sad when she does, remembering not just the initials my brother and I scratched on a windowsill or the hiding places in the garden, but also all of the people coming and going who added their own little bit to our history.