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My First Home: This house divided shall stand

My First Home Cambridge
Heidi-Berton-Illustration-Apartment-House
. —Heidi Berton for The Boston Globe

It was 1989. I was newly married and — Score! — my in-laws owned a nine-unit rent-controlled building just outside Harvard Square.

My husband and I already lived in Cambridge: me in a small studio in Harvard Square itself, he in a two-family by Magazine Beach. The prospect of living in the tony neighborhood of Huron Village, in a three-digit monthly rental, had us giddy.

We moved in on a hot and humid September day, having just returned from our honeymoon. Our possessions were not numerous, a hodge-podge of college-era acquisitions and hand-me-downs. The apartment was on the third floor, and while we were delighted with the tree-fort feel of the small balcony at the top of the building, it made for a few sweaty hours of carrying.

We remained in the building for seven years, until the birth of our third child prompted us to migrate to the suburbs. But during those years, we made a decision that, even now in the retelling, our children find both hilarious and perplexing. When a first-floor apartment with equally minimal rent opened up, we took it, while maintaining our third-floor unit, as well. We became the two-apartment family with a friendly-though-somewhat-quizzical neighbor as the divide.

Those of you with children may see the beauty of the arrangement. The first-floor space became our living and entertaining area — and it remained free of the inevitable clutter that comes with children: baby swings, playpens, ride-on toys, and a great number of storage buckets. Our third-floor space gave a home to the paraphernalia, along with sleeping quarters for all of us.

There were oddities to unconnected space, of course, going beyond the second-floor tenant (who, I should add, never once complained about the constant stairway traffic.) We had, for example, two kitchens, and though we strived to use only the third floor for cooking, we frequently found the bottle opener or serving tray missing, only to unearth it on floor one. Which apartment would get the Christmas tree? Do we leave the children asleep two floors up with only a baby monitor, or do we hire child care while we visit with friends at ground level? What to do about the doubling of junk mail?

Larger questions surrounded our setup, though we see this more clearly now than then. Was it fair for us to be occupying two apartments when others were also in need of affordable housing? We were caught up in the demands of our growing family, and I have to admit that we did not examine our values in this way. Cash was tight; I had experienced three miscarriages before the pregnancy that resulted in our firstborn. That pregnancy placed me on immediate bed rest, without benefits, and with a gaping hole where my career once had been.

There have been changes of houses, changes of states, since our quirky apartment arrangement. At one point the children wanted to count the number of dwellings they had lived in as children. “Wait,’’ they said, “does Cambridge count as one or two?’’

The children are grown now, scattered across the country, living in apartments and houses of their own. It is the rare occasion when the five of us are together under one roof. I know that space does not divide us, and where we lay our heads at night does not need to connect. We are one family.

Marguerite Dorn, a lawyer and mother of three, lives in Needham. Send comments to margueritemdorn@gmail.comSubscribe to the Globe’s free real estate newsletter — our weekly digest on buying, selling, and design — at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp