by Anthony Varallo
The parents call it the family room, and carpet it with thick shag, popular then, although their children will later ridicule them for it. How could you pick that? they tease. The children do not remember the carpet, although a half dozen photos of them crawling across it reside within the family photo album. What the children remember is the way light slanted in from the room’s sliding glass doors. In winter, the doors shouldered squat drifts of snow.
A television presides in the corner between the sliding glass doors and a narrow bookcase. When the parents replace the shag with Berber, the television remains, as does the bookcase, although several titles—“Bloodline,” “Chariots of the Gods,” “I’m OK, You’re OK”—are lost to garage sales and library donations, their places now occupied by “Pet Semetary,” “Iacocca,” and “The Clan of the Cave Bear.” Along with these changes comes another: the children are sometimes allowed to eat dinner in the family room while watching TV, which they enjoy, the two of them sitting on a gray blanket the mother sets out for them, although these meals complicate their notion of the room. Is the family room still the family room when it doubles as the dining room? The family room, by virtue of sheltering the TV, threatens to eclipse the kitchen, the sun around which all the house’s other rooms had always seemed to orbit—but no more. The children finish their meat loaf in the radiance of “Happy Days” and “M*A*S*H.”
By the time the children enter high school, the room has accommodated fourteen Christmas trees, the most recent a blue spruce that the father insists has left needles inside the clothes dryer. The old Wyeth print above the fireplace has yielded to a watercolor one of the children painted in sixth grade, a long swing descending from a splotchy oak. The room is also the occasional refuge for Shazam, the family Siamese, a replacement pet for Max, a tabby, although no one could have foreseen Shazam’s longevity, going on twelve or thirteen or fourteen this year, over a decade now of Shazam hiding beneath the family room sofa for what seems like days on end. The sofa is from IKEA, as are the coffee table and new bookshelves, dark black and reflective as mirrors when the sun strikes them from the sliding glass doors. A prom photograph is taken in the room, as are a few graduation photos, the tree swing watercolor just visible behind the graduate’s mortarboard. Family room photographs tend to run to dark and swap out pupils for bright red dots. When no one is looking, the room acquires plantation shutters.
After the children depart for college, the mother moves her old sewing table into the room, between the fireplace and the sliding glass doors. At first she sews frequently—two skirts, one shoulder bag, four blouses—but the noise bothers her husband, who has already transformed the daughter’s bedroom into an office and fitted it out with a TV that blasts ESPN and CNN. He begins spending more time there, and after a while, does not think it strange to carry his dinner upstairs and eat it in the company of “SportsCenter.” The mother prefers the television in their bedroom, a good place to watch PBS miniseries without her husband’s censure, and not nearly as drafty as the family room in the wintertime, which has never been properly insulated. The two televisions draw the mother and father into separate rooms, something the children whisper about on holiday visits. Their parents grow older and stranger to them, they agree, as does the family room, which their mother has inexplicably burdened with her old sewing table. The children sleep in their old rooms; the daughter must make do with the sofabed in her father’s office. Will their parents separate?
Years later, when the first grandchildren arrive, the parents—now grandparents—fence the family room off with a baby gate, remove the coffee table, and clutter the room with toys they buy at garage sales and consignment shops: Leap Frog tables, Melissa and Doug easels, Thomas the Tank Engine train sets, a KidKraft Grand Gourmet Corner Kitchen, and a Hippity Hop ball the grandchildren keep caroming off the sliding glass doors. The grandparents say they don’t mind, but their children accuse them of being too lenient, too soft. When did you ever let us play in here? they say. We were never allowed to do anything in this room! One grandchild is frantically stirring an omelet comprised of wooden eggs, plastic ham, and Velcro bacon. Another grandchild slams a smiling train into another smiling train. The room holds shouts, screams, and laughter.
This room was dull, their children say. Nothing ever happened here.
Anthony Varallo is the author of four short story collections: “This Day in History,” “Out Loud,” “Think of Me and I’ll Know,” and the forthcoming “Everyone Was There” (Queens Ferry Press 2016). Currently he is an associate professor of English at the College of Charleston, where he is the fiction editor of Crazyhorse.