Something woke me up in the wee small ones this Monday morning… maybe it was a little query from you: ‘So! Where’s this Sunday’s blog??’
Okayyy… here’s about the house where I grew up.
In the pressures of teenage years and concomitant escape into twentysomethings, I’d dismissed my childhood. It wasn’t until my 4th pregnancy that vivid dreams came nightly of that early time and place– the smell of concord grapes, the purple of small violets beneath a dark redbudded rosebush… welling delight in the meadows, creek and woods that surrounded a small old house.
The house was a couple hundred years old then. My mother had fallen in love with it at first sight– a Cape Cod cottage tucked under a rock ledge with a huge old apple tree aloft. They borrowed money for GreatUncle Phil to make the purchase price of $3,000 (Mom knitted him annual black socks in gratitude for this enormous favor, always complaining how boring plain black was).
My little brother was just born, and I remember Mother holding me as she made her goodbyes to the house on Thaxter St. before we moved. It was during WW II, and everything had a raw sparse feel… there was still great spaces between the little New England towns and you had to drive quite a way to get from one to the next. We had an Austin 7, probably from the 1930’s, with a convertible top and isinglass sidecurtains for windows. You couldn’t touch them or they might crack. Dad kept an old raccoon coat (with hardly any hair left on it) over the bonnet to keep the engine warm at night. A crank below the radiator started her up on cold mornings– then we were piled in the back, and an old laprobe was tucked around to keep us snug while Mom got groceries at Rizotto’s down by the harbor.
Rumer Godden writes evocatively of the relationship between houses and families, and the almost independent life that certain houses could take on…
A Cape Cod house has a central chimney with fireplaces into every room: we had one in the living room where we would dry our hair before bed, one in the master bedroom which served as a nursery in deference to our greater numbers (my little sister showed up a year later), and a big working fireplace in the old dining room, with an oven in the brick wall next to it and a longhandled flat wrought iron paddle to fetch out the baked goods. The front stairs, unmanageably steep, wound alongside the chimney to a double attic with a halfsized little fireplace, which my father refused to light– I think he was concerned that draughts from all the other fireplaces would cause a conflagration. The owl andirons had glass eyes designed to twinkle from flickering flames, but I never got to see that happen.
I was moved out of the nursery on the advent of my sister. Everyone was exclaiming over how fair she was. I struggled to get my nose over the edge of her bassinet, but was puzzled to see she that she was quite RED.
I remember struggling up those front stairs with my little pink chair… there was a huge double bed under the eaves, and a hissing radiator under the window. Although the room was cozy enough, it was surrounded by Danger Zones: the stairs had gloomy recesses overhead and to the sides, and goodness only knew what went on behind the door to the other half of this attic! It was not finished, and cobwebs swathed the exposed beams. My mother’s cedar chest was in there, full of alluring mysteries and alluring things we couldn’t touch when she opened it… boxes were piled everywhere, and in the far corner was a silk parachute, which I pirated for doll dresses when I started sewing. It became pocked from swatches cut hastily before whoever-it-was got to me in there…
I was a fearful child. People said I had ‘too much imagination’ but frankly, they didn’t sense the things I sensed. It took years to recall that I had terrible nightmares– I’d wake and scream for my parents. You had to scream really loud, because they slept ‘way downstairs in a little room behind the nursery. One or another of them would lumber up the stairs and climb in bed with me till I settled down. Mostly it was Daddy. You could snuggle up near him, as close as 1/2″, but if you actually touched him he would get up and leave. Sigh. So after a bit he’d return to his own bed with Mom, but I wasn’t left totally alone, because the fairies would come and bring me strings of beautiful jewelled little dreams to make up for the nightmare. It was almost worth the fright.
When I was 10, my parents put an addition on the back of the house, a nicely conceived gambrelroofed kitchen and upstairs bedroom for my brother, with a powder room and shower to share. A set of back stairs led up there from the new kitchen, with a boot compartment under the landing and a washingmachine tucked next to it where the stairs rose. Construction dragged on a little, with items stored in what was to be my closet off the connecting hall. This passage ruffled up my fear of the dark– I had to make it all the way from downstairs to the bureau lamp on the far side of my room without freaking, and somehow get past the ming green toilet stored in the doorless closet. I just knew somebody was gonna be sitting on that toilet sometime!!
There was another stairwell leading down to the cellar. Ceilings were low in this house: I could touch them by the 4th grade, and put my palms on them in the 8th– my father was 6’ 2″ and developed a peculiar slouch to avoid cracking his forehead on the door lintels. In the cellar, he had to walk bent over. There was an oil furnace down there, and shelves and shelves of canning jars which would bob around in the early spring thaws when water seeped in. A hole in the concrete floor allegedly let it drain out again, but parts of the rock ledge from behind the house protruded near the walls.
The house had seaweed for insulation as it was situated near the coast. Over the years the seaweed had settled and turned to dust, though, and the winter wind would blow through the plaster walls. As the one with the longest arms, my job was to go around at nightfall and draw all the curtains– the strange old embroidered rough brown homespun ones in the dining room that hung from recalcitrant wooden rings, and sweet little muslin curtains on stretched springs in all the rest of the rooms, very ‘New England’, that hid us from view but let the light through. Across the front livingroom wall drew an overcurtain that insulated from impingeing weather. Then we were really cozy!
An Italian family had lived at 88 East St. before us, probably for a couple generations, for there were ancient established grape arbors, 3 of them, on the property. More Italians lived up the street– the Rizottos of grocery fame, and then the Galuzzos. Dominick would come every year to prune the grapes severely, but they regained themselves lushly and produced quantities of black and white Concords, which Mom juiced, jellied and canned. In the fall, I’d kick my way home from elementary school thru kneedeep maple leaves on the sidewalks– I remember when the town planted those trees all down the street, and then sprayed them with DDT against tent caterpillars (we were called inside, but the smell of that spray is still sweet in the back of my nose)– wading thru the drifts of falling maple leaves, then drop off my lunchbox on the back step and head for the grape arbor out back. I’d lie on the cedar rails of the arbor and pick grapes, eating them like a Roman Emperor.
There was also a chicken house, with laying boxes and occasional porcelain eggs to fool the hens into overlaying. That place felt really good. My father used it as an adjunct to his boatbuilding– he was on the US Navy’s sucker list and received countless auction notices, from which he acquired a double ender whale boat and later, the #1 motor launch from the aircraft carrier Antietam, which he converted into cabin cruisers that took the whole family down as far as Long Island.
Well, pretty soon this’ll be as long as a Rumer Godden novel. Her “China Court” is eversomuch better– I’m just ruminating, she has a plot. Try “Greengage Summer”, frinstance– I plantedÂ one of thoseÂ plum trees in honor of that book.
To Be Continued…