The attempt at a land grab started last fall, even before the existing tenant had begun to pack her things.
People were sidling up to the landlady at odd moments, usually when the room was otherwise empty.
"When she goes to college," the person would say, "can I have her room?"
The landlady was at first not good at handling these questions. "I don't know," she tended to say. It was a fatal response, because it simply invited more petitioning.
"But I've had to share the longest of anyone in the family," another supplicant said, having closed the door so that no one else would hear.
"I'm the second-oldest, so the room should go to me," reasoned a third campaigner. Like the others, this one, too, made sure no siblings were around to muddy the argument.
The landlady quickly got wise. Soon her replies had evolved from "I don't know," which had the virtue of being true, to "We'll see," which was also true, in its way, since everyone sees what happens when it happens. As the months wore on and the furtive campaigning intensified, she lighted on the perfect mode of deflection: "Daddy and I have to discuss it."
This was a good answer, don't you think? It diffused responsibility for the decision of who would get the eldest daughter's bedroom when she went to college, while casting the verdict into the misty, unspecified future.
Then, suddenly, it all broke into the open. The current tenant of the coveted space, who had been ignorant of the campaigning behind her back, realized that predators were circling. It had been bad enough that her family had finally got a dog in her last year before college, when she'd yearned for one all through childhood. It was hard enough (if also deeply thrilling) to contemplate leaving home. But to be turfed out of her own room? Not happening.
"It's my room," she declared with a tremor in her voice. "No one gets it, because it's mine!"
"We'll see," said the tactful landlady. She suspected that eventually the college-bound daughter would come to see that it was, actually, reasonable for another sibling to take over the real estate that the girl had secured through primogeniture. Given the daughter's nature, the landlady knew it wouldn't take long.
"I've been thinking," the young woman said lightly one day, perhaps a month later. "I will be away quite a lot, when I'm at college. I guess it's only fair that one of the others takes over my room."
The landlady beamed. That was her girl!
"I can still come home and stay, though, right? During holidays, and in the summers?"
The landlady threw her arms around the tenant and I don't mind saying that tears leapt to her eyes. "Darling, of course you can. You must! You will!"
"Yay," said the girl, smiling.
Within minutes, word had got out and the household was like San Francisco in 1849. Prospectors rushed from every corner of the house, each eager to lay claim to the room that the eldest had agreed to relinquish.
"I'm the second oldest!"
"I've waited the longest!"
"I'm the littlest!"
The landlady raised her arms and made calming gestures. "Children, children," she said, "Now, it's nice that your big sister has agreed to give up her room."
"My room, you mean," said a wiseacre.
"No, mine!" yelped a sibling.
"And someone will move into her room," the landlady went on. "But, well... Daddy and I have to discuss it first."
Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at mgurdon@ washingtonexaminer.com.