In the afternoon that I was born, and 30 or so miles east of the place where I was born, men were leveling Long Island potato fields and laying out the building plots of what was to be our future neighborhood.
They built our house and the one across the street first. These were the model homes. Young families would drive out from New York City on the weekends to see if this town they called Bethpage would be a good fit for them. A mile away sprawled Grumman, where thousands of workers had built war planes, and where other workers would someday build the Apollo lunar module. Jobs were plentiful in Bethpage.
Our neighborhood was next door to Levittown, which had gone with copper-in-concrete radiant heat for its 17,000 single-family houses. The once-model home in which I now sit also had radiant heat in its slab at first. The model across the street had a basement, so they used steel convectors there, fed from diverter tees in a one-pipe hydronic loop.
I gave this some thought in 1977 when The Lovely Marianne and I looked at what was to become our home. The family selling the house was the second to own it, and they had abandoned the leaking radiant tubing in favor of Slant/Fin baseboard in 1970. They were asking $36,000 for the place. It had no garage and the property measured just 50 ft. by 100 ft. We talked them down to $35,500 and signed the papers.
It is a Cape Cod house. Living room, small dining room, galley kitchen, a master bedroom, such as it was, a bath and another bedroom that measured 9 ft. by 12 ft. were on the first floor. A peaked roof upstairs allowed for two additional bedrooms with slanted ceilings. Each had an electric in-wall heater that rattled and smelled like potential death. We moved in and then had four daughters in three years.
A growing family
Kelly arrived first. She was in the bassinet in our bedroom for months and then moved into the 9-by-12 room in which I now write. I painted the room yellow and put alphabet stickers on the walls. I hung stuffed animals from the ceiling by fishing line so Kelly would have her very own Macy’s parade every day. I changed diapers on a table that’s right behind where my office chair is now.
Meghan arrived two years later. She moved into Kelly’s crib and Kelly graduated to a big-girl bed that was to the right of where my desk is now. We had our master bedroom back, such as it was.
Thirteen months later, the twins, Colleen and Erin, arrived. Kelly and Meghan moved upstairs into one of the bedrooms with the slanted roof and scary heater. I had those replaced with a baseboard zone.
A few months later, Marianne’s little sister, Judy, married for just one year, learned that her husband couldn’t keep his vows, so she moved into the other slanted-roof bedroom upstairs. Rusty, the cocker spaniel and the only other male in the house, decided to run away. He was always a smart dog.
Judy stayed with us for about two years and then moved out. The twins went upstairs and the 9-by-12 room downstairs became my office when I worked for the manufacturers rep, and then the World Headquarters of Dan Holohan Associates, when we started that company in 1989.
We dormered the house when the girls got bigger and put all the bedrooms upstairs. We also added a second bathroom. I hung a Men’s Room sign on the downstairs bathroom, which confused some of our visitors during the holidays.
Marianne’s mother got sick, so Marianne’s sister, Missy, who has Down syndrome, moved in with us. What’s one more potato in the pot?
When I moved into the 9-by-12 with all its memories, I painted it dark green, the color of peace. I hung bookshelves on every available inch of wall and filled them with old books. I set my brown-wood desk against the West-facing wall because that’s where you most likely are. Behind me is a sliver of Long Island and thousands of miles of steel-grey Atlantic.
The daughters grew like corn and went through all the things that girls will go through. They had the advantage of each other. No one was allowed to have a problem alone. They stuck together. Still do.
A room full of memories
When we started our business, our only goal was to put these four girls through college. We did that and followed up with fancy weddings, and then, when they married good men, we decided we were done baking. They were women complete.
Every story I have ever written to you, I’ve written from this desk, in this tiny room where so much has happened. And this is what I learned from this room.
When you have just one child, you think you are in charge of that child’s future. You think nurture is the most important thing and you weigh each decision you make carefully. You go to bed each night feeling a bit guilty about what you did, or didn’t do, with the kid that day.
When the second child arrives, you wonder how you could possibly love this child as much as you love the first, but love is malleable and it molds itself between you and the other child, and years later, you wonder how you could have ever have had those thoughts. And you continue to think that nurture is most important. The guilt goes on.
But when twins arrive, magic arrives with them. Colleen and Erin are fraternal twins. They look nothing like each other. We cared for them the same as we cared for Kelly and Meghan. We treated them exactly the same way, but they didn’t respond to us in the same way. Colleen was quiet and smiling, a puddle of peace. As she grew, she did what we asked her to do. Don’t run into the road, even if a big dog is chasing you. Don’t climb on that; you’ll fall. Eat all your food.
Erin, nurtured the exact same way from the moment she and her sister arrived at home, was a maelstrom. Colleen would whimper a bit and wait for us to change her. Erin would tear off her diaper and throw it at us from her crib. Colleen would lift her leg to try to climb out of her crib. We’d say no, and she would sit down. Erin, who walked at nine months, would toss her leg over the crib rail and fall to the floor. I’d gasp, admonish her and put her back. She’d do it again. I’d put her back. She’d do it again. And again.
I realized I wasn’t going to win this battle of wills. I got out of her way.
The twins taught me it is our nature that guides us. Parents are there to keep us from destroying ourselves when we are small, but we are who we are from the start, and we will be who we will be, no matter what.
Erin took jobs after college and was never happy with any of them. She had ideas of how she would do things better. Her bosses didn’t want to listen to her suggestions, so she’d get another job. The same thing would happen.
One year, sister Meghan was involved with World Teach and living in a small village in Costa Rica, teaching at a school. We all traveled there to visit with her during Easter week. Erin and I found ourselves having breakfast at a Denny’s one morning in the capital city of San José. She was unhappy with the latest job.
“You can’t work for anyone,” I said. “You’re an entrepreneur. You have to build something on your own.”
At first, she didn’t believe me. It’s her nature to question things, but time passed and she started her own business, doing graphic design and also writing, as I do. She thrived.
Our business grew to become HeatingHelp.com and I needed Erin more and more because she’s simply better at all things Internet than I am. We retained her and our business bloomed. Marianne and I could not have done any of this without the guidance of this strong woman who once refused to stay in the crib that used to be right over there next to where my desk is now in this 9-by-12 room. I glance over and I can still see her.
I’m going to continue to write, but as of May 1, this business we call HeatingHelp.com is Erin’s. We didn’t give it. She bought it, and gleefully. And thinking back to the days when she climbed out of her crib, again and again, I realize that this transition from father and mother to daughter is natural. We nurtured her as best we could, but she was born with many questions, a powerful will and a fierce determination.
I will always be there for her, but it’s time, once again, for me to get out of her way.
This article was originally titled “The 9-by-12 room” in the May 2016 print edition of Plumbing & Mechanical.