Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Later when I read John Cheever and his imitators and mentors and models there was a recurring story, that seemed so exotic to me, of how a guy kind of drunk returns home late at night and crawls into bed, and then discovers he is in the wrong house. As a child I never lived in a house that could be mistaken for any other. In Connecticut, there was the cramped part with low ceilings and a Dutch oven and small fireplaces and wide old hand split floor boards, and in the more open and rickety parts added later, including a room with many windows called The Big Room, there was so little insulation that in my upstairs bedroom I was in the middle of everything that went on downstairs – the drinking and the fighting and the occasional gaiety – the ceiling downstairs being the same thin boards that were also the floor in the part of the house that had been added in pre-commuter days to form a boarding house.
To my delight, for needs in board house days, there was, from my upstairs room, a wobbly old outside staircase leading down and out into the world beyond this family that often seemed to think so little of me.
In the summers, we were mostly in New Hampshire at White Pines, though sometimes White Wings, or the Farm House or the House on the Hill, but usually White Pines, the biggest, newest and most formal of our grandparents’ places, approached by a long dirt-road twisting driveway that came out on a gravel drive encircling a formal lawn, the gravel drive taking you to the front door of White Pines. In the entry, if you turned left, a big bathroom was one flight down, the telephone room a half flight up, and you passed a cane rack with so many walking sticks it was as if no man ever went walking without one. And from there through French doors into the infinitely long main room at the end near the kitchen and the servants’ dining room and a restaurant size stove and three big pantries, and bins holds a year's supply of rice and sugar and flour – and a box where numbers would drop down showing which of the many bedrooms needed a servant, and then more pantries and the back stairs to the servant’s sleeping rooms, which were barricaded off from the rooms that could make numbers drop down, and then further along past the kitchen was the Boys' Wing, where male children were meant to live, with a nurse when they were young, which was on a second story now because of the configuration of the land, above a big playroom that in turn led to the garage where rested by grandfather's old brown Dodge touring car, and sometimes a much fancier touring car owned by my Great Uncle Jehan, who was a prince from Rajasthan who had been in America for 45 years on a student visa to do a thesis at Colombia.
Then back at the main entrance to White Pines, if you turned right when you walked in you had to tiptoe because you were near the entrance now to my grandfather's study. The big old door on which he wrote on yellow foolscap which would be sent to a clever woman in the village who knew how to operate a typewriter. This exciting room with Socialist Realist drawings of hearty workers in Russia, where my grandfather had been in the Kerensky Revolution, and an “UNCLE SAM WANTS YOU” poster form his patriotic World War I days, and a working crossbow that was never explained, and a Franklin stove – but mainly all those books, some of which brought life to me, such as the works of Turgenev, whom no one had told me about, and some brought fear, especially a child-rearing manual that, judging from its 1910 publication date, was probably used on my father. It said you should discipline boys to sleep with their hands outside the covers and you should sew up their pockets for otherwise they would do nasty things and ruin their minds.
Near the bookcases there was a small iron circular staircase leading up to a trap door that opened into my grandfather’s suite of rooms – men and women never seemed to sleep together in this house – pulling himself up through the trap door to his dressing room and his big bathroom that had a doctor’s scale in it, and his bedroom and, for warm nights, his sleeping porch. His study faced not on the back of the house, where he would have had a spectacular but distracting view of the Franconia Range, but rather faced on the gravel drive that ran around the formal lawn at the front. He was on this side because if he heard a vehicle approaching on the long twisting drive (where drivers honked constantly in case someone was coming the other way) he could look out from behind the blinds to see who it was. And it could well be someone he did not want to see. That was the explanation for the circular iron stairway to the trap door in the ceiling.