Our family fought a lot but one thing we agreed upon: we loved our brick Tudor house. Set on one half-acre of lawns, trees and gardens, my house on 14 Scarsdale Road was my kingdom, a place where I spent my entire childhood, where my father planned to stage our garden weddings in the backyard. ( I have two older sisters and a younger brother.) Built in 1937, the house sat on a knoll on a shady, dead end street in Newton, MA, a suburb west of Boston.
Every spring, I watched my father’s Broadway show—not in New York—his spectacle took place in our back yard.
In April, I couldn’t wait to see whether the two starring crab apple trees would outdo themselves this year, filling every bough and twig with blossoms. Would the purple, white and pink phlox that my father planted along the borders of the yard and around the big oak tree deepen and brighten? Would the dominant pink phlox overtake the gene recessive purple ones?
My father’s flower show performed every day in May and extended for weeks into June, the colors gaining momentum until whites and purples and pinks flowed like rivulets through the front, side and backyards amassing to one thrilling river of colors and scents. By June, millions of petals flew from the trees and covered the lawn like confetti.
Inside my house, life wasn’t as pretty. Would I find evidence of rage like the time I walked in to find magazines, newspapers and letters scattered across the kitchen floor because my moody father didn’t like our kitchen countertops covered in paper piles? (We had a live-in black maid who kept our professionally decorated house dust-free, floors polished, silverware untarnished, counter tops clean, and dirty dinner dishes washed and put away.)
Would I learn that my younger brother had thrown something at his teacher? Or that my middle sister was grounded again because she hadn’t done her homework? Or that our maid of three months had absconded with her boyfriend, fed up with the life of cleaning homes of rich people? ( Maids came and left our house about once every six to twelve months.)
On the upside, I spent many evenings after dinner singing around the Chickering upright piano with Mom and my sister, Lynne. Mom could play anything: Beethoven, Jazz, pop, Broadway. She was born with perfect pitch and large, piano hands.
The antique lamps next to the couch and the piano’s reading spotlight created a glow in the living room at night, like a well-tuned theater set. The living room was dressed in French, country blue carpet, blue toile drapes that matched the blue toile upholstered couch. On this home stage, Lynne and I sang harmonies, our voices gaining strength and vibrancy with each refrain.
Tonight, tonight, The world is wild and bright
Shooting sparks into space
“We should start a traveling singing group, like the Trapp family,” Mom said, her fingers deftly moving up and down the keyboard, her foot tapping the pedals, her shoulders leaning into the rhythms.
In such moments, I believed my house would be like this forever: full of music and flowers, polished, the envy of others.
Not to be.
During my high school years, my father lost his footing in the family shoe business, following a series of events that, in the end, he couldn’t control. Ultimately, a massive dock strike in 1970 did him in; his entire inventory of shoes for the year trapped on ships. He might as well have tossed those leather-soled wingtips into the harbor like the tea in Boston’s infamous tax rebellion.
My parents put the Tudor up for sale to avoid bankruptcy. They withdrew their membership from the country club.
With my two older sisters already out of the house, my younger brother and I heard my father groaning in the morning, saw his face twisted with disbelief as he headed out the kitchen door each day to watch his business—his unsinkable Titanic—careening to the bottom of the sea.
I no longer lived in the house when Mom and Dad moved with my brother into a plain, narrow townhouse with thin walls in a less toney neighborhood. The Tudor sold in 1971, in a down market for less than $100,00. Today (despite the current real estate fiasco) it is worth close to a million dollars. The double loss of house and business plunged my father into thoughts of suicide and a decade long depression, my mother into an emotional deep-freeze.
I plunged, too, having fled to a grim boarding house to escape the pain. Decades later, I'm still searching for my true home.
What about you?