This essay was published in Brain, Child Magazine’s November 2015 issue.
1. We moved into the house where I grew up the summer I turned five. It was an English Tudor built in 1924 in the northern suburbs of Detroit, and my parents had bought it from the estate of its original owner, a widower who had allowed it to fall into a state of severe disrepair during his last years there.
I didn’t then understand why my parents were so excited about this looming, dark place with its dirty peeling walls, piles of broken glass blanketed under thick layers of dust, cobwebs everywhere, and a horrible pea green kitchen. “For heaven’s sake, don’t touch anything,” my mother had said, throwing open the back kitchen door. “You girls go outside to play.” There my older sister Leslie and I discovered a magnificent backyard with sprawling lawns shaded by towering spruce trees, a fruit orchard, and an abandoned chicken coop. That summer before we moved in, my father spent evenings and weekends working alongside a group of workmen who somehow got everything fixed and cleaned up. When we finally did move in, one of the painters who lingered to touch things up told Leslie and me that he had found a dead alligator in the fruit cellar. For years I pictured this as the former owner’s dead pet, a hideous dark green creature about four feet long, with a full set of protruding teeth. It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s browsing in a New Orleans Voo Doo shop staring at a pile of small crocodile skeletons that it dawned on me that the alligator in our basement was just a cheap souvenir.
2. Leslie and I shared a bedroom with matching twin beds that we jumped on like crazy to “Whipped Cream and Other Delights” by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass until our mother shouted, “Stop that!” from somewhere downstairs, not because she was afraid that we might hurt ourselves, but because she didn’t want us to ruin the box springs.
At night, after we were supposed to be asleep, we sent our baby dolls back and forth to each other in a shoebox we had rigged with kite string between our bedposts. My doll was a gift from my grandmother, given to me the day my mother went to the hospital to deliver my younger brother Stephen. I was two and a half. It was March and I named the doll Jingle Bells and washed her hair in a bowl of 7-Up causing some sort of chemical burn that made her acrylic hair stand straight up on end like a dish brush. “What on earth happened to Jingle Bells hair?” my mother had asked. “She was in a big wind.” I said.
3. Our house didn’t have a playroom or family room, so we spent a lot of time in our basement. There were almost as many rooms down there as there were in the rest of the house. It was always the perfect temperature — cool in summer and warm in winter.
Other than the creepy fruit cellar and the occasional run in with a large spider or small mouse, it was a good place to play. On rainy days we built elaborate forts with old sheets or dressed up in costumes from a large trunk that had belonged to our great grandmother. She had abandoned our mom’s mother when she was ten to join the San Francisco Opera Company as its first soprano. “She just up and left in the middle of the night,” said my mother. “She might as well have run off to join the circus.” But somehow we had ended up with her things—heavily brocaded floor length dresses shimmering with iridescent threads, flowing ostrich feather boas, luxurious fur muffs and mink stoles with scrunched up faces at one end and tiny wrinkled feet with claws at the other—and they were wonderful!
4. As we got older, our mother fell into the habit of communicating her grievances with us by leaving long handwritten notes taped to our door, the bathroom mirror, or on one of our beds. She would work herself into a slow boil over some minor infraction while we were at school and sit down with a sheet of loose leaf paper and really let us have it.
These notes often started something like this: “Girls, Your room is SHAMEFUL! It is disgusting to me.” She always included a lengthy and detailed list of every last thing she had been doing to ensure that ours was a privileged life. Sometimes we would take the note down, go into our room and disintegrate into laughter, poring through it line by line, reading it aloud to each other until we had exhausted ourselves in amusement. Other times we left the note taped to the door untouched and pretended we hadn’t bothered to read it, a strategy that proved equally effective in exasperating her to no end.
5. Leslie and I once enraged my mother to the point that she threw a salad at us. Actually, she threw the salad at Leslie, but that’s only because I had already been instructed to go to my room. I was on my way up the stairs with a perfect view through the open door into the kitchen to see the glob of Waldorf salad rocket by Leslie’s right ear, its neatly cut chunks of apple, celery, and walnuts all carefully folded together with two large scoops of Miracle Whip bonding the mass in flight until it went “splat” on the wall behind her. “No one wants to eat salad that you girls have been picking at with your dirty fingers,” said my mother as her first warning. What sent her over the edge, however, was not that we had picked at the salad with our fingers, but that we had picked out every last one of the exorbitantly priced seedless red grapes that were her favorite part of the recipe.
6. Towards the back of our property, we had a large unfenced vegetable garden with everything from hearty, mature asparagus plants to tomatoes and strawberries. We had no trouble with deer, but woodchucks were a big problem and my father lured them into Hav-A-Heart traps and later gassed them in a Hefty bag behind the garage.
On hot summer afternoons, Leslie and I helped ourselves to whatever was ripe, savoring the unwashed taste of sun on the warm treats we found. Long after we had moved on to something else we could hear my mother shouting from the garden, “Who ate all the snow peas and left their chewed up shells right on the walkway? You girls come here right now!” When we got back to the garden, we inevitably found our mother, standing with one hand on her hip the other holding a trowel, stripped down to nothing but her Maidenform bra, some cotton shorts and a pair of sneakers. “We were going to have those for dinner!” she said.
7. Both avid gardeners, my parents spent a great deal of time planning, plotting, planting and ordering around a whole posse of yard boys—all big, strong athletic high school kids —who lurked about the property pushing wheelbarrows, weeding, and spreading mulch on weekends between May and August each year. It was an enormous amount of work to maintain and it was expected that Leslie and I would help despite our lack of interest in anything except the high school boys. We were too young to capture their interest, so to see if we could get their attention, we offered to fix their lunches for our mother, who was astonished at our willingness to pitch in.
It was Leslie’s idea to shake a thick layer of black pepper onto their tunafish sandwiches and lace their Cokes with heaping tablespoons of salt. When they stopped for lunch, we watched them wolf down their food from a distance, waiting in giddy anticipation for one of them to gag or spit a mouthful of Coke into the grass. But they didn’t notice anything wrong with their food, and certainly didn’t notice the two of us.
8. At one point my grandfather brought over a rope ladder—an apparatus made of two thick pieces of rope connected by 20 or so wooden rungs. He and my father, who never once tried to climb it, tied it to the branch of a large red maple and secured it a huge stake they drove into the ground about 15 feet away. It was one of those impossible ladders that carnival people set up as a big profit center, charging five dollars for each futile attempt at reaching the top. It required perfect balance and pressure from both hands and feet applied at exactly the right time to avoid flipping over.
My mother was an expert at climbing it. After watching umpteen neighborhood kids flip over on their backs after reaching only the fourth rung, she would eventually emerge from the back door by the kitchen in her Bermuda shorts, penny loafers and knee socks, slamming the screen door behind her and shout, “Let me show you kids how it’s done.” Then she’d scramble right up to the top rung, dramatically twirl herself over and drop to the ground landing softly on her feet like gymnast or a trapeze artist.
9. My father always had a big project going. One of his early installations was a greenhouse he attached to the south side of the house built from a kit he had found in a catalog. It was connected to a winterized porch where he kept his marble topped liquor cabinet filled with single malt scotches and gin. In the summertime, the greenhouse was mostly empty, its potted plants all moved outdoors to various patios and decks. In the winter it was humid and earthy smelling, crammed full of fragrant gardenias, brilliant hibiscus and passion flowers, citrus trees laden with fruit, and one moribund bird of paradise plant that had belonged to my grandmother before she died. “This god damn thing takes up too much space,” my father said whenever faced with the prospect of moving it either indoors or out. “It’s nothing but a nuisance – it has never once bloomed.” But my mother insisted that we keep it despite its apparent deficiencies. “We can’t get rid of that, it belonged to my mother!” And then one day, exactly seven years after my grandmother’s death, without any forewarning, the plant produced not one, but seven brilliant orange and blue flowers, and it continued to blossom for years after.
10. On my sixth birthday, during my party with sparkly hats, favors and an extravagant scavenger hunt all carefully orchestrated by my mother, my brother Stephen who was three, climbed high into the huge white pine tree zig-zagging from branch to branch until he eventually fell out of it and thumped onto the thick bed of pine needles 20 feet below.
The fall knocked the wind out of him, during which time the party came to a gasping halt. There was no blood, but for the rest of the day, my mother could not stop talking about what kind of idiot would leave a garden hoe lying on the ground, its sharp point facing straight up less than a foot from where Stephen’s head had landed.
11. One summer when I was in my teens, my father surprised my mother by suggesting that she take my sister Leslie and me to Chicago for a girls’ weekend. “I’ve had my secretary arrange for you to stay at the Drake Hotel,” he said. “There’s a Manet show going on at the Art Institute and maybe you girls can do some back-to-school shopping.” The offer seemed suspicious, but wasn’t something any of us was about to refuse.
When we returned home we discovered that my father had installed a new balcony with French doors right off the side of my parents’ bedroom and my mother was enraged. Months before our girls weekend in Chicago, she thought she’d put an end to it. “I don’t want a balcony,” she had said. “I don’t want to sit out there in in my robe. You’re just going to make a huge mess.”
12. One of my father’s early projects was to convert the garage, a standalone structure oddly situated behind the house, into a guest house. He took me with him on scouting missions to find wood siding and hand cut beams from dilapidated barns way out in the countryside. He put radiant heating beneath the flagstone floors, installed a wood stove and set up a stereo system where we kids could play our awful rock music out of his ear shot. The Little House, as we called it, afforded us a level of freedom and privacy we probably didn’t deserve. One afternoon I was out there sprawled across the sofa blaring the radio when my mother burst through the side door with an armful of bed linens. “John McGoff is coming for dinner and to spend the night,” she said.
Mr. McGoff was my father’s most important client. So we unfolded the sofa bed and stretched the fitted sheet across the mattress. We spread the top flat sheet over it and as I began to tuck the bottom edge in my mother said, “No, not like that. Tuck in the top edge first. We’re going to short sheet the bed.”
13. Over the years, my family developed a summertime ritual. Every evening at dusk, just as we finished supper by the pool, we gathered at the edge of my mother’s perennial garden to watch her evening primroses bloom.
The plants themselves looked like nothing more than a roadside weed, but in my mother’s garden they were one of the main attractions. As soon as one of the buds began to twitch, my mother shouted, “Look, they’re starting!” as if we weren’t kneeling right there next her and were in danger of missing the show. It took less than a minute for each bud to unfurl itself into a simple yellow blossom. It was like watching a time-lapsed film, only this was in magical, marvelous, real time. And as soon as all the primroses had bloomed, my mother would look at whoever had lingered the longest and say, “It’s your night to do the dishes. I’m going take a swim.”
Several years after I was married and living Connecticut, my parents abruptly decided to sell the house and move to Wyoming. My last weekend there was spent sorting through things, deciding what to do with nearly 30 years of stuff. Before leaving for the last time, my mother helped me dig up one of her evening primroses and pack it in small paper lunch bag to take back to my pathetic, deer-ridden garden in Connecticut. I cried the whole way back on the plane, staring out the window as we flew east into the darkness. When we landed and I gathered my things, I discover that the evening primrose, knowing it was time, had bloomed in its bag.
For years I refused to even drive by my old house when I returned for High School Reunions, but after 20 years, I finally relented and allowed my friend Charlene to take me by. The place was crawling with construction vehicles and workman, so we decided to get out of the car and take a look around. The house had doubled in size, but the gardens, the grape arbor, the walkways, were virtually unchanged. We were greeted by the new owners who were eager to learn about the place’s history — I waited until one of their four children came up to mention the alligator in the basement.