Thursday, October 22, 2015

Seward's Folly -- Part II

We dreamed of a large, comfortable house with a bedroom for each kid and spacious common areas to serve for family gatherings and parties. The reality was an all-consuming monster that ate our family.

The first few years were filled with dreams, plans, foundations, and hope. Then, years passed, and little progress was made on the new house, while the old house continued to deteriorate, as did our family.

My mother slowly settled into drinking more and doing less. From time to time, she seemed to bob to the surface and show some signs of life, learning to drive, taking Spanish lessons, joining a garden club, or leading a Bluebird troop for my sister, Valery. But, for the most part she became more reclusive, spending hours in her rocking chair, smoking cigarettes, working crossword puzzles, or playing solitaire, sipping on bourbon and soda, and taking long naps.

She had a set of household tasks she performed religiously. She always made her bed when she got up in the morning, started the coffee, and prepared breakfast for the kids. Each morning she made sure her kids went off to school with a hot breakfast in their tummies, and a  brown paper lunch bag filled with a sandwich, homemade cookies, a piece of fruit, and a paper napkin.

Every night, we ate dinner together in the dining room. Rarely, was anyone missing, and it was just as unusual to have a guest. The table was carefully set for seven people; dinner plates, salad plates, paper napkins, and silverware were laid out in Emily Post-perfect order. The silverware was sterling and we always used salad forks as well as dinner forks. Our mother brought the food to the table in serving dishes which were passed around, so we could each serve ourselves. Ritual was infused in our meal practices, but not until recently did I view them as offerings of love by our mother who was not able to demonstrate love in ways more easily understood by children.

I set the table until Valery was old enough to take over. Then, I was promoted to salad maker. Those were the only two chores that were ever assigned in our household. No one but our mother ever did the dishes. I never understood that, but she didn't want us doing them. And, of course, this was before every kitchen had an automatic dishwasher. We never ate out during those years before frozen meals and takeout. And I don't remember my mother ever being ill or missing a meal, except when she went to the hospital to have a baby.

She seemed almost possessive about meal preparation and dishwashing, unwilling to let the kids do any of it. Laundry was the same. In 1953, we got a brand new automatic Westinghouse front loading washer and a dryer that played the tune to "How Dry I Am" at the end of the cycle. They were installed against the far wall of the back room, their bubble glass doors looking across the room like a gigantic pair of eyes.The washer and dryer were in constant use, but nothing ever got ironed or put away. A mountain of clean clothes was piled on a nearby table. We pulled what we needed out of the pile and ironed it ourselves, if necessary.

The back room was an unfinished room, about 20 feet square, attached to the house by a breezeway. It served as my father's office as well as laundry room. It also had a toilet, but not a full bathroom. His drawing table was positioned under a north-facing window; it couldn't have been for the light, I don't believe that grimy window was washed once in the twenty years I knew of.

The back room was the repository for his not-so secret bottle of wine. He never left the house without a stop in the backroom, ostensibly to use the toilet, but he always left the room drawing the back of his right hand across his mouth and and emitting a breathy mahhhh sound. His left hand would reach into the front pocket of his trousers and withdraw a tube of lifesavers. Removing one peppermint circle from the tube, he would blow tobacco shreds from the center of it before popping it into his mouth. Then he was ready to hit the road.

 I left home to begin married life in 1959 and my brother Mickey joined the Air Force a couple of years later. Neither of us would return to the family home. So, instead of five, there were now three chicks left in the nest.

The house progressed slowly. Beautiful blue-green granite stones were purchased for the large fireplace in the family room and slate for the floor of the entry way. Framing and roof joists began to give the structure a three-dimensional aspect. The fireplaces were installed and the chimneys rose through the roof line. And I remember joining in the family prayer for a dry October as preparations were made for the installation of the roof, a large flat surface of crushed white marble. Windows and siding were added and the house was enclosed.
My father in his weekend uniform, wifebeater shirt and baggy khaki pants, 

Christmas, 1968, still in the old house,

By Christmas 1968,  the oldest two of the Blair children, brother Mickey and I, had produced five members of a new generation. They gathered under the Christmas tree, which was, as usual, placed in front of the door to nowhere. At that time, brother Ken was a sophomore at UC Berkeley, and Valery was finishing high school. Mickey, Ricky, and I were all married and living in our own homes. The marriage and the very lives of my parents were on unstable ground, The new house was at a standstill and all resources of cash and internal fortitude had been tapped out. 

My mother complained to me on the telephone that my father never did anything but pace around the unfinished interior of the new house and that she was going crazy living in the tumble-down old house. And, in fact, I believe she was going crazy. At one point, she disappeared for several days and no one knew where she was. She had taken their beloved German Shepherd, Jody, with her, so my father felt reasonably sure she was not suicidal. She loved the dog so much, he felt she would not take the adored animal into a dangerous situation. In retrospect, I believe she was suicidal, but I was so wrapped up in my own life, I took what my father told me at face value and didn't doubt him. She was drinking very heavily on a daily basis and when she was alert, she raged at her youngest daughter, Valery. 

My father complained that he didn't know what to do with my mother. Her drinking was going to be the ruin of him and he just couldn't stand it anymore. I was helpless, caught in the middle, and suggested to each of them that they leave the other. Each reacted the same way, as though I had blasphemed, "I could never leave your mother/father! How dare you even suggest it!"

A last draw on his inheritance, and probably more refinancing, produced a final infusion of cash. At last, in 1971, after all five children had left home, eighteen years after moving into temporary quarters in the tumbledown Victorian, my mother and father moved into the dream/nightmare house. It wasn't entirely finished, bricks still lay in piles around their ultimate destination as a decorative element on the exterior of the lower story. The downstairs pool room and workshop walls were unfinished, and parts of the exterior lacked paint, but a certificate of occupancy was issued, and the old house was emptied and demolished.
Demolition of the old house. The kitchen sink is to the left, my bedroom to the right. The only bathroom, with a tub and no shower, was in between the kitchen and my bedroom.

Preparing to topple the chimney of the old house

The house was torn down, all but the back room, left standing and visible in the picture above, with my father standing in front of it. It still held his drawing table, building material catalogs, architecture textbooks, drafting tools, probably the bug-eyed washer and dryer, a supply of empty wine bottles, and in all likelihood, some unfolded laundry.
My daughter, Colleen standing on the felled chimney, you can look across the debris field to the new house.
Six grandchildren and the first Christmas in the new house, 1971

Just as construction was being completed, my mother's mother (Mimi) died, leaving  a bunch of cash and telephone company stock which was promptly liquidated to provide funds for furnishings. My mother entered a gloriously productive sober period and went into a decorating frenzy. She attended a class on interior decorating, sewed curtains, bought and arranged furniture. The youngest two children, Kenny and Valery, were at that fledgling state in their lives where they bobbed in and out of the nest for a brief while. But, for the most part, the nest was empty and my mother and father had the roost to themselves.

In 1973, my father's mother died and he collected the remnants of his inheritance. For the first time in twenty years, it wasn't necessary to pour all available time and money into the new house. My parents used the money to travel the world. They made friends in the UC Berkeley alumni association, and they entertained. I think the years from 1973 to 1984 may have been the happiest in their lives. The kids were all grown and independent, the soul-eating behemoth was placated, and they were free, free at last.

Of course, the story doesn't end there. My father died on April 1, 1984 of a sudden heart attack after a night of smoking, drinking, and dancing. He was 71 years old, and my mother was a widow at 65. For the first time in her life she was entirely alone.