If you were a house, wouldn’t you want your inhabitants to be happy? To enjoy you?
Wouldn’t you want to wrap around your people to provide them with a sense of home?
I think that the old house wanted to be that for us, and yet we know that a home is created by the people who live there – or not..
Our parents did not know how to create a place of sanctuary, even in that beautiful place.
Big and old and cold, more from the emotional tone if its inhabitants, than from the house itself, the old house ,we called it later, stood looking out at the choppy currents of Raccoon Straits, part of the San Francisco Bay.
What makes a house a home? We didn’t know.
The old house was a house with strong bones, made of indestructible redwood. The rooms were large, and seemed larger still because we had only one small green-upholstered love seat in the ballroom sized living room. And a “blonde” wood coffee table, with cigarette burn stains, on which his martinis sat when he was home. When Dad was home.
The very large ashtray overflowed with ashes of the unfiltered cigarettes he always smoked. Camels. And my mother smoked, too, often in lieu of eating, the smoke enveloping her worried heart.
I want to write about the house, but I cannot do so without telling it like it was. Not in a mean or vengeful way, but to look back on my beginnings,to glimpse at a tough time in hindsight, the better to make sense of it all.
A small table and mis-matched chairs for four stood in the dining area, steps from the kitchen. The walls were dark-stained, nautical gray. Dad said it would have been better a natural redwood color.
Tall windows with iron frames had roll-out cranks to let in the sea-flavored air, and the chill along with it. Our father liked it cold. When he was home.
Although small, great care had been built into the kitchen. It was small but had a pantry with built- in shelves. White porcelain octagonal tiles, hundreds of them a classic style for those days, covered the kitchen floor.. The refrigerator was small, but my father’s martini pitcher always stood full in the refrigerator. Dad liked the “good life” which meant a life of alcohol and appearances. 1950’s Martinis were the drink of ad men and those who met for cocktails after working hours and sometimes in between.
The morals of the time were two-faced. Appearances meant everything. They still do, to those who buy into fashion and frivolity. But something about that time makes me itchy remembering it.
Years later I heard a phrase, we can’t judge another’s insides by their outsides. Or something like that. The facade, the impression was what mattered.
Yes, Dad wore a grey flannel suit, and a white long-sleeved shirt with cuff-links to work. When not working, when alcohol – free and somber, he chose to wear white t-shirts and chinos and soft, earthy shoes. He was never comfortable in formality, but that was the world he worked in, and the culture of that work was the creation of false images. Neptunian. Walt, my dad, a Pisces man, swam in two currents: the boisterous ad sales rep who drank with the guys after work, sometimes all weekend on a payday, and the other, the one who was quiet and sober and liked walks and nature and good food and a simpler life.
The old house was a sort of last chance for our family, a try at reconciliation, between outside and in, between real and fake..
The splendid house gave it’s all to us with a solid, sturdy skeleton.
Though we rarely had a fire in it, the lovely stone fireplace in the living room was so large that 6 – foot Walter could stand up inside it.
Upstairs were 3 bedrooms, and a charming split bathroom; one small private compartment for a toilet, and the other for the bath and sink. Into which I lead my mother after she, a non-swimmer, had nearly drowned by throwing herself in the swirling turmoil of bay currents. I had angrily led her there to make her wash away those terrible thoughts. Thoughts of leaving us by ending her life. She shook from the cold of the water and from what she had done. I went downstairs to make her a cup of tea.
But I digress, on purpose; I’ll tell you more about the house. The house and it’s creator/builder had quite a history.
The house would be a landmark now. Building contractor Jack (John) Lowe. made it himself. Before she married Jack, his wife Rose Kissinger had previously been married to a man named Frank Kissinger. She and her first husband had owned a famous sailing rig, called Pacific Queen, when they owned it. When her first husband Frank passed away, she sold it to the city of San Francisco. The famous sailing ship was rechristened its original name, Balcutha, and is now a museum in San Francisco. Jack had been their friend of many years.
Rose Kissinger had become famous for her fight to sell the rig to the City of San Francisco. She made the news when she threatened to sink it if the city wouldn’t quit stalling on the sale price. Finally San Francisco and Rose made a deal, and the ship became a museum. Then, she married Jack.
When we lived there, Jack liked to come visit and check in. Jack was blind, now, but that didn’t stop him from coming to the old house to fix things, including wiring. He even climbed up on the roof to fix a leak. He knew the house, top to bottom, having made it himself, by hand. He was always accompanied by Rose, who drove for him, and took care of him when his health declined.
Their own house was on a small narrow plot overlooking the water, almost falling into it. They had a salt – water pool, which, when I saw it, was filled with eucalyptus leaves, which Dad had gone to help Jack clean.
When Jack became more frail, they offered, in those days, to sell it for $13, 000. My father refused. Today it would be valued at several million dollars. Easy.
That refusal underscored the conflict of values and dreams between my parents. Dad Walter wished for a simple,uncluttered, un-possessed life; our mother, Marie, wished for roots and stability and prosperity and possessions. Dad wanted an apartment and mobility; Mother wanted a home and community.
Thus, the refusal, and the dire events which led up to it, was the beginning of the end.
For although the house was lovely, for us it was a house of echoes. The pantries were empty much of the time. Our mother was not working. There was one car, which our father took into “the city,” to do his job in advertising sales. A basically shy man, he rose to the pressures of his job by lubricating himself with alcohol. And on payday, this sometimes meant disappearing over the weekend, partying blindly, until the paycheck was gone.
Which meant no groceries, and unpaid bills. In those days, bill collectors could and did literally put their foot in the door when they came to collect. And they did so when Mother was alone.
Once my sister and I ate sandwiches made of bread, ketchup, and potato chips. Good. You should try it. To this day, I like salty, crunchy food.
Another time, very hungry, all that I found in the pantry was a powdered creamer called PREAM. I felt hollow inside, and began to eat spoonful after spoonful, never feeling satisfied. The dry concoction left a lump in my stomach which felt like food. To this day I must have cream in my coffee.
The energy there bore the resin of desperation. How do you connect, how do you connect when everyone is yelling? How do you? Where can you hide, you want to go hide?
After mother’s suicide attempt, we lost our animals. First was our beautiful black cat named Sam. He was my solace. Later that year he was killed by a car.
Next was our loyal guardian, a white dog named Teddy. We had brought him all the way from Indiana. Someone had abandoned him, and we took him in. How I loved him.
Then he disappeared, and weeks went by, until we heard that a neighbor had found him beneath their house, whimpering and weak, and had him put to sleep.
Kitchens were empty places. Pantries were empty places. Yards were where a tangle of thorns, grew, with no hands to tend them.
So the house suffered as we did. I believe that when so many awful things happen, one after another, it is as if Life – that eternal book – is turning a page. We may not want it to, but the page is turning and we just have to see what comes next.
We left it, and our parents left each other. Mother got a secretarial job, which, in those days was one of three options available to women: nursing, teaching and secretary work. Each of those kinds of work is honorable, but in those days pay was poor, for women were not thought capable of being a head of a household. What if a man with a family should need work? The woman might be taking bread from a family’s mouths….and so the arguments floated through the times, until later, social change brought the issues forward.
We moved into a housing project, a former Navy housing. I missed the old house: there we had had three times the room, and now we were crushed into two. My sister and I slept in bunk-beds, and my brother had a room of his own. Go figure. A boy should have his own room, away from his sisters. Hmm. Brother, what do you think? Are you reading this?
After we moved, the house found happiness.
After we moved out, someone with funds and stability bought the house. They fixed it up. On the outside there were now plants and a lovely garden. One day after I got married, I stopped and knocked on the door and the woman let me in. The house was a home, with smells of baking cookies and a fire crackling in the fireplace. She was sweet to show me and I was relieved that it had found its people.
It had been transformed into something warm and bright. It had gotten the love it wanted and needed.
It is impossible to nurture others even your family, when you don’t have it in yourself .
I know this now.
And yet we can learn.
Dad drank, until he ran out of funds. He could not stop. He could not say: I have to go home to my family now. He could not say: My family needs me.
He could not say:Uh oh, gotta go. And then when he did say it, it was Uh oh, gotta find a new place, gotta start out fresh, get away from the mess that’s been created.
Eventually the desperation eased. After the divorce, Walt married Charlotte, and they lived in an apartment in the city. Mother married Sherm, and we moved from the housing project to an old barn-shaped house which had bats in the rafters. (Honest!) But it was a good house, and from there we moved to a lovely home on a hill with a pool and guess who cleaned it?
Mother stopped smoking. We went on a lot of excursions in our step-dad’s old shark-finned Plymouth. He provided well for us. We had food in the kitchen and I learned to cook it, since Mom worked.
Dad and his wife lived well together until he passed away years later. She too liked their apartment in the city. And she had a good job as an executive secretary, and managed money well.
But no other place was quite as memorable as the “old house.” I hope I have honored it. Some good links below.
C Suzanne 2014
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