Tuesday, June 17, 2003

This is Gonna Get Long, So Grab a Glass of Wine

I didn't actually get to talk to my father on Father's Day because he was moving from the house he has lived in for 25 years to a condo in Cambridge. My dad is easily overwhelmed and stressed, and feels an intense obligation towards the people he loves the most, so even just a quick phone call in the middle of all that moving would have possibly killed him. Anyway, Father's Day isn't really his bag, and I guess I inherited his general dislike for and suspicion of the "Hallmark holidays." I'd rather celebrate his birthday with him and be done with it.

What I really want to write about, though, is the house he is moving out of. When his wife, my stepmother Polly, died suddenly two years ago of brain cancer, my dad went from owner to tenant overnight. In her will, Polly left the house and land to her three biological children, my stepsiblings, under the condition that my father could remain there for as long as he wished. I really don't have a childhood home -- I was born in New York, my parents moved to a suburb of Boston when I was 2, they were divorced when I was 7 and my mom and I lived in a couple more houses between 7 and 14, when I escaped to boarding school in Vermont and my mother fled the suburbs to go live on Cape Cod.

When I was 10, my dad moved in with Polly and her three children, who were living in a house on the North Shore of Boston she bought with her first husband in the early 1970s. When I was 12 my father and Polly were married in the living room. Back then it was a fairly modest, albeit charming, 18th century farmhouse sitting on 10 acres in a sleepy Merrimac Valley town. Over the years both the town and the house have been transformed. Boston's suburban radius grew exponentially in the 1980s, and now it is not unheard of to commute to Boston daily from New Hampshire, some 10 miles north (and that much further away from Boston) from where the house is located. The town my father lived in was transformed overnight into a pretty wealthy suburb, with some awfully valuable real estate. My stepmother, always an excellent gardener, got a degree in landscape architecture from Radcliffe and set about cultivating 3 of the 10 acres of land, creating a beautiful estate of flower beds, hidden nooks with benches and statues, a frog pond with a running stream, several storage buildings, and eventually a swimming pool, labyrinth and fire pit. Meanwhile the house burst out of its boxy farmhouse shape and gained an enormous, fully-equipped kitchen, and the addition of a large dining room with a pantry and basement underneath. The wood for the kitchen (and the refurbished master bathroom) was imported from South America. The dining room featured a heated stone floor. All the rooms were filled with Polly's paintings, beautiful light fixtures. The wide plank wood floors in the entire original house were resanded. A pergola was added to the front entrance. The pavement driveway was torn up and a new gravel driveway with a different entrance was installed. And on and on.

It is possibly my favorite house on the planet. And it's all about Polly. That house and land were her heart and soul, a full and complete expression of her spirit. Polly, if you haven't figured it out already, bore a somewhat frightening resemblance to Martha Stewart (except maybe for the insider trading thing and the reputation of being a bitch). She was a perfectionist in all she did, and she did everything. She was a ballroom dancer, a painter, a singer, a landscape architect, a gourmet chef, a healer, a historian. This was not always an easy parent to have, even step-parent. But I worshipped her and learned from her and emulated her and assumed, like everyone else, that she would live forever.

I don't know what will happen to the house now. The taxes alone will cost her kids an arm and a leg. The upkeep on the property just to maintain the landscaping would surely put them under. It was sinking my dad fast, and I know he was extremely relieved to finally find a place and be out from under the burden -- not just financial, but the burden of responsibility, of oversight, of knowing what to do, which Polly made seem effortless. Relations between my father and my stepsiblings are strained; the usual fighting over who gets what has been going on. I am far away, half way across the country from all of this, and removed entirely, in any case, from the decision making and the bickering and whatever else is happening. I try to know as little as possible about it all.

I don't know what I'm trying to say, except that I'm sad. I miss her. The house was a part of her, and now it's gone from me too. I wish she was still around to talk to me on the phone and to be a grandmother to my kids. I miss her cooking and her funny little anecdotes about the animals and the way she would look at me with such barely constrained mischief sometimes. I feel shut out from the house, and consequently shut away from her, and in a way it's like she's died all over again but no one knows this time.

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