I am 15 years old and standing in the back yard of a house in Seaford, Long island. It is a four bedroom cape with an above ground pool in the yard. My parents are with a real estate agent and they are discussing the property or rather the agent is selling it— decent schools, easy commute for my father, and all the pleasures of suburban living. I did not know it at the time but this would be the last time my parents would search for a home of their own.
As the agent spoke my mother listened with her usual concerns, she made the assumption that of course most of what the agent was saying was probably not true. My father’s head was turned away distracted by the distant sound of the highway and the indifference that played inside his head. His participation was that of chauffeur, mine of second opinion, but it would be my mother who would decide. That spelled disaster for an enterprise that had started at least ten years earlier when five years into their marriage with four children living in a row house in the south Bronx with my grandmother, my mother began her quest for a home of her own.
In the basement of where we lived at 302 east 169th street there was a wall of shelves covered by a muslin sheet. When the fabric was pulled back it revealed all manner of housewares, wall clocks and assorted house goods awaiting placement in that paradigm of the American dream. There were sets of glasses, dishes both every day and good china, and toasters, can openers, all in a style that defined the mid-1950s. Most of the items were wedding gifts given in the anticipation of the inevitable. And so the quest began.
My mother and father were not the typical newlyweds. She was 34 and while she had been oft courted, she had not been able to commit to a man. Her married boss at the trucking company where she worked as his secretary wanted to give her a house, and a friend of my Uncle Jim’s who was a fellow engineer was a serious contender. My grandmother would occasionally blurt out to my mother, “You should have married Ralph,” a barbed taunt which was her specialty. Compared to her siblings who could affect a troll like appearance, she had the beauty of movie star, but as sometimes happens in baseball, she squandered her lead. And while all of her sisters and brothers, eight in all, married off and moved out, she was left in the row house with my grandmother, waiting her turn as her prospects dwindled.
My father was a veteran of World War II, having served in northern Africa and Italy, as a private then a corporal then a sergeant and finally a corporal (his men had taken a truck into town for some R and R it returned badly damaged and he would not rat them out.) He went to work after 8th grade at Springfield farms, and delivered milk for 19 years before the war. When he returned, his mother thought her oldest boy needed some rest, and while his siblings made their way in the world he dabbled at a number of professions including sewing machine salesman and radio and television repairman. He did not take advantage of the GI bill and seemed quite happy as the confirmed bachelor. At the age of 42 he married at the suggestion of his sister who played matchmaker and who was my mother’s best friend. They were a very handsome couple and in the grainy 8mm film of their honeymoon in Florida I detected happiness. Until a house could be found, they would live with my grandmother. My father became a truck driver.
Although I am now 60 years old, I still have dreams of the old house in the Bronx. They can be unpleasant and I would not call them nightmares exactly but there is something indelible about the place. It was built around 1900, two stories, pressed tin Mansard façade above the second story disguising a long sloping roof, front and back porches. There were double entry doors with beveled glass leading to a mosaic tiled vestibule and another heavy beveled glass door, a stairway to the left, a narrow hall leading to a dining room and kitchen straight ahead, and a right turn would lead to a narrow living room. Upstairs three bedrooms, bath and off the master bedroom a nursery where my sister slept. My parents had the master, my two brothers and I shared a room that essentially was a wall to wall bed. My grandmother had the room at the back of the house next to the bathroom. It was a very efficiently designed house with some details that suggest it was designed for a rising middle class, pushing out the seams of the city into the Bronx where the subway made midtown 15 minutes away and the Grand Concourse would be seen as a Champs Elysee. By the early sixties, red lining and white flight would change all of that. The American dream had moved to the suburbs.
To every enterprise there are handicaps and obstacles. In addition to my mother’s chronic indecision and my father’s perpetual indifference — with marriage and fatherhood he surrendered much of his bachelor effervescence and seemed resigned to be the breadwinner, honeydo aspects of the roles he had assumed — there were the good fortune bargains of my mother’s sister and brother.
Before he went off to war my aunt Rita married her soldier boy and when Cliff Fredrickson returned from Normandy beach unscathed, they found a bargain of a dream house in Flushing, Queens. It was a sturdy 30s built Tudor style house with a front and back yard where my aunt would preside over a small but lovely rose garden. The bargain stemmed from misfortune. The previous owners had lost a child to brain cancer and did not want to stay in the house where she died. My mother envied her older sister’s good fortune and wanted to repeat it. We spent many an afternoon riding around the streets of Flushing and other neighborhoods in Queens searching for a spot where lightening would strike again. My uncle Eugene got a rambling Victorian house in White Plains for 19,000 dollars and with a lot of work he made a beautiful home for his wife and six children. So our mission was to find a house in Westchester or on Long Island with four bedrooms, and location, location, location for $20,000.
At first the whole family would go on the mission. The kids piled in the back of the family car, a black and white 1955 Buick Special with red and black interior, two door as was the custom when you had kids—no back doors to pop open. My mother was always last out of the house. She clutched an oversized handbag that contained all of her jewels (a pair of earrings and a necklace) and about ten bank books. We would be sitting in the car with the engine running, sometimes my father would honk the horn. She stepped out onto the porch and tested the door lock. She started for the stairs. My father would say, ”She is going back.” She turned and checked the door again, shaking it violently to the point we thought it might fly off its hinges to ensure that it was locked. Only then could we get underway. The trips were long, there were never drinks or snacks; no wonder that after a year or two I was the only one who would go along, hoping in vain to influence and bring the search to a successful conclusion.
The situation was further complicated by my grandmother, who decided sometime five years into the process that she would not move with us. Because of her age , she was then in her mid-eighties, and in the declining neighborhood it was a ridiculous stance and given her nature I don’t doubt it was not part of the manipulation she liked to practice on all of her children. It added to my mother’s ongoing anxiety related to change and living in general. For her the glass was always half empty, cracked and dirty.
Nevertheless, we looked at old houses, new houses, and houses in model form yet to be built. By the age of 12, I knew the roads of Long Island and I could have been certified as a house inspector. I knew about wiring, furnaces, frontage, lot size, water and septic and the typical dimensions of every room … the desirability of a second bath and a two car garage with a large backyard and good landscaping. I went through dozens of houses wondering where I would sleep, who I would meet at school and where I would play baseball. There were many near purchases.
One house was too close to a gas station, three blocks away. One had defective molding in the living room as pointed out by my Uncle Jim, the perfectionist engineer, who used to lop all the branches off of Christmas trees then drill holes in the truck to create a tree of perfect symmetry. No house seemed to meet his exacting standard, and his little sister abided by his judgment. Binders were placed and retrieved the next week. I think there was even a contract to buy that was never signed. The last great hope was a large Victorian about a mile down the road from my Aunt Rita’s house, five bedrooms, an attic where I imagined I would live, and it was only $19,000 but it needed work and my father who had diabetes by then was not up to the task of restoration and really, even though they could have bought the house outright, they worried about the consequences of making the investment and the long dark corridors of unexpected repairs.
So there in Seaford, I contemplated the future and I could not see us there. We were tired, following form, grasping at the remnants of the dream now past the point of caring. We would stay in the Bronx. The wedding gifts stayed wrapped and rusted. I would patch the tin façade, rebuild the front steps twice and rebuild the back porch. My grandmother died in that back bedroom, my father would die at the VA hospital on Kingsbridge road, I moved out and married, my sister moved out then married and my mother and my two brothers, who did not amount to much, stayed behind. When my grandmother died, my Uncle Francis, who owned the house in the Bronx, put it in my mother’s name. When my Aunt Rita died, she left her perfect Tudor dream house to my mother who could never bring herself to live in it. When my mother died that house was still not in her name.
In my lifetime I have owned three houses and now I live in Dutchess County in a modest house on seven acres of land. I am a college professor on sabbatical from my home college and I am teaching some classes for Westchester Community College. Every week on my way to those classes I pass the Gate of Heaven cemetery where my parents are buried. My mother bought the plot when my father died. In that plot are also my Aunt Rita, my Aunt Ethel and their husbands. Today they all rest under a headstone of dark gray granite, on the only plot of land my mother truly owned. In the end she could not reconcile reality with the dream that never was.
This essay has been nominated for The Flounce Non Fiction Writer’s Award 2015. Reader feedback in the comments will be taken into consideration by the judges. Submissions deadline Dec 5. Contest Rules.