After Helen Rowson and Joan Kick got dressed for dinner Friday, Aug. 17, they cracked up when they saw each other.
Kick and Rowson were wearing nearly identical outfits, down to the color, jewelry and the shoes. They laughed because it did not surprise them — the friends have a lot in common, including their atypical living situation.
Both women are grandmothers to the Rowson children — Nancy and Paul Rowson’s children. The Rowsons live in Burke, and both Helen Rowson and Joan Kick live there too. Kick is Nancy Rowson’s mother, and Helen Rowson is Paul Rowson’s mother. The live-in family tree confusion is just beginning.
Then there’s Katie Rowson — a 14-year-old freshman at Robinson this year. Her brother, Chris, attends Radford University, so he is in and out of the house throughout the year. Margie, their older sister, is married, but she is not completely out of the house yet either. She is splitting her time between Richmond and the Rowson’s Burke home because of a job in Washington, D.C. The only sibling who is completely moved out is their other brother, Michael.
The Rowsons do not mind the interesting dynamic that has become their home. It was actually Nancy and Paul Rowson’s idea, and their lives are only more enriched since both grandmas moved in.
"We have our privacy when we want it," said Nancy Rowson. "I think of it like a bed and breakfast. We don’t have to answer to each other."
AS FOR THE extra bodies in the home, it’s family, so it does not seem like extra, said Paul Rowson. When he became concerned about his mother, now 81, living alone, the thought of a retirement community was unimaginable. They had already invited Kick to move in, and the couple thought another grandmother in the house would be great.
"My two best friends were my father and my father-in-law. I feel like now I’m taking care of [their] girls," Paul Rowson said. "This was kind of just natural [to have them move in]. It wasn’t ‘Why should we?’ It was ‘Why shouldn’t we?’"
The family eats dinner together almost every night of the week. Each family member signs up on a calendar for a night to make dinner. One night a week is do-it-yourself night, though, and everyone fends for him- or herself.
Both grandmothers have become the best of friends, too. They go out together, shop together, play bridge and watch television together. They even dress alike.
"It’s like having a live-in friend," said Helen Rowson.
The women haven’t given up their friends or independence, though. Both still drive and do things on their own. When the Rowsons entertain at their home, which is a frequent occurrence, the family can usually find Joan Kick and Helen Rowson off in a corner somewhere, chatting among themselves.
Not all parties are for the whole family either. They lay out ground rules with each other before some occasions, said Nancy Rowson. Sometimes the grandmas are not necessarily invited, which is fine. The family agrees the whole situation works out almost flawlessly.
Paul and Nancy are thrilled that their children have become so close to their grandmothers. The families have always been close, throughout Paul and Nancy’s 29-year-marriage, but moving them in has brought everyone even closer. Especially Joan and Helen.
And in this house, it isn't the teenager who’s making all the noise.
"She listens to the TV so loud," laughed Katie, talking about her paternal grandmother, Helen.
Katie said when her friends drop her off at home, they sometimes wonder if she is having a party because of all the cars in the driveway, she said, laughing. Both grandmothers know Katie’s friends, and that has been beneficial to everyone, said Nancy Rowson.
"I think my kids and the grandmas have gained a mutual respect for the other generation," said Nancy Rowson. "I think the grandmas are more hip."
Katie said some of her friends are jealous about her grandmothers living with her. Some of the friends wish they had a grandmother around all the time, said Katie, especially if it means frequently having freshly baked cookies around.
The Rowsons recognize that inviting the in-laws to move in is not the best situation for every family, but it sure is inspiring, said Jack McHale, a family friend who lives in Burke Centre. Since the grandmothers moved in about two years ago, he’s been traveling up to New York more often to visit his mother. He also calls her more frequently now.
"Since I heard of this, I’ve made more time for my mom," McHale said.
McHale often travels to help people in Guatemala, and he compares the Rowsons to the families he sees down there. Extended families in Guatemala all work and live together, sharing responsibilities. "What they lack in possessions, it’s made up in intimacy, love and happiness."
"There’s no such thing as the extended family," McHale said. "There, it’s just family."