Tennessee Mountain Stories

Personal Space


We in the Durham household are very honored to have a missionary family staying with us for a few weeks.  The Lyons have five children aged nine and under, add in my two and that’s a lot of energy.  A home with seven children is pretty out of the ordinary these days – if they stayed very long I’ll bet we could even get our own reality show out of it.  However, a couple of generations ago, this would have been a very normal household.

As we’ve talked about adjusting schedules and feeding the crew, I can’t help but imagine how my great grandmothers managed their own homes.  The families of my four sets of great-grandparents had five, ten, eleven and twelve children.  Even with very high infant mortality rates, they raised five, nine, and two families of eleven of those children. 

The story on The Printed Word two weeks ago prompted some precious reminiscing among my cousins when I posted the picture of my great grandfather’s steamer trunk.  Those cousins remembered it so well because it was in their own homes when he stayed with them.  For you see, just a couple of generations ago aging parents lived with their adult children when they could no longer care for themselves.  That added another person or two to full houses.

The concept of personal space certainly differs around the world.  I’ve heard folks who’ve lived in third world countries where large, extended families sleep on dirt floors in a single, common room.  In the morning, they roll up straw mats and prepare their meals in the same room.  Here, we have kitchens and dining rooms, living rooms and dens, as well as studies and playrooms – and would you believe that on average there are just about two and one-half people living in over two thousand square feet of house?  (The 2010 family size per statista.com was 2.59.  The same year, census.gov reported a median home size of 2,169 – that was the latest year data was available for the home size.)

About a year ago, I wrote a series of articles about historic homes around the area.  As I look back at some of those houses, I realize they seem spacious enough if I think of living there with just a husband and one or two children.  But those houses counted their families in double digits and their square footage in hundreds instead of thousands of feet.  I’ve shared the picture of my Uncle Lester Key’s house with you before.  The house I knew had been significantly enlarged from when the children were all home, and it was still pretty small.  That family of seven children slept in the loft of the house, the only son had a ‘room’ partitioned on one end by a curtain.  My grandmother who was born in the mid 1920’s remembers sleeping at the foot of her parents’ bed.  She doesn’t remember that as, “I had a bad dream and ran to their bed”.  Instead, it was just her place to sleep. 

Shawna with her brother in front of the Lockhart House, home of her great-grandmother.

Shawna with her brother in front of the Lockhart House, home of her great-grandmother.

One home I didn’t mention in that architecture series was the Lockhart house in Clarkrange.  Built in 1926, it was one of the finest homes in the community for many years and still stands proudly near the junction of Highways 62 and 127.  Dr. Joseph Lockhart was a second generation medical professional and I’m sure when he built this stone house he expected to both raise his family in it as well as treat patients.  In fact, his daughter, JoBlan LaRue tells in the 1987 Hitory of Fentress County book that she remembered her mother caring for people who were too sick to go home.  The house had two downstairs bedrooms – one for the Lockharts and a second reserved for patients.  Shawna Sibley, one of their great-granddaughters, remembers the house which had a whopping six bedrooms, but they were tiny rooms.  This house was larger than many of the era but I’m sure when the nine Lockhart children were home it seemed full to overflowing.

I’ve talked about my own grandparents’ home which was often overflowing with family.  For all of our connected-ness and social media we are not a generation that really enjoys each other.  That previous generation would ‘gang up’ every chance they got.  People would sleep on pallets on the floor or with four to a bed.  (John Denver’s “Grandma’s Featherbed is echoing in my head right now.)  We thought little about comfort in those days, we were just happy to be together.  You know there is much about yester-year that I miss and long for and this is certainly one of the biggies.  I’m always sad that we are losing touch with extended family and no longer sharing our stories and history.

As the days pass with my house filled, I’ll no doubt share some of the joys and the struggles.  I’m sure I’ll drive some of my guests absolutely crazy, but in the end, I believe we’ll all be blessed for the experience.