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?
Jess, This needs to be a book. It's popping with emotion and a story that's both unique and universal. I absolutely loved this post. All of them!ReplyDelete
Agreed -- as the blog unfolds, it's interesting to see the emotional thread that runs through all the posts; it's not hard at all to imagine a book emerging from this!ReplyDelete
Definitely a story here that resonates with so many of us! I love the motifs that run through this post (all the way back to the Biblical lost garden imagery).ReplyDelete
Lipark--Woah--thank you! I'm thinking about a book here. Glad you liked this post. I was scared to write it. xo-JessicaReplyDelete
Many Thanks! Your perspective means a lot. Yeh--the emotional threads, that's what it's about.
I cannot imagine losing my childhood home- only because my parents have resolutely sworn to remain in that home until they are carried out - but in my trips back home, I am aware of the slow decay and weariness hiding in the old pipes and plaster walls that seem to echo my parents advancement into their eighties and that saddens me. My parents' LP's are stacked in cases on the floor. I still hear the music. In one corner of the den where our upright piano once stood,the oak floor seems to have sighed when that weight was lifted and the piano moved some 15 years back. Now it sits in my home in Vermont, still loved but rarely played. Entering through the back kitchen door nothing has changed in that kitchen from the time I ate Hostess cupcakes(my Mom was not a cook) and pink articicial everything Snowballs. My parents still radiate their warmth and compassion and engaging brilliance that was a magnet to all my friends growing up and continues to be contagious, drawing everyone who enters my childhood home into an engaging circle. And while they are oblivious to the signs of aging around them, the house whispers to me. It is trying to hold up- but I am helpless to watch it.ReplyDelete
Glad it's resonating. I've often wondered how many of us are walking around dreaming unconsciously of the lost garden? I didn't think of it this way until you put it like that. Thanks.
What a powerful childhood experience that continues in your life today. You have what I once thought I would have, too, but things changed. Change happens anyway, whether we try to hold on. I love the image of everything pink--those horridly sweet snowballs. I can feel my teeth rotting just thinking about them! Thanks for stopping by.
I can understand why this was hard to write, Jessica. It's so deeply felt--Your family obviously lived life with great passion.ReplyDelete
The longest my family ever lived in one house was four years, when I was in high school. Before that, with a one-year exception, we always lived in apartments. My parents have always strived for better homes, better neighborhoods, wanting newer, newer, newer. Now they're in a rather grand house that is as pristine as something in a home show. I think they're finally happy. It's not my approach to homemaking, but I'm happy for them.
Home is that elemental place, that place that pulls us all the time. We ache for it, yearn for it, as we feel the awful pull for the womb, I guess. It's that deep and powerful.ReplyDelete
Maybe it's childhood we want, all over again. A second chance at those breezy, echoing rooms, the long hallways, the sunlit walls on summer nights when life was better and simpler, we like to think. It wasn't, of course.
Jessica's Dad lost his business, swept papers from the counters to the kitchen floor. Maids fled, she was exiled from Eden to a rooming house. Maybe that's why, in our imaginations, we so long for a return to Jessica's childhood home, to Ginny Hyde's house.
I agree that this needs to be a book. It's so grippingly written, so full of character--and I was mesmerized and wanted to keep reading. This is a book, Jessica--and what a book!ReplyDelete
Yep. My family is full of passion. Nice way of putting it!
Again, what you grew up with is so different than my experience. You won't believe this but I used to feel bad for kids who moved a lot. I thought: it must be hard to make new friends, and no fun to start at a new school. I didn't have to do that until later.
Believe me, the idea has been simmering in me for a while now. Thank you so much for stopping by!
Superficially, my childhood home couldn't have been more different, but the yearning, the volatile emotions, the dreams that went on inside the house--they were the same.ReplyDelete
This stunning piece brought so much up for me. I'm dying to read more.
Jessica, I love the resonance (and dissonance) between those brilliant petals outside, and the confetti of mail on the kitchen floor...and the way the family's distress is reflected in the housekeepers who refuse to stay long. The family business sinking, literally and metaphorically, and all the while those flowers blooming away like mad...it's such rich memoir material.ReplyDelete
I know what you mean by superficially. I fear that having maids and living in an upscale neighborhood can disguise what's going on inside those pretty walls. Glad you see that.
Thanks so much.
Thanks so much. Yeh. It's something the way that garden bloomed "madly". I didn't realize the connection between the confetti and mail until I wrote it. Funny how that is.
I'm thrilled to finally see a picture of 14 Scarsdale Road. Just as I imagined it--private, proud, and strong enough to keep the secrets from leaking out. Jessica, you know how I feel about this story - it will make a powerful book with the Tudor itself being one of the greatest characters.ReplyDelete
Love this post.
Once again, I am deeply moved in my soul by your writing. This most definitely needs to become a book.ReplyDelete
How physically different our childhood homes were. Yet we had much in common. The unspoken still haunts me today; the shame and sadness still permeates my being. Help me by writing your book.
What you said about the house as a character got under my skin.
Of course--you and your novel Townhouse. You would know!!!
I would love to help you by writing a book! Thank you so much for your words. The unspoken still haunts---absolutely.
I lost my childhood house as well. I grew up on 52 acres of pristine wooded land with a stream running through it. My father built our contemporary home, and we ate breakfast on our sun deck many summer mornings. Our outdoor audience was hundreds of gem-colored Morning Glories across the meadow in the back yard.ReplyDelete
Our house was unusual for the 60's - stone foundation and redwood siding with a deck that spanned the length of the house. I recall on windy nights, the wood creaked and my dad worried that it would all just blow away.
We did not sing along to my mother's piano playing, but I remember asking her to play when we were in bed at night. She played classical and tunes like "Bewitched, bothered and bewildered"'; There was something about her playing that comforted us off to dreamland.
Since this is not my blog, I will not go on too long, My parents divorced when I was 19; Mom sold the house and moved away; Dad built a new home on an adjacent piece of land. It felt as if a rug had been yanked from under me. I learned to keep my sense of home within me wherever I live.
My heart goes out to you. I'm sorry about the divorce and that horrible feeling that life has pulled itself from under you. And I don't mind if you go on too long. That's what this blog is about: telling our stories. Interesting about your dad's worries. Seems he sensed that his marriage didn't have the stability he'd hoped for. Thanks so much for stopping by.
This comment has been removed by the author.ReplyDelete
This blog is about such great, important, sensitive stuff, Jessica. It touches us all, and it touches us all in different ways.ReplyDelete
Me, I'm reminded (of course) of the house I grew up in—a little square box that my parents bought the year before I was born. This was fifty-five years ago now. My father, who was the soul of reason during my childhood, has now reached the point where his memories of that house are totally irrational—almost pure fantasy.
A few weeks ago, down in Florida where he and my mother have lived since the late seventies, he told me that when he bought the house the prior owner told him that it would need a new roof within a couple of years. Dad went on to explain that on the contrary, the existing roof was so exceptional that not only did he never replace it—it has never been replaced to this very day. Never mind that he moved out thirty years ago. Never mind that he hasn't even been back for a drive through the old neighborhood in at least ten years. I didn't set him straight. Why take away that fairy tale?
Thanks for stopping by and for your kind words. Indeed, I also believe that this subject touches us all, and in different ways. Love your story about your father and his box. I think you said it right: it's about a fantasy, which is true for most of us--what we project onto our homes past, present and future, including the ones we would like to live in but likely never will.
Can't believe that roof. What's it made of? Kryptonite?
Poignant, and book-worthy for sure.ReplyDelete
Losing a family home...not until I became a parent myself did I truly understand what kept my parents up late at night during times of financial stress. A home is far more than a roof and walls. My own home is not exceptional, except that my children are happy and secure here: they love their rooms, their yard. That makes it precious.
I suppose I should be zen and not care about the form my shelter takes as long as I have some, and I suppose I should pass that attitude to my children. Well. That would be nice, but it isn't so.
Your home is exceptional to have all that you have. Happy and secure? What more can a child or parent ask for?
The zen part--that's another challenge--feeling good about where you are this very moment.
Thanks for stopping by!
I thought about this one all afternoon and realized just now as I came back to it that the most striking "true home" story has to do with my father, who spent the last year of his life in his bed in the house he and my mom have lived in for the past 10 or so years. He had Hospice coming in every day to assist, and it was a relief of his biggest fear - he didn't want to end up in a nursing home.ReplyDelete
The last six months of his life he came to believe that he was in "the first house I built for your mother." I came to visit one night and his eyes lit up with excitement as he told me he'd been shocked when my brother had moved him into a wheelchair that week (a rare treat at that point as he was so weak) and rolled him through the house.
"Why didn't you tell me we were in that first house?" he kept asking me. "I didn't know that's where I was!"
I asked if he was happy to be back in that first house and he glowed. "Yes, it was the first house I built."
And he had - built it beside his parents' house when he returned from the Korean War and married my mom. There must have been something special about that time of his life, coming home, getting married, being close to his family - and that's where his heart and mind went when he was getting ready to leave us.
It meant so much to him to think he was back there - he seemed truly confused that we wouldn't have known to tell him before he discovered it - I just said we didn't always know the right things to say, but I was glad he was so happy. That seemed to satisfy him.
We spent a lot of time this past year with me sitting by his bed recounting tales of the places we'd lived over the years, and one particular road trip that he made with me from Texas to California to move me into a new apt. that I hadn't even found yet. We spent a week looking at places and debating which one suited me and my two cats best. We both knew when we found the right one.
The notion of home is so important - I think you've hit on something very deep and rich here with the blog, and I appreciate getting to write about some of these things here.
This is such a moving story. Absolutely beautiful. What I love is that the home was in his mind, his heart--his soul--and he had found it!Thank you so much for sharing this. What a journey.
this a very brave, honest and evocative piece of writing. I agree with Sue (LitPark) that there's a book there, but only if you want it to be, of course.ReplyDelete
my sister lives in my childhood home-- a far more modest one than yours although I knew kids who lived in those-- and it's the house in my dreams, for better or worse.
glad to have 'met' you!
Thank you for visiting and reading. I think the size and appearance of a house can be deceiving. I'm going to write about that in a future post. It intrigues me to hear about someone living in a childhood home into their adulthood and beyond. Not a common experience anymore.
Nice to meet you, too!
I am in the middle of a similiar situation. I am about to have my family home of 54 years foreclosed on. My parents built a home combining their 2 childhood homes and i went on to live in my original family home with my family. Now I seem to have to choose between the 2 homes. The latter one that they built has more family history, the victorian that my Dad grew up in (one of my grandmother's) combined with the log house my Mom was born in (my other grandparents'). Both parents are deceased ow and I am unemployed. Facing foreclosure on both. I am devastated. On her dying bed, my Mom was saying "don't lose the house" but what am I to do?ReplyDelete
Oh,Mks--I'm so sorry to hear this. Can you talk to the bank? See if you can get other family members or friends to help? Research all possibilities. I don't want you to loose this.ReplyDelete
Thanks for your concern. I am an only child so no family members to speak of. I have one son but I have been supporting his family, for the most part, so no help there. I am in the process of trying to work out something with the bank. Just so much red tape, but if it works out it will surely be worth it! Believe me, I am leaving no stone unturned.ReplyDelete
My Dad had cut down a tree that my Mom had a tire swing in when she was small and made the flooring, so I literally walk on the tree that she swang from 80 years ago. The house is full of antiques from both sets of grandparents and I am in the process of trying to sell some to raise cash but not much buying going on right now with the economy in a slump. Scouring for a job daily and no bites there, as yet. Please keep me in your prayers.
MKS-you are absolutely in my prayers.ReplyDelete
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