Thursday, January 16, 2014

Just a Place

I grew up in a small town in New York, not far north of the city. It’s very picturesque, I guess, with amazing views of the Hudson River, Palisades, and Croton Point as it bifurcates the water. I have vivid memories of waking up in the middle of the night to a huge, heavy moon, hanging like a bright globe over the world.

The town isn’t really that interesting, although sometimes its history is. That’s all tainted for me by being a place I started hating in Middle School and have never really been able to reconcile since. My parents still live there, in the house I grew up in, although I don’t really know for how much longer. Neither do they.

Growing up, I was lucky enough to have all my grandparents around. My dad’s folks were also reasonably well off and owned a second house on the coast of Maine. I spent most every summer that I can remember there.

It was a small house, pre Civil War era. It had none of the artifice of later Victorian style houses, like my parents place with its tower that overlooks the river.  It was plain white, a dusty blue trim around the spare windows, distinctly house shaped, with two floors, a pleasantly, old mold smelling cellar, and a small attic. There was a fireplace in the rarely used sitting room, a small black and white TV in my grandmother’s old bedroom, and the last time I was there in 2006, the phone was still rotary. My grandparents had been dead several years but the house was mostly the same. I could still smell them, hear their voices in the kitchen or having afternoon tea.

There were two bathrooms, only one of which had a bathtub. The shower was low even for me, at five one. The spray was fine but a little painful, the wallpaper was cracking in many spots, and you had to lay a towel down on the floor before getting in because the spray caused the curtain to flap around so much you’d end up with a mini lake otherwise. My room was in the back, facing the yard. It had small purple flowered wallpaper that looked straight out of a Little House on the Prairie dress. The bed was a small twin and creaked excruciatingly. There was a small dresser that smelled rather strongly of mothballs.

In many ways, it was utterly unremarkable.

Except for the small, hidden stairway that led from my room to the back of the kitchen. I could get down to breakfast (often pancakes made with sour milk, so they were thin and crunchy) in less than 10 seconds. I could also get out of the house without anyone seeing me at all unless they were in the kitchen. I could hear everything that was said downstairs, late at night, when the grownups sat around drinking. I could sneakily sit at the top of the stairs and watch my grandmother bustling around.

From the outside, it was just a plain house on a street of larger, more ornate, sprawling, gentrified houses. It stood like a tiny throwback to a bygone time, without pretention or artifice.

In some ways I think it is my platonic ideal of a house. Small, defiantly quaint, overshadowed by trees, with a small stream running alongside and a pear tree in the backyard. Worn, uneven stone steps led up to the crooked back door. Several criss crossing clotheslines hung from the nearby barn. We always dried out clothes in the fresh air.

Maine summers on the coast are generally not very warm, maybe getting into the 70’s. The ocean breezes keep everything mild, even in the bright sun.  We very rarely went swimming, the North Atlantic is still frigid that time of year, and most beaches are too rocky to really be a lounging spot.

Beyond the mouth of the harbor there is a small island with a lighthouse. You have to climb up a steep stair to get to the actual island from the landing beach. There’s a thick forest around it, and a swing on a tree that goes to the edge of a cliff.  You can see waves crashing below. The island is only a mile or two around, you can walk it in less than an hour. But the forest looks deep and dark, until it abruptly ends, and becomes a field of flowers. I always think of them as poppies, but they probably aren’t.

I often dreamt of that island, of secrets and buried treasure. I wondered if the lighthouse was haunted and if it was scary to live beneath it in a storm.

When I was teenager I learned how to sail over two summers, two of the worst years of my life. The summers themselves were equally difficult. Socially I was a pariah at home, and though I made friends in the summer, they were fleeting relationships based on proximity.

My favorite times were getting to wander around by myself through town, up towards the mountain, or down at the harbor. It was a less than 5 minute walk down a short, steep hill to where the boats all gathered, and I loved the smell of salt water and pine tress mixing together.

Learning to sail might be one of the whitest hobbies known to man, but I loved it. It was quiet and peaceful. Sometimes seals would swim by the boats. If you hit the wind right you could lift off the water and glide, like flying. My grandfather even let me steer his boat, named after me, into harbor when a fog rolled in heavy and fast. I had to use the compass, visibility was dim. I was very proud of myself, and touched that he had trusted me. He was usually protective, my uncle, his son, had died on their previous boat.

My memories of those summers are emotionally complicated. Sometimes they are the simple joys of young childhood: small family cookouts, the sharp sip of beer that I didn’t like the taste of but wanted anyway because it made me feel more grownup. The taste of fresh lobster with salty butter. The warm scent of bacon. The fizziness of the root beer we always had on the boat.

Later, it reminded me of painful fights with my grandmother who, as an alcoholic, became increasingly suspicious and hostile. Having to go find my brother after he ran away one night, though I knew he’d be down at the docks. Sitting in my little room at thirteen, still mostly a child, but dealing with the recent death of my mother’s father, the discovery that my mother had a problem with alcohol due mainly to grief, a year spent despised by classmates, and the dawning realization that my family was deeply troubled. Alcoholism was not something I really understood yet, but in the next few years it would cast a long shadow that, to this day, has shaped a great deal of my life.

After that summer I was never really close to my father’s parents again. Eventually my grandmother was treated for her diabetes in a way that regulated her alcoholism and she became a rather different person. But by then I was in High School and the damage had been done. I loved them, but I did not trust them, and I didn’t see the house in Maine again until after they both passed away.

As an adult my husband and I spent our honeymoon in the house in Maine. I think part of me knew it might be the last time. That things were moving quickly, that changes were coming, and that eventually we would lose it.

We spent that week loving and sleeping, eating and laughing, walking and enjoying the summer flowers. A perfect summer storm hit one night and we went to the harbor to watch.

A few years ago, through a series of events, my father and uncle had to sell the house. I was deeply upset. And, I guess, I still am. I dream about it all the time, more than the house I grew up in. The dreams are angry, resentful, full of frustration and bitterness. All the emotions I try not to have generally, but especially about this and anything related to my family.

The truth, though, is that losing that house was losing something precious and meaningful. It was, of course, just a place. A structure of wood and stone. But it was also a place where life happened, where childhood mingled with adolescence and adulthood. Where summer dreams met family tragedy, the way the purple lustrife flowers overtook the fence in the backyard and started trailing into the grass in wild, lavender blooms.

I write about that house a lot in my stories, even when there are no houses in it, or the houses are large and complex monstrosities. It has a kind of magic hold over me, because I can never go back and see it again. Because it will never belong to me, and never really did. But I loved it all the same.

I sometimes think that house stands for all the regrets we end up with in life, that look simple from the outside, but on the inside contain complicated lives and choices. Other times I think it represents dreams and the simplicity of imagination, of stories waiting to be found.

Mostly, though what I feel is that I miss it, a house that was really just a place…but is infused with the meaning of the lives who lived in it. I hope whoever lives there now can feel a little of that. I hope they take care of it and cherish it. I hope they love it the way I do. And probably always will.


  1. Wow. This expressed so many of my own thoughts. I recently had to sit back and watch as my own families property in Washington state was sold. I have the exact same sentiment about good and bad memories. Every summer since I was born had been spent there and now it's gone. I love that this piece said all the things I have been thinking about what I am feeling. I am so glad I read this.

  2. This hits remarkably close to home. A few years ago my dads parents had to sell a cottage that they and my dad had built when he was a child. I spent multiple weeks there every summer of my life, and much like your coastal Maine house, this rural Indiana cottage means more to me now than it ever did as I grew. Thank you for bring so many happy memories back to me.

  3. I came into this post knowing nothing of the subject matter or what to expect. I enjoyed reading it. You have a gift for words. Now I want to seek out more of your work.

  4. This is just written beautifully. I get that feeling of anger, love and a sense of being somewhat irrational about something because it symbolizes so much. Its hard to sort. And maybe it shouldn't be sorted. Maybe its better that its all a complicated pattern of emotional memory.

  5. Maybe 'just a place', but also a place temporally, emotionally, physically. Our relationships with places define us as much as do the relationships with the other people in our lives. Thank you for this.