Generations Galore Cohabitate in San Clemente's Casa Kweskin

Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Sam Kweskin, 10, of San Clemente has a rare treasure in his house--something so unusual that other kids tend to be a bit skeptical when he tells them about his good fortune.

So he offers them proof. They follow him as he walks in the front door, through the living room and down the hall to a closed door. Then he opens it--knocking first, of course--and says, "See, there she is. It's my grandma."

If that doesn't evoke enough wows, Sam can lead them upstairs, open another door, and show off an equally precious treasure: his other grandma.

A couple of generations ago, extended families sharing the same house were so commonplace that Sam could hardly have amazed his friends by showing off his live-in grandmothers.

But things have changed since then, so much that his parents sometimes wonder what other people think of their arrangement.

"I'd say society doesn't particularly condone this sort of thing," says Sam's mother, Patty Ayres, 39. "People pay lip service and say, 'Oh, that's a neat idea,' but when it comes down to it, I don't think they'd want to do it.

"And it's not easy. There are certain conflicts that come up with any family and people who've lived apart for a long time. There's an adjustment for both sides. It's a compromise on everybody's part."

But it's also "kind of fun," according to Ben, 7, one of Sam's brothers.

Sam, his two grandmas, his mother and father--Ed Kweskin, 41--and Sam's three siblings all share a custom-designed, four-bedroom, five-bathroom house, complete with an elevator and wheelchair-accessible doorways for Kweskin's mother, Ida Kweskin, 84, who had a stroke four years ago.

She learned to walk again, using a cane, about the same time her grandson, Alex, now 4, was developing the same skill for the first time. Now she has to watch out for 9-month-old Sophie, who likes to reach out and grab Grandma's cane if it comes within reach.

Her stroke was the catalyst that brought about the family's unusual living arrangements. Until it happened, she lived alone in a house near her younger sister's home in the East. In the 12 years since her husband's death, Ida Kweskin had grown accustomed to living alone and learned to enjoy the independence.

After the stroke, she recuperated first in a hospital, then a nursing home, while Kweskin, her only child, and Ayres flew back to visit her as often as they could. After it became clear that Ida Kweskin could not go back to living alone, the family decided it would be better for everyone if she were moved to a nursing home in Orange County.

"It was too hard going back and forth," Kweskin says.

But she was unhappy in the nursing home, even though her family lived nearby and visited often.

"It just became apparent to us that if it's at all possible, you should avoid nursing homes," Kweskin says.

"I was very unhappy there," Ida Kweskin says. "They just didn't treat you with dignity--you know, just like a sack of potatoes. And some of those poor folks are so old that they don't even know where they are."

"If you have all your faculties, it can be a little disturbing to be around so many people who don't," Kweskin says.

"There was a point where we had to make a decision," he says.

Ida Kweskin was hospitalized again, this time for a stomach problem, and when she was well enough to return to the nursing home, "basically she said, 'I don't want to go back there,' so we decided we'd give it a try at home," Ayres says.

"She moved into our two-bedroom house. She had the bedroom, and the kids slept on the sofa in the living room. That lasted for about four or five months before we got kicked out because the house was being sold. It didn't have anything to do with the number of people we had living there."

So Kweskin and Ayres decided to find a lot and have a house built from the ground up to accommodate their extended family. "At that point we knew we had Ida to deal with," Ayres says. "But my mother was living alone--my dad died five years ago--so we decided to build something in for her too."

"First of all, it's very hard to find a regular, traditional house that can accommodate everybody," Kweskin says. "The only other option would be to find a house with a guest house. But there aren't many of those. Once we decided to build the house, it was just a matter of providing everyone with their own space. Ida has a relatively large bedroom, with a bathroom connected, and she doesn't have to come out."

Ayres' mother, Bernice Ayres, 64, also has a private area upstairs.

"Everybody doesn't have to go through the living room to get from one part of the house to another," Kweskin says.

The only thing the family didn't anticipate with the house design was Sophie, the new infant. "Now we're a bedroom short," Kweskin says.

Ida Kweskin agrees that if she could, she would still rather live on her own. But she says she doesn't feel like an intruder. "When they have company, I just go in my room and close the door. I try to let them have their privacy."

And the advantages, she says, far outweigh the disadvantages: "You take that little baby. When she smiles at me in the morning, it's just like a bouquet of flowers. And then Alex gives me a hug, and oh, that hug. If I could only describe it in poetry."

But doesn't she get tired of the rest sometimes? "No," she says. "I just close the door."

While Ida Kweskin isn't able to baby-sit the grandchildren because of her health, Bernice Ayres sometimes does so Kweskin and Ayres can have some time alone.

"We try not to take advantage of that too much, because she works full time," Ayres says. "But we did go to Europe by ourselves last summer."

Ida Kweskin says she tries not to interfere with Kweskin and Ayres' rearing methods. If she disagrees, "I just don't say anything. That's their prerogative."

Three-generational living isn't for everybody, Ayres concedes: "It's a hard decision, and I certainly wouldn't try to make it for anybody else, or say you're a bad person because you don't have your parents living with you. But for us it was the best thing."

"When our kids are grown and we're older, we'll be able to live here," Kweskin says. "I really think that as the population ages in general, you're going to see a lot more of this."

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