Sunday, October 11, 2009

WEEK 6 Oct 7, 2009 Classification Essay Three Story House

As a child, I always enjoyed visiting friends and relatives in their homes. It was especially exciting to visit someone in their new home. I was always taken aback by how different their house looked from my own or pleased at how similar our houses were. There were three types of homes people lived in, I concluded. Some people lived in modest, split-level ranch style homes in developments. Others lived secluded in very modern, glass and concrete multi-level homes like Frank Lloyd Wright's "Falling Water". Then, there were the old Victorian type dwellings like the house I grew up in, nestled in neighborhoods with lots of other children .

My Aunt lived with her family of seven in a split-level ranch in Southboro. It was different from any other type of house in my own neighborhood fifteen miles away. It had a flat roof and no attic. I wondered where they stored their holiday decorations and winter blankets or if they just bought new ones each year.

Only five evenly spaced street lights dotted the treeless sidewalk in front of these houses. In the cul-de-sac, the fa├žades of all the ranch houses in the neighborhood were brown textured shingle with white clapboard trim. It reminded me of the array of garage and tool sheds displayed in Grossman’s parking lot in Wellesley which we passed en route to get there. Even our old tool shed at home was brown textured shingle with white clapboard trim. That was the way tool sheds and garages were supposed to look, I thought, not a house you lived in.

The exterior front steps of her ranch led directly to a solid oak front door. One large, terra cotta planter held pansies, petunias, mums or evergreens, depending on the season, and was always positioned to the right of the door directly under her brass mail box with an adhesive number “9” affixed to it. Every house in the neighborhood looked exactly the same, all thirty of them, including the terra cotta planters. Only the numbers on the mailboxes were different.

Whenever we visited, I stood alongside my siblings on the grass beside the front steps and waited for someone to answer the door. My own family of seven did not fit on just three steps. While waiting, I always wondered where they sat on warm summer nights to watch the stars, drink Shasta Orange Soda and exchange conversations with one another about the days events like we did on our front porch. I thought my cousins needed a front porch and I mentioned it to my Uncle one Fourth of July weekend at a family cookout there, as I am told by my Mother years later.

It always seemed strange to me upon entering her house, to immediately be confronted with another three steps leading to an upper level while another three steps descended to a lower level. It was as though the contractor could not decide which way to go so he left the choice up to you. In addition, I also thought it peculiar, that you would drive your car right into your house. But, that was where their garage was, directly under the living room. On rainy or snowy days, it would be convenient, I surmised, to go directly to and from the kitchen to your car without having to don a coat, boots, or an umbrella. There would also be no wet clothing to dry off. I told my parents we should move our garage to be under our house too, but that we should leave all sixteen of our front hall stairs just like they were, all heading in the same direction. It was less confusing that way.

The walls inside were all painted the same eggshell, off- white color and devoid of any pictures or clutter. Contemporary was the mode. A neutral beige carpet ran throughout the house except for the black and white Congoleum floor squares in the kitchen and the green ceramic tiles on the bathroom floor. The carpet’s tight weave muffled the noise of their own five children plus my folks additional five youngsters as we ran about the house as children do. Its non-descript design camouflaged the occasional spills from Sippy cups and tracks from muddy sneakers. It was always vacuumed and clean, yet, I was never compelled to sit on their living room floor and spread out my toys and play as I did in my own house.

My Aunt and Uncle bought their house new from the contractor who built it just seven years earlier. She always apologized for not having enough closet space when we came with jackets and sweaters. She said they never put any in for any of these houses in the development. That actually made sense to me back then. I always saw contractors wearing the same clothes day in day out. Maybe they only have one change of clothing themselves, so why would they think to put closets in a house for extra clothes people do not have, I deducted. So, we always piled our coats on top of the bed in the master bedroom.

Her house, like the other thirty raised ranches in the neighborhood, had few and very small windows which all seemed to be placed too close to the ceilings. When I inquired about this, my cousin shrugged her shoulders and said something about privacy and energy efficiency. I refrained from asking, but wondered how would she know if it was sunny or snowing outside, day or night, and did she even know about the Big Dipper and how to locate the North Star? These windows did not have any sills either. I thought about my seed trays on my window sill at home and how I enjoyed watching the sprouts grow. I recalled how I loved the feel of the warm sun’s rays on my face as I took my required afternoon nap each day. I wished my cousins had larger windows to view the outdoors and to let in more sunshine.

Skirting the floor of each room was a white baseboard. It quietly gave off a constant, even, comfortable temperature through out the ranch. My cousins and I imagined them to be white-washed fences and we collectively lined our Breyer horses up against them. We were cautioned, however, to move them and ourselves away for fear their plastic would melt and cause a fire and we could get burned as well. We were always ushered away to another location in a room with little natural light.

After a few hours there, I looked forward to going home again. I was more comfortable there, sitting in the sunlight on a braided scatter rug on a hardwood floor, playing with fewer horses and sometimes propping them against a silver painted radiator.

The radiators in my own house would clang and bang and during the heating season, and my Mom would call out, “Heats coming up.” My Sister and I would rush over to drape our just laundered, pleated skirts over the fins of the radiator so our wool uniforms would be dry for school the following morning. I recalled, after our supper every night, we would brush our hair dry as we sat on small rush stools next to the radiant heat. And, before going outside, we would always place our jackets over the radiators to warm them up and back onto the radiators they went to dry off when we came back in from playing outside in the wet snow. In the summer months, I stacked my games and puzzles on top of the grey iron radiator so my younger siblings could not reach the small pieces inside. It seemed my life revolved around radiators. They were a necessity. I thought every house should have a radiator, at least one for each girl that lived there.

When one of my Mom’s best friends retired and moved back to New England, she invited our family to her new house for a housewarming. She never married and her career allowed her to travel all the time it seemed. I especially, looked forward to having her live close by now. It was her dream house and it took her architect and builder five years to complete. I remembered June to be fashionable, outgoing, adventurous, and full of surprises. So, I was not totally surprised to hear that her house was modern, multi-level, and “ahead of its time.” Already knowing that, however, did not fully prepare me for my first visit to my Godmother‘s new house.

My folks followed the map June sent along with the invitation. We turned left onto Cliff Road and after a few miles spotted the cloth “Welcome” flag displaying a pineapple. It was attached to a two car garage at the end of a long, unusual looking structure. The garage doors were wide opened and I recognized June’s Volvo parked inside . “This has to be the place,“ my Dad said, as he drove up the incline and turned the car engine off.

I looked out through the back seat window. I watched as my folks fiddled around with car seats, a cooler, bags, and such. I noticed there were no street lights on this road. How unusual, I thought. How would the children in this neighborhood know when it was time to leave a friend’s house and head back to their own before dusk or come in for supper if you were playing in your own backyard? There must not be any children in this neighborhood, I thought, or the children around here do not have curfews. There was no mail box by the front door and no house number affixed to a tree or anything else for that matter. I quickly realized there were no other houses around either. This house had no neighborhood.

I felt like a tourist at a visitor’s station in a state park and I walked closely behind my parents as we approached the front door. How strange I thought, as I looked around. We stood together on the top step, looking at our reflections in a clear sheet of glass. Upon stepping closer, you could see directly into the house. I looked around as we stood on her front steps waiting for her to answer the chimes of the doorbell. The wide granite steps reminded me of the Boston Public Library and I glanced over my shoulder to study the cement urns holding the topiary bushes lining the terrace to the left. Their sculptured forms were too enticing for a child. So, I went over to touch them to see if they were real. They were. Even at an early age, I was pleased to see someone as busy as June took such diligent care of their outdoor plants.

Once inside, the sounds of each step we took echoed as June graciously escorted us down a long, white marble hallway. The adults reminisced and exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes. I stood beside June as she spoke and pointed to the various pieces of art work that adorned an immense wall before us. I immediately knew I wanted a wall just like this in my own home someday. I realized shortly after wards, why all the paintings were on this one wall. Every wall in this house, interior and exterior, was made of some form of glass. Though the halls and rooms were long and wide, I cautioned my younger brothers there would be no chasing one another in this house today or ever. It was too fragile.

As we were given a tour, I looked around for familiar cues but found none. June boasted about the radiant heating system installed beneath the white marble floors. There were no radiators, not even a baseboard anywhere. There was no front porch to sit on. All conversations were inside and private behind walls of frosted, beveled, or stained glass. There were no warm, wood textures anywhere, only cold steel railings and metallic beams overhead. The push of a button lowered opaque panels to cover the huge pristine glass windows. June explained how this feature could be set to a timer to happen at the same time every day, even if she was not at home. I did not see the logic to closing your shades during the day if you were not even at home. This house appeared very impractical to me. It certainly was not a house for children to play in.

Every where you turned it seemed, was another closet or “storage area” as June referred to it. You would “just press a button” on a panel somewhere in the room and the door or panel moved aside exposing a smaller, walk-in area complete with shelves, drawers, and coat rods. This place did not have any door knobs on any of these doors. I did not think my siblings and I would fare well here. My folks were forever telling us to close the door behind us. How could one expect a child to remember which button closed which door, I thought. This was surely not a house I wish to live in.

June said she prepared a mid-morning snack for us and suggested we go to the kitchen now. My eyes canvassed the room for the flight of stairs but I saw none. I was puzzled. Maybe she only has three stairs like my Aunt’s house, I thought. So, I shifted my eyes back and slowly scanned the room again assuming I must have overlooked them. June explained the way to her kitchen was by a lift. We stepped into a smoke-tinted glass enclosure which slowly descended along the back wall of the house passing two interior floors. It reminded me of the fire escape at my school and the fire drills we had. I did not like that experience then nor did I like it now. I wanted to ask if she ever felt strange in the morning getting into an elevator, in her bathrobe, gliding down the back of her house among the trees. However, I refrained after looking at my Mother. Her eyebrows were raised and she was looking directly at me as though she was reading my thoughts.

As we drove home that night, I looked at Barrie’s novel laying against the back seat window. June sent it to me for my sixth birthday. I was now seven. Although I could not read all the words, she knew I would enjoy the illustrations. I did. We were both artists. That day, I felt like Wendy in that novel and I had been to Neverland, a strange but magical place. I was glad to be heading back home again now, I had enough adventures for one day.

It was after 9:00 when we turned off Commonwealth Avenue and onto our street. The lights were on in all fourteen houses in our neighborhood. I could see our next door neighbor Emerson sitting in his living room chair by the window as we drove into our driveway. My Dad pulled up to the back door, and got everyone situated inside. Then, getting back into the car, he drove our station wagon down a long, winding driveway, past the clothes line to a brown textured shingle garage.

For several hours, my Sister and I talked back and forth from beneath our blankets. When my Sister no longer answered any of my questions, I got up and stood over her. I then realized she had fallen asleep. I stepped quietly across the hardwood floor towards the window and leaned against a tepid radiator. I saw the silhouettes of my parents sitting together on the front porch. I strained to hear their conversation but their voices were muffled against the low tones of the band playing at the Totem Pole Ballroom across the way.

I turned around and looked at my room. I stared at the glass door knob on my closet door and looked at how the rays from the street light directly outside my window shattered through its prism and created a rainbow on the wall above my pillow. I then looked at both windows on the opposite wall. They created a diptych with a version of their own “starry night”. On the sill beneath one of them, I placed the small colorful stones June gave me from her solarium.

Earlier that weekend, my Dad made his annual trip up to the attic where the hope chests were kept. He brought down with him, several blankets and Winter comforters for all of us. Some were placed on a shelf in the back of our closets while extras were stored in a linen closet on the second floor. I took a red, tartan plaid blanket from the linen closet and wrapped it around my shoulders as I came down the stairs which lead to the front hallway.

I joined my parents on the front porch and sat on the white wicker chaise lounge between them. I placed a straw in my can of orange soda and just listened. Their adult dialogue was boring until my Dad changed the conversation and asked if I could find the North Star. And I could. Shortly afterwards, Emerson and his wife joined us. They always seemed to come over about 11P.M. to chat with my parents, sometimes until the wee hours of the morning. I excused myself and headed back inside it was getting chilly. I glanced over at our mailbox and the number “62” embossed on the front and said, “Good night.“

I thought about June and how she might be looking at the same North Star in the planetarium of her own living room. I thought about my cousins with no stars to look at tonight or any other night. I fell asleep that night thinking about the dream house I would build someday. I got to think about it for another twenty-five years.

So, fifteen years ago, while I was vacationing at the family cottage in New Hampshire, I contacted a realtor in Maine. I told her exactly what type of house I was looking for in my retirement.

I am looking for a three-story, Victorian home with an attic. It will need to have an inner load-bearing wall strong enough to accommodate my collection of framed art work. I prefer a stairwell in the front hall or foyer. It would need to have at least 5 bedrooms to accommodate family and guests visiting during the year. Each room will need to have a closet. There needs to be a hall closet too preferably by the front door.

And, I would like all the doors inside to have glass doorknobs. I wanted windows with sills. I liked large windows too, preferably a foot from the floor and reaching as close to a 12' ceiling as possible to adequately let the daylight in and so I could look out and watch as the seasons changed. The seasons set my inner clock, I said half joshing. Shades with pull strings were preferable over any type of blinds, I also mentioned to her.

I wanted the patina of original hardwood floors through out. I explained, they always lend a warm atmosphere to a room. No upgrades, please. I liked forced hot water in freestanding, upright , old fashioned radiators. I shared with her, they are great for drying ski pants and mittens, and acknowledging my age, occasionally leaning against. Besides, in the off season months, they provide extra storage space for books, games and such.

I will also need a large front porch to accommodate some white wicker patio furniture and all my house plants in the summer months. An acre lot would be adequate, but more would be better allowing more space to garden. I would like to be within the city limits of a small town on a main road with street lights. This way my guests coming from out of state will have no difficulty finding the right house and alleviate any fears of running into bears up here. A one-car detached garage would be adequate. I down sized my 9-passanger Impala station wagon quite some time ago.

"If it is not asking too much, could you please, find a house that is yellow vinyl?", I remember saying over the telephone. Yellow is my favorite color and the color of the sun. This color makes me smile, and vinyl is maintenance free and that makes me smile more. I would much rather be outside gardening than painting an old three-story Victorian house. The color of the front door will not matter much. You will not see it from the street, it will always be open.


  1. What a pleasure to read this.

    I'm glad you understand the difference between the spirit and the letter of the law and have allowed yourself to write yourself right out, albeit in a sandwich format, and not worried about the phantasm of the "five graf essay."

    You do a wonderful job of remembering or creating the memories, reactions, and thoughts of a child--the perfect glass to hold up to this topic. And your artist's eye is in evidence throughout: shapes, colors, form, function, texture, style, all dealt with in detail. You also note social changes, reflected in architecture and interior design, and give us a bit of a primer on Boston suburban life in the middle of the last century.

    There are also mini-essays buried here--those impress me the most because real essays--or the best ones anyway--almost always have discursions like yours on the radiator or the closet or streetlights and curfews and others. (My mother remembered gas lamplighters from her childhood in the twenties in Brookline.)

    Your outro is a master class in pulling strands together and plucking them until they resonate happily in the reader's mind.

    Sadly, one of your best single grafs, the graf on radiators and their importance in a girl's life, is shoehorned in (did you have trouble finding the right spot for it?) and does not quite fit where you have it between the ranch and the moderne.

    The logical spot for it would be later, down when you are home in Newton and describing Victorians, but it might not even have fit there and, were that the case, you would have arrived at one of the great moral issues for a writer: can she bear to cut wonderful stuff that simply does not fit in the piece at hand?

    Oh, well, I'm teasing you a little. The radiator graf belongs to this essay, but does seem short a place to rest its feet. Yet only a monster would cut that fine graf!

  2. My wife just read this with great pleasure and admiration.

    I'd, of course, suggest it for the Eyrie except for its disqualifying length.

  3. Glad you both enjoyed my essay, please give my best to your wife. My husband would occasionally look over my shoulder and now and then ask if I was writing a chapter book.