Every Memorial Day weekend from the time I can remember, my mother packed us up for a summer rental -- usually a house near the sea, and for two summers to a 1932 pre-fabricated Sears Roebuck house in the "country." In 1971, she bought her own summer house. For me, the rentals were more exciting... magical somehow as we moved into a space that belonged to someone else and made it home. And there was always one locked room which, of course, held the special belongings of the owners (who were usually summering on Cape Cod or thereabouts), but for me it was all about mystery -- leaving much to my imagination.
The houses were furnished, stocked with linens, dishes, pots and pans, and ramshackle. Their decors so different from the urban formality at home: over-stuffed sofas, canopy beds, hefty armoires, tattered rugs thrown on bare wood floors. In particular, I remember one summer room of mine with a pink canopy bed adjacent to a sun porch where I could watch the summer storms at night -- a safe distance from the lightning, but close enough for a thrill.
Until recently, I never questioned my mother's intentions all those summers when her husband stayed in the city, taking the train out on Friday nights for the weekend. It was just what we did in summers, a part of my landscape, my childhood. It is only in the last months since my mother's death that I wonder why my mother, so opposed to living anywhere but Manhattan, felt it was so necessary to leave the city in summer. Her cousin Judy explained to me just weeks ago that it was my mother's desire to have me experience a different kind of life -- one with neither the regimen of sleep-away camp nor the worries that went along with navigating city streets and subways in the summers when most of my friends were away at camp or at their own summer homes. Perhaps it was also something endemic to those of my mother's generation who were somewhat affluent: a social statement to have families at the "seaside" or in the "country," although my mother was never one to follow societal mores, so I don't think that was it. Judy insists it was for purposes of lending a different perspective -- something I now believe to be true for both my mother as well as myself. Perhaps she, too, needed a respite, a hiatus, a different life -- and the summer gave her a good excuse.
It never occurred to me during those summers if my mother was lonely without her husband during the week. Looking back, I have no idea what she did in the evenings when I was out with friends or holed up in my room with books and writing tablets and magazines. And, of course, as we barreled up on Memorial Day weekend and returned come Labor Day weekend, I never considered the effort it took on her part to pack the suitcases and boxes, making sure she had all my required summer reading, and generally transplanting our lives for three short months.
This is the first summer I find myself waffling on spending summers in the city despite this June which has been far more redolent of April what with the cool air and the rain. A few weeks ago we entertained the idea of renting a small retreat for summer weekends, but financially it made little sense in terms of how often we would be there. Kind of pricey for simply weekends -- not to mention the distance we'd have to drive for a mere 48-hour respite. Somehow fighting weekend traffic felt counterproductive when the quest was for solitude, quiet, and peace of mind. If I stayed during the week without my husband as my mother did, I would miss him and feel lonesome. Of course, my mother stayed alone when her children were young -- that also opens up a series of questions. So many questions...
Lately my heart reaches back to our old Victorian house in what was, in fact, a suburb but somehow felt like the "country" to me having grown up in New York City. The house was white, rambling and slanted as much as The Leaning Tower of Pisa, not at all like the cookie-cutter houses around us. The new owners have painted it orange with black shutters: It looks like an ode to Halloween. I want to knock on the door and ask 'how dare you?'
It is the wraparound porch that I miss the most about the house -- of course, on second thought, it may not be the porch precisely, but rather the friendships that were forged, sealed, and continued on that porch. Once the weather warmed, Nancy, Ellen and I sat on wicker chairs drinking wine, talking, laughing, crying, complaining, comparing notes -- that's what I miss more than I wish I did lately. In winter, we moved ourselves upstairs to my office -- the place in the house that was "mine" -- where I worked, where I retreated, where I entertained my friends when it was "all girls," where my husband and I, and the children and I, had our "talks." But in winter, I often felt isolated when the snow socked us in and my husband donned a suit and headed to Manhattan while I put on sweat pants and went upstairs to my office.
When we moved this past February, I made myself a home office that is almost an exact replica of the office I had in our old house -- right down to the wine red sofa that opens into a sleeper for company and the walls of books. The "feng shui" is nearly identical in terms of positioning the desk, paintings, photographs, knick-knacks. Like my old office, this one also fills with sunlight and rain audibly taps the window pane -- yet the urban sounds and scents are different: I have yet to be accustomed to the street noise -- jack hammers, the beeping of trucks as they back down the narrow streets, the noontime serenade of the man who stands on the corner asking for change, the angry honking of horns, the sirens. There is no sweet smell of fresh cut grass, no birds chirping, no sound of the gravel as cars pull into the driveway or, going back even further in time, the screech of the school bus brakes reminding me that my work day has come to an end and I've been at the desk for eight hours and time has flown.
So, what exactly do I miss? That porch on hot summer nights. Those friends. How I could place a marble on the living room floor and it would roll downhill into the dining room. My mother. I feel myself channeling my mother, looking into myself as I look back upon her at roughly my age, understanding her better, and if not better, then making up stories that quell the need for understanding -- perhaps projecting, comforting myself with the notion that she and I might have been more alike that I would have thought back then. Wondering if maybe my mother rented those beach houses because as much of a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker as she was (although she moved to New York City when she was in her thirties) and as much I am, there is something about the sea and salt air that quiets the soul in summer. Neon and pavement are better in winter.
Maybe it's all just as simple as that.