Cohabitation by
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The first summer I spent away from home was between my junior and senior years of college, when I stayed in Boston to work in a children’s summer program called SummerThing. The dorms were closed and my girlfriend Patti had her own apartment, so I decided to move in. We recruited another roommate, our friend Stuart, to move in too.

I devised an ingenious way to break the arrangement to my mom. Or so I thought.

This was just at the beginning of unmarried couples starting to live together, and I knew my mom wouldn’t much like the arrangement. She had strong opinions and old-fashioned values, and didn’t hold back from expressing them.

So I devised an ingenious way to break it to her. I made up some letterhead in the name of Peters, Zussman, & Zieger, like we were a law firm, and sent it as an announcement of our partnership and our new address and phone. I figured that, even if she disapproved, my dad would see the humor in it and, being more forward thinking about cohabitation, would talk her down.

Unfortunately, the announcement arrived when Dad was gone on a business trip. And so I received an unpleasant 45-minute phone call—at 1971 long distance rates—in which my mom kept plaintively repeating, “But Johnny—why?” Nothing I said could assuage her hurt and disappointment, but in the end it was my life, not hers.

When I told this story at a family gathering before my mother’s funeral, my younger brother provided the punch line. Five years later, he had brought his girlfriend home from college and announced their engagement. “Why don’t you live together first?” Mom helpfully suggested.

My mother could learn—as long as I, her oldest, shouldered the burden of breaking her in.

Profile photo of John Zussman John Zussman
John Unger Zussman is a creative and corporate storyteller and a co-founder of Retrospect.

Tags: Cohabitation
Characterizations: funny, moving, right on!, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Ah, John, sorry for the trials and tribulations from your mother. Do you think she would have had a different reaction if I had accepted your offer and the masthead read Sarason instead of Zieger? Or just the fact that you were living with Patti was too much for her (or living with two women would have put her WAY over the edge?) I don’t think I ever knew that Stu became your third partner and, referring back to “the road not taken”, I sometimes wonder if my life would have been different if I had joined you both that summer; learned to be more independent and not felt so compelled to marry right after college. I never really knew why my dad wouldn’t let me join you both. We would have had a blast!

    Funny how the first child has to blaze the trail for the rest of the clan…get the parents accustomed to pushing the envelope so the younger children have the freedom to do so without the pushback.

    • John Zussman says:

      Thanks, Betsy. I didn’t recall that you considered joining us, but it makes perfect sense. Interesting that you think you might have developed differently if you had. It wouldn’t have mattered a whit to my mom, but I think my dad would have been quite envious if I had roomed with two women!

  2. Suzy says:

    Great story, with an irresistible punch line. In my family, I was the beneficiary of that phenomenon, getting easy approval for things my sisters had to fight for. Is the Stu Zeiger in your story the same one I know, who lived in Lowell House?

  3. jefroe8271 says:

    Knowing some of the principals in this story make me laugh out loud. You have captured the subtleties of a moment in time. Great story.

  4. Kit says:

    Wonderful story with a wonderful ending! I remember those days well. My boyfriend and I lived together in his college dorm single, but since I had my own address our parents were none the wiser. It was when we got an apartment together after college that our (mostly his actually) parents raised their eyebrows. Luckily they were all too smart to say anything. And three years later we did get married. On a more serious note, I occasionally wonder what it would have been like to feel we had to get married right after college in order to live together. That path never looks good in my mind–we were so not ready!

    • John Zussman says:

      I’m sure my parents were relieved when I moved back to my dorm in the fall, unaware that Patti and I were doing exactly the same as you—in my single and her apartment. But that’s a story for another prompt. Thanks for your kind words.

  5. mwerner says:

    Good story, John. I had forgotten how cohabitation back then was so exotic and pushing the limits.

  6. Wonderful punch line, John.

    My sister was 10 years my junior – I living at home while in college in the still innocence early 60s, then 10 years later my sister up at Cornell in the not-so-innocent 70s, and I saw how my folks had to readjust their parenting attitudes.

    Your mother’s comment to your brother reminds me of a line from the show, Stop the World, I Want to Get Off. When the father hears his daughter is getting married, he says “I didn’t even know you were pregnant.”

    • John Zussman says:

      Thanks, Dana. I suppose we have to expect that it takes time for parents to embrace changing values, but it can have a darker side. Both my parents were estranged from their brothers, unable to accept that they were gay. But when their grandson came out and they realized that they could choose to accept him or lose him — but not change him — they chose acceptance.

      I loved that show — the first I ever saw on Broadway! Thanks for reminding me of that line.

      • Thanx John, sorry to hear about your parents’ estrangement from their brothers.
        Such unnecessary heartache caused by blind intolerance over acceptance.

        And you’d think and hope those attitudes are gone – but now the political situation in our sorry country!

  7. John Shutkin says:

    Great story and great punchline, John. Particularly amusing to me since, as I noted in a recent story about attics, my totally liberated mother could see no reason why my college girlfriend(s) might feel uncomfortable staying in the same room with me when we were visiting my home.

  8. Kathy Porter says:

    Yes, I well know the burden of being the oldest and having to educate your parents. Very funny story and very apt.

  9. Khati Hendry says:

    This sure brought back memories of the time. I lived in a rented house that first summer after my freshman year, and my parents were none too happy to hear that my roommates were Jim, Terri, Ken, and Molly—and maybe I’m missing someone.. (None was my romantic partner, but that was someone else nearby. ) They gave up after that. But similar to you, my parents lamented the fact that one sister married someone they didn’t like, and wished my other sister would marry the guy she was living with, and they didn’t want to know more about whatever I was doing. So there was no way to win, and it all worked out anyway.

    • John Zussman says:

      Thanks, Khati. In my experience, parental disapproval of a lifestyle choice (like cohabitation) is one thing, but disapproval of one’s chosen partner or sexual orientation is quite another and can have lifelong impact. Glad it all worked out for you and your siblings in the end.

  10. Jim Willis says:

    I enjoyed your story of how you expanded your mom’s thinking on live-in relationships. I know a lot of parents who never were able to accept some of the changes the 60s brought. I would have to give my own folks high marks for the ways they adjusted. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Hilarious and painful, as are many of these stories. As first born, I was also snowplow, with my brother floating happy in the path I’d cleared with angst and upset. Thank you.

  12. Very well told. Love the detail about the “1971 long distance rates,” which only readers above a certain age can appreciate!
    We went through this in my family when my sister moved in with her boyfriend. :Very painful, and it probably would still not be easy for me to write about.

  13. Dave Ventre says:

    Yeah, we who have to go first get most of the pushback, for sure!

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