Our house was the finest house in town, on the highest point of rocks, with the widest view of Boston and the islands and the open sea. It was a summer house, bought and enlarged and landscaped before the Income Tax, before World War I. It was white clapboard, with curved porches all around and big windows looking out on three sides at the harbor and the sea. My grandparents lived in it, and all around, among maples, elms and chestnuts and along the beaches, stood other houses full of uncles, aunts and cousins. It belonged to us, the house, the view. We deserved it, because our ancestors had signed the Mayflower Compact, fought in the Revolution and the War of 1812, owned factories and banks, traveled to the Orient, and prospered. But the Depression and World War II had intervened, and it wasn’t clear how a new generation would be fed and clothed and educated. I was the oldest of the cousins. My parents made over the garage to live in year round and put me in public school.
“We’ll find out how the other half lives,” my mother said.
“We are the other half,” said my father.
As soon as I opened my mouth, I was in trouble.
“You’re rich,” the school kids said. Even Ruthie and Rita, the cheerful twins. “I’m the fat one,” Rita said. “Ruthie’s the smart one. You’re rich.”
“Ah too. Your grandmother lives in the big house on the point. Your grandfather is a doctor.”
“You’re a snawb,” said Ruthie, the word hardly recognizable in her pronunciation. Certain vowels separated New Englanders as fatally as amino acids map DNA. After school the bad boys, egged on by surly George Lamond, taunted me and plucked at the puckers in the smocked yoke of my green Polly Flinders dress. When I ducked and whined, they pushed me into the gutter. My books splashed in the yellow leaves.
I limped home to the big house, where Grandfather lay on his side in a three-piece suit, inking the Turkey carpet. Red ink, blue ink, green, where the color had worn out. A maid opened the gate-leg table and brought in the tray, unfurling a smell of smoked black China tea and lemon. Talk of Symphony, of the Waltz Evenings, of Trinity Church went on to the sound of coin silver spoons scraping teacups, the snap of sugar cookies. At that time of year, the Grands were moving back to town for winter. Red vans appeared along the gray stone wall with Paine & Woodfin lettered in gold, bright as maple leaves. Brass candlesticks and pewter porringers were packed in boxes, the blue plush sofa carried out between men in overalls, wicker chairs and painted tables shrouded against dust, pushed to the middle of the rooms. Windows, white mullions still smelling of fresh air, were boarded up, french doors coffined in plywood.
We settled in for winter, my parents and my sister and I, in the house that used to be the garage. The gardener, who lived next door and tended the greenhouse with the lilies and chickens, stoked the furnace, scraping the shovel across the cellar with the shiny knots of coal. I kept him company, watching the white flames inside the furnace door. I handed sticks to my father when he built wood fires on the hearth upstairs. I biked to school across the arctic beach, thawing my fingers in the water fountain, pledging allegiance to the flag, “one nation with liberty and justice for all.” Sharon Walsh was nice, though her house was cramped and smelled. Basil Robinson had too many sisters and a wan Catholic mother, but he goaded me to be good at math. Girls played separately from boys on the asphalt playground, but when feisty Miss Gillespie got engaged, we all put in quarters and gave her a teacup, even after she broke the yardstick across Sharon’s desk.
“Don’t say ‘yahdstick’,” said my mother.
The valentines I got at school didn’t count. I would grow up to be one of the willowy, tall women who lounged along the summer beaches all around the point. Intelligent and chatty, they put down their Book-of-the-Month to unwrap a sandwich for a child. They pushed their curls into bathing caps and stood waist deep in cold salt water, talking, or they spent the afternoon at the Club, a musty barn with a couple of tennis courts and a salt pool in the rocks. No townies and no Catholics. Catholics didn’t think for themselves. They thought what the Pope told them. As for townies, they had no class, education or breeding. When the men came home from offices in Boston, the women got supper started, brushed their hair out, changed into pastel linens that showed off their tans, and had a drink.
Nobody knew what the men did in Boston, but everybody knew who had the best tennis serves and who had which boats. On the other hand, it was obvious what the lobstermen did. You heard them powering out past the point at dawn and easing back to the Wharf around three or four o’clock, pegging claws in huge rubber gloves, offloading stinking bait. At school, we brought a dime each week for Travel Club, and a bus took us to watch men work machines that squeezed out bread, or stapled upholstery into car doors, or fried potato chips. When our car broke down, Ruthie and Rita’s father fixed it, his name embroidered in red on gray striped overalls. When a house nearby caught fire, and the iron bathtubs plunged red hot through the black, flaming timbers, Sharon’s father came with the trucks, wrestling the canvas hoses, swelling like boa constrictors, and put it out.
In the newspaper, people climbed Mt. Everest. They explored the Amazon. At
the Library, I was not allowed to read grownup books, but there were biographies for children, and anyway there were plenty of books at the big house, shelf after shelf bound in leather. I worked my way through Austen, Kipling, Dickens, cutting pages with the ivory letter opener. I could have been a midshipman on a frigate. I could be a mathematician like Nathaniel Bowditch and sail around the world. I could live in India. I could discover a new element, like Madame Curie.
“I could be Sergeant Preston of the Yukon,” I told my mother. “I could rescue people in the Alps.”
“Your job,” my mother said, “is to hold the ladder for your husband.”
Deep in winter I tramped the snow garden, meeting only my own tracks, sole
proprietor of the blank white terrace, the fishpond buried under thick meringue, the scoured porches in the fierce winter light. Above the Prussian blue aching cold waves, beside the low, egg-yolk sun, the firm finger of the lighthouse pointed the horizon.
“I want to be the Lone Ranger,” I told my mother.
I was eleven. I was taken out of public school and sent to Miss Winsor’s. Rescued. Compromised.
Grandmother clipped coupons once a month at a bank in Boston, in a vault with a silver door thick as a refrigerator, and her chauffeur drove her home with more of the money there was less of every year. She was paying for school for me. My father was a civil engineer, but his job didn’t make much money. My parents borrowed, when things got tight, from the little savings accounts where my sister and I put our Christmas cash, and from our piggy banks in emergencies. But the house was always there, foursquare, built by ships’ carpenters. Every summer it came to life again. The cook baked and roasted, the gardener staked delphiniums, the chauffeur drove to the train station. Cousins played badminton on the lawn. A retriever chased a stray croquet ball. At supper, a breeze blew through the dining room, and the leaning candle flames were reflected in the beeswaxed mahogany and cobalt goblets. The maids passed vegetables in silver dishes, Grandfather carved the lamb.
The house and its rituals shaped our lives. Except for Uncle Johnny.
Johnny was usually late to dinner. He broke lawnmowers running over fence and stone, left cushions soaking in the rain. He walked toddlers up his legs, upended them, sat them on his huge palm, dangled them over railings, thrilled them to pieces. He went to ball games, and even frequented bars.
“Why doesn’t your brother grow up?” my father said.
“If only he would find himself,” said my mother.
“He never should have lost himself in the first place.”
“I blame that fortune seeker he married.”
One summer night Johnny roused us all out of bed with whiskey breath, threw sweaters at the grownups, lifejackets at the kids, and rowed us over the dark liquid harbor to his ancient sloop, while the house on the rocks cast shadows of the phosphorescent stars. Johnny gathered the tiller under his armpit and straddled the cockpit, while we sliced the black ripples under sail. His wife hugged her knees with shining eyes. She was freckled, unfortunately, and from Texas. Not our kind of place. And called Fran. Not our kind of name. The house on the point, the one that belonged to us, breathed honeysuckle out over the water.
The next week, Johnny’s boat sank on the mooring. He had been careless about the seacocks.
“What do you expect from a salesman?” my father said.
“Dad never should have pushed to get him into Harvard,” said my mother. “He’s never made a go of anything.”
One of the lobstermen, Ruthie and Rita’s uncle, came over from the Wharf in yellow coveralls and winched the boat up from the bottom, full of oily salt water, stinking. I helped Johnny corral the floating life preservers, ends of rope and crushed sou’westers, and we pumped and bailed and scrubbed away the slime.
Johnny was not the only disappointment. The towers of Boston multiplied year by year across the water as the Saltonstall and Lowell influence drained away and the city fell into the hands of the Italians and the Irish. Ordinary houses sprang up in town, even on the point. A cousin married a Democrat and voted for Adlai Stevenson. A Red Sox player was accused of rape. A girl on Ocean Street had a baby and smothered it in a trunk. We didn’t discuss such things. The things discussed were which grocers carried Pepperidge Farm bread and where you got Harris Tweed suits, now that Best & Co. had gone out of business. But Dicky Vital, whose father was the undertaker, showed me where the embalming fluid was in their garage and promised to tell me someday where the bodies were.
How lucky we were not to be townies or maids. The maids lived in narrow rooms at the bottom of the big house, behind windows concealed with rambler roses. They ate in the kitchen or on a porch surrounded with lattice, to spare us the sight of them. They walked to the Catholic church on Sunday while we seated ourselves among Protestant wood and stone. On her day off, Celia, the cook, sunned her pink Irish skin between boulders at the rocky end of the beach or walked down by the Wharf with the cook from another family. She had no car, no other life than ours.
Nobody could have been kinder or more broad-minded, though, than we. Cousin Margie brought a Negro nursemaid from Richmond one summer, and instructed her not to swim with the children at the beach. Yet somehow, the nursemaid did go in the water and had to be apologized for, earnestly and with tears. We were horrified. This was even worse than we expected from the South. We comforted each other by mentioning our Abolitionist ancestors, sisters who had gone South after the Civil War to teach, but there was nothing we could do for the nursemaid, of course. There was never anything we could do.
I made friends with stones, lighthouses, sudden squalls, the gangs of seagulls that clamored after lobster boats for bait. I knew every boulder of the beach, rolled in the big northeast storms. I knew how far the tide came in, and where the sun set through the seasons of the year, behind the crooked tree, between the chimneys on the house of the recluse. After a hurricane whirled her away on a blinding comber and dropped her on the rocks, I hunted through the tidewrack for the remains of Johnny’s boat, finding only the splintered tiller. I explored the secret passage in the attic, a dry crawl behind insulation batting, and found albums, letters, scrapbooks. I found skeletons in the closets. In the eighteenth century, we had owned a slave called Jeremiah. In the nineteenth, our naval hero ancestor was said to have a touch of the tar brush. In the twentieth century, in the Depression, in disgrace for losing other people’s money, my father’s father had killed himself. My father went down with pneumonia in the aftermath, and then, as anyone could see, plunged into the role of lightweight in his wife’s family, in love with trivia, content to tattle on the uncle with the chauffeured Lincoln who took the long way through East Boston to get the cheap gas near the refineries. He kept his own mother at arm’s length, enduring her existence with a fund of irony, entertaining the table at the big house, the house that counted, the house because of which we all expected the real grandparents to leave money.
There were so many expenses. For the Club, waltz evenings, tennis rackets, cleaning ladies, skates and skis, the meat man. A round hole in the portrait of an ancestor from Bremerhaven, which I had shot accidentally with a bow and arrow, had to be repaired at great expense. A grand elm died and had to be cut down. My mother stopped ordering groceries on the phone, but it didn’t save her much because she saw things at the supermarket she hadn’t known she wanted. My sister and I mined the attic at the big house for party dresses, ski mitts, crutches, cummerbunds, opera glasses. When our mother took us shopping, we said we didn’t like the clothes because we knew she couldn’t afford them. I wore her old monogrammed cardigans, their grosgrain ribbons twisted and discolored. In April, our father bellowed despairingly over W2’s and 1040’s, scattering pencils and paper clips, scolding the dogs, digging his little finger into his ear.
Eighteen of the cousins were in private school, including me, and our grandparents were paying all the tuitions. They sold the place in town and winterized the house on the rocks. When the chauffeur retired, Grandmother drove to Symphony herself. Grandfather slopped paint around in the basement rather than get people who knew what they were doing. All the men had jobs, but nobody made the kind of money that had established the house, its expectations and its way of life. Nobody could do a thing about that.
Nobody could do anything about Johnny, either. His barn, littered with salesman’s samples, stank of Old Spice and Caron. The bathrooms smelled of pee, and so did the girls. Pee and perfume. There was a gloomy boy called Billy. The littlest child clung to you, touched you in the wrong places. Fran began telephoning Grandmother in the middle of the night, claiming she’d found lipsticks in the car, insisting there was another woman. No one believed her.
“Anyway,” my mother said, “what does she want her mother-in-law to do? Hold money over Johnny? Threaten to take the children out of school?”
“There’s never been a divorce in our family,” Grandmother said.
She tied on a black sleeping mask, a domino without eyes, but lay awake in her pink bedroom under the widow’s walk, hearing the clock at the foot of the stairs chime every quarter hour, denied the sleep ordinary women took for granted. She had already had a heart attack. My mother stormed up and down the living room.
“Fran entrapped Johnny into marriage. She’s a liar.”
Fran piled up enough evidence, though, that no one could be sure.
“If he did turn to another woman,” my father said, “who could blame him?”
“Or course he didn’t,” my mother said. “He had background.”
“Men do these things.”
“Nonsense. Fran is no better than she should be.”
At a school dance, I fell into a daze, shuffling cheek to cheek with a Social Register scion, steeped in the slush of love, stuck to this boy in a heat I could not have imagined, and when the dance was over, tottered back to the classroom building, stinking of degradation, clearly no better than I should be. After that, I only fell in love with second cousins. I lingered in the hedge, waiting for Joe, who cared only for football training, to pound by in the road. I made out with Fred on the blue sofa.
“What are you doing down there?” Grandmother called from the top of the stairs.
Unfortunately, it was true. We didn’t have what it took to go all the way, not until later, in New York, after we were not in love with each other any more.
To everyone’s surprise, Fran sued for peace. She had a stomach ulcer. The telephone calls would stop. She would bury the hatchet with Johnny, or at least live with him, and would speak to my mother and do something for me too, make me a cape, whatever style I liked. She knew how to sew. I made a cold trip with her to Fall River, to a shabby discount shop among crumbling mills and wooden three-deckers, and picked out a nubbly beige fabric, with red satin for the lining. Fran established herself in the living room of the big house to pin the pattern. She drank tea with an affected crook in her little finger, and didn’t thank the maid who brought it. She must have been a townie even in Texas.
“Billy wasn’t premature,” she told me, speaking of her son, my cousin. “That was only the official version. No, William forced his way into the romance unwanted”—here she raised her voice—“saddling me with an ignoramus, a retarded loser, spoiled rotten by a mother who thinks her shit don’t stink.” My shock, realizing she meant her husband and his mother, was incidental, as was my fear that Grandmother might overhear. Fran was timing this for Billy, who was just coming down the curved stairs. His warped face turned blue, and he fell sideways into an armchair, but not from shock. Obviously he had heard it all before.
I went away to college, as far away as possible. I got rid of my circle pins, Peter Pan collars, flats with daisies and tassels, and got a string of jobs typing dissertations, working checkout at a grocery store, cooking for a frat house in a frenzy of pot roast and mashed potatoes, frozen beans and pies from scratch, peeling my greasy clothes off afterward straight into a coin-op washing machine. After I graduated from college, I got a teaching job.
“It must be nice to have something coming in,” my mother said. “I hope it isn’t too hard to give up when you marry.”
“I’m not going to give it up.”
“When you have children, you’ll have to.”
“No, I won’t.”
“What will you do when they have chicken pox?”
My mother and I agreed to disagree.
In my faraway city, I found an ordinary house on a city street. It had no view and
not much garden. I parked in the street. I signed a lease. I worked and paid the bills. I changed my accent. Nobody knew where I came from, or cared. I went home for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and a couple of weeks in summer. Something drew me back, perhaps the ocean and the islands and the bright salt of October afternoons. “Maybe we can pay for part of your plane ticket,” my mother would say vaguely, no doubt feeling it was the thought that counted. Why didn’t I live in Boston anyway? Didn’t I want to see my old friends at the Club? “Why don’t you relax,” my father said when I had papers to mark on the weekend, “and find a handsome husband to support you?” No one was curious about my work except Grandfather, who wanted to know one evening at dinner whether I let my students chew gum. I told him I did. The kids I taught could hardly read. I had to pick my battles.
He threw down his napkin. “Thank God you don’t teach any children of mine,” he said, stalking out of the room.
I followed the news from home. Fran and Johnny divorced, and Johnny disappeared to the West Coast, where his disgrace would be less obvious. Grandmother had another heart attack. When I went back for her funeral, Grandfather had already given up fixing things. Fences leaned crooked on the terrace, the sea wall was caving in, downed trees piled up in the woods. He worried that his staff, reduced now to a cook and butler, would abandon him, helpless to make so much as a sandwich. My sister and I were ten minutes late one night for dinner, and the butler, who wanted to watch the Patriots game, slammed down the platter with the roast beef, spattering bloody juice across the linen, and tossed the carving set after it. After that, Grandfather always begged us to be on time, until he died one afternoon in a blue chair in the living room, waiting for tea.
We should have sold the house then. It was not an ordinary house. It was too big, and it was showing its age. It was white, with porches all around, and it had to be scraped and painted, clapboards, gutters, railings, everything. But ever since we could remember, it had belonged to us: the rambler roses along the gravel terraces, the porch columns framing triangle sailboats on the wind, the high views from the toilet seats of seaweed swirling on the rocks below. The house stood empty two years while my mother and uncles figured out how to keep it in the family. Vines ran riot among the rhododendrons, pine tree pollen settled to gray mold on the clapboards, spiders wove their ways across the windows. I made a darkroom of an upstairs bath and spent a summer washing photographs in the clawfoot tub. A neighbor’s band cut records in the hall. Cousins took each other to bed upstairs. My sister and I smoked dope in the dark living room where the leather bindings dried and flaked and the sea curled outside. “Please don’t,” my father said, “not here,” as though we were offering the final insult to the brass urn from Benares (now Varanasi), or the Indonesian puppets with fierce carved profiles that stood between ebony pigeons on the mantel.
At length, the uncles settled for shares in the property and helped repair the sea wall. My sister agreed to live in the former servants’ quarters and take over the garden. She put up with the gummy subfloor and scaling overhead pipes, the fumes from the indoor garage. Our parents moved in, writing each other greeting cards to celebrate, calling each other Sweetie again. It reanimated their romance to defy the inevitable. The view of the lighthouse between pine boughs was theirs, and the sweet, clear seawater of spring. They gave my sister a dishwasher as a down payment on a remodeled kitchen. It sat in a cardboard box while she made do with the old laundry tubs as a sink, got the septic tank pumped out, and mowed the lawn. The juicy smell of cut grass drifted in the windows. The Concord grapes ripened on the September rocks.
I flew home and pruned the apple trees, weeded the raspberries, sorted through
the unanswered notes, animal health records, magazines to be read someday, insurance policies, appeals from the Heart Foundation, and electric bills that settled on every horizontal surface in the kitchen, the pantry, the study, the five bathrooms. I found unpaid bills in the stacks of papers, threats to shut off the electricity or heat. When it got cold, my sister chipped in for heating oil, but it rained into her living room. A hole in her bathroom floor let in the damp. The insulation went bad in the attic and came apart on everything. I took a hundred empty cardboard boxes to the dump, including, to my mother’s horror, one that had her grandmother’s handwriting on it. I gave up on the cupboard in the sewing room, the gallon jar of buttons, scraps from clothes made sixty years ago, scores of plastic pumps from empty Windex bottles that still worked.
At Christmas, briefly, all was forgiven and restored. We shopped for fancy
cheeses, wine, a tall spruce, armfulls of lilies and delphiniums. The house glowed with electric candles shining from every window down the long, snowy street. We piled presents under the tree, its colored lights multiplied to infinity in the diamond windowpanes. The old retriever gave us a look and lifted his leg on the tree.
Then the scandals began. A long time ago, my sister now remembered, Grandfather took her into a closet and showed her his penis. She was in earnest, so we tried to believe her. Then there was more, mostly innuendo, and when no one was quite credible or quite safe, my sister whispered something Fran had told her. Grandfather insisted on examining her before she married Johnny. Made her take off her clothes.
“He was a doctor, after all,” I said.
“No. To see if she really was pregnant, whether Johnny had to marry her. She said he touched her. You know where.”
“He would have had to.”
“More than that, Fran said.”
“And you believed her?”
“Just because we don’t remember doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It might have happened to me too. Or you. It probably did.”
After that, there was no knowing what to believe.
The squares of linoleum curled up in the kitchen. The cook, of course, was gone. The old wastebasket, corroded, the wrong red, remained. Two dozen sets of dinner plates sat on the pantry shelves in case of parties, and there were parties once or twice a year. People came. The porches were still there, the wind, the pines. The ambiance could be traded for hard goods, bread and wine, the occasional baked ham. In winter, the house was kept cold to save heating oil. Expensive insulating underwear crammed the upstairs drawers. We huddled around a space heater at the kitchen table, booby-trapped with lists from my sister’s therapist. You will not touch or refer to any of my body parts. What do you like about me, appreciate? What do you not appreciate?
Our father couldn’t see to drive. In the car, he gave directions to our mother, who didn’t know where she was going, but was often wrong. In hot weather, he sat in red bikini underwear at a card table with a patrician view of the harbor, gathering the proof-of-sale ends of cough syrup boxes to claim on Medicare.
“How was the therapist?” I asked.
“He wears Italian shoes,” my father said. “What else do we need to know?”
Our mother often lay down in the afternoons. She could smell the China tea that used to be served at five o’clock, with someone to draw the curtains around the warm glow of the fire. She gave orders to my sister. She trailed through the rooms in housecoats, leaving hairbrushes in bookcases. She fell into the rhododendrons from the icy roof, having only meant to sweep the gutter, to spare our father, now old and infirm, from struggling through all the tasks it once took a whole staff of servants to accomplish. Landing in the deep sponge of leaves and snow, she was miraculously unhurt. My sister insisted that she hurled herself deliberately from the roof, for the attention.
Our father died, pointing a wavering finger from his narrow bed to the lighthouse. After that, my sister and mother rarely met. The house was large, and neither could venture to cross such a quantity of space and feeling. On my trips home, I took our mother to appointments, followed up the phone numbers she penciled on napkin scraps, threw out expired milk and eggs and cottage cheese, and got rid of the crumpled wrapping paper she’d saved, thinking she would iron it.
We heard that Fran had cancer. She’d had half her stomach cut out.
“Poor thing,” said our mother vaguely. “She never had a chance.”
I returned to my ordinary life, and our mother drove to the liquor store, bought six half gallons of gin, and passed out at the head of the stairs. My sister screamed at her. Not being an ordinary woman, of course, our mother couldn’t be an alcoholic. She needed new doctors to explain the situation. She needed us to disable the garage door. She needed a social worker, and a companion who drove off the edge of the driveway into the flowerbeds, maddening my sister. The last dog died, and skunks moved in under the bathroom floor. Their stink was everywhere, but my sister refused to call an exterminator. At least we could be kind to skunks.
When we abandoned the house, it was someone else’s fault. It was our mother’s fault because she put the plug-in kettle on the electric burner and the house filled with plastic smoke. It was my fault because I was manic, a control freak who couldn’t wait to clear out the cupboards and get rid of all the stuff. It was my sister’s fault because she hated our mother and couldn’t stop being mean to her. It might have been the guilt for having lost in the shuffle our great-grandmother’s diamond watch and our forebears’ original signed commissions in the Continental Army. Definitely, it was because the money had run out. We couldn’t say no one warned us. Our house was built on sand and perishable all along. Our extraordinary walls and gardens, like our ordinary flesh and bones, were doomed to dust.
We sold the house and found our mother an apartment in assisted living. My sister got a mortgage on an ordinary house. We distributed the furniture and silver. We took old paint cans to the hazardous waste site. We gave away goblets and linens, books and tools and vases, drove Volvo loads of dishes, lamps and toys to the Goodwill. We carted a full-length portrait of an ancestor five hundred miles to a cousin clueless enough to want it. Among the relatives, nostalgia was the only link. There used to be delphiniums in the garden. There were bonfires on the beach. Do you remember Celia’s sugar cookies?
The attic defeated us. If this had been an ordinary house, there would have been an end to the hand-knit woolen socks, the antique cameras, ancient fishing creels, peau de soie wedding dresses, steamer trunks, crutches, 78 records, National Geographics, dolls and shoes and bedframes, lamps and tinsel, muffs and baskets, family photographs and potty chairs and scrapbooks flecked with bits of the decaying insulation that flaked down on everything, poisonous with formaldehyde and tar. But there was no end, and so we left it to the junk man, and we left the wheeling gulls, the four winds and the stars, the sacred water, the three-bundled pine needles dropping on the porch steps in the sun. Those things had never belonged to us. We saw that now. It was we who belonged to them.