I grew up in a crumbling old Victorian house, in a neighborhood of crumbling old Victorian houses. At the time, ours was no more falling-down that the rest — this was the seventies and none of the families had the wherewithal to gentrify anything yet, least of all this gang of old sea captains’ houses clustered around the cove. But the house that the Cross family lived in was particularly nice.
It had a garrett — a round, pointed turret sticking off of one side of the house — and, like most bookish young girls, I thought that having a garrett in which I could retreat and read and write and enjoy Dickensonian solitude was the answer to all my problems. When I finally got invited to play in that garrett, it was full of dress-up clothes for little girls; princess gowns and tiaras and fairy wands instead of shelves of books and a writing desk and scones wrapped up in linen handkerchiefs for nibbling on. It was someone’s fantasy hideaway, but not mine.
The Cross family was like the Brady Bunch to me; the parents were young and attractive and frequently kissed, and the three kids were well turned out individuals as well. They were culturally hip and current and watched the Monkees and Little House on the Prairie while we watched the Gong Show and old Danny Kaye movies over and over again. The kids called their parents by their first names, Joanne and Gary.
I remember the youngest girl, when she was about five, watching me as I stood over my bike, stradling the crossbar of my girls’ Schwinn three-speed. She told me, loudly so that everyone could hear, that I would “hurt my vagina” that way. There were boys nearby, including her brother and mine. My mother was a nurse, and had taught us all the anatomical names for such in things, but hadn’t forgotten the manners portion of the lesson. I knew I had one, but it never would have occurred to me to discuss someone else’s with them.
They didn’t trust doctors; they went to a chiropractor, which my mother the nurse strongly disapporoved of. To this day she looks down her nose at chiropractors and thinks of them as hippie fake doctors, and I can tell she is thinking of the Cross family when she wrinkles her nose at the mention of a bone doctor.
I noticed at Thanksgiving that the old Cross house was being gutted and turned into a bed and breakfast. The house has aged beautifully, over the years acquiring gingerbreading along the trim and a rolling, elegant garden out front. Meanwhile, our house has turned into the haunted house of the neighborhood, the roof caving in, ivy growing through the windows, my brother’s creepy statuary in the side yard.
I asked my mother about the Cross house, which she remembers by a different name, the name of the family that lived there when she was a kid. The original sea captain was a Baker, she says, which would make it part of our family. I think my mother still thinks our family owns half the cove and sails the seas in search of whale oil. For that matter, I think I do, too.
Now it will be called something else by the kids in the neighborhood, just like none of those kids know now that the house with the sledding hill on it was my great-great-grandfather’s, just two doors down from the Cross house, and that it is properly called The Old House, as it predates those bourgeous sea captains’ houses by a good hundred years.
I wish someone would turn my mother’s house into a bed and breakfast, and rescue the beautiful marquetry floors and mohagany secretaries filled with blown eggs and little brass bells. Someone should stop the ivy from climbing in to my old bedroom through the windows, revive the garden, wallpaper the hall. It has become the neighborhood embarrassment, the place to avert your eyes from, the house not to go trick-or-treating at.
This house, among all the houses built by seafarers, was built by the widow of a whaling captain, not by the captain himself. It’s less pretty, less of a showcase. More of a place to stay home in than a place to dream of in far-off places. And when they finish renovating the old Cross house, my mother’s house will sink down into the ground a little more, as it becomes increasingly shamed by its surroundings, and its failure to keep up with the times and retain its youthful charm.