An Architect of Sorts
I’ve always been fascinated by other people’s houses. Ever since I was 4 I remember knocking on people’s doors claiming I needed to tinkle, my ruse to get inside their houses. I wasn’t a thief or gypsy, acting innocent, while silently begging. This was a time when people didn’t lock their doors or cover them with triple dead bolts. This was the 50’s and children were truly innocent, not yet jaded by their parent’s misfortune. It was 1956 and I was sweet, plump, and told fantastic stories, most of them figments of my imagination. I was on the cusp of learning between right and wrong, truth and lies, but because stories were so detailed, no one bothered to ask if they were indeed made up tales.
Born in Connecticut, I was merely six months old when we moved a state away to Binghamton, in New York, an ideal town for kids to grow up in. A river ran through the center of town. The bridges that helped cars move over the river were made of steel and car tires squealed so loud you had to cover your ears. There was a working carousel on every other street corner, all of them free to ride. I loved carousels, and my mother could place me on a horse and talk with her friends for hours, and still, I’d want more time on the endless circle to nowhere. Winter ran from October through May, with snow drifts piled way over my head. Sidewalks were bordered by walls of shoveled snow, and endless snowmen crowded each front lawn. Santa came to our house even though we didn’t have a chimney. There were no snow days from school in Binghamton. People would put chains on tires and just keep moving.
Every morning I’d rise with my father, and he’d tuck me into a chair in front of the TV with a blanket, bowl of shredded wheat covered with mounds of sugar, and a teeming glass of chocolate milk. I’d watch “Captain Kangaroo” and Mr. Green Jeans while my father dressed for work.
He and I were partners in crime. We loved sweets, especially chocolate. Cakes, brownies, ice cream, and candy. Every Saturday morning we’d walk to town to his favorite bakery and buy donuts. Who’s to know our love for sweets would give us both adult onset diabetes? My father and I also loved dogs. We had a series of Shelties, each one named Jamie, which my father would spend countless hours training to heel, walk on command, and sit. He showed a succession of Jamie’s in competitions but each Jamie was never top dog. Shelties have minds of their own, but once you learn to tolerate the incessant barking, they are quite obedient and smart.
My curiosity about houses woke up with me one morning and has never gone away. Each entrance to a house offers a life different from mine. It was like opening a new book with many pages yet to read. The idea about needing to tinkle to allow me into other people’s house was quite creative; my mother told me years later, when, at age 14, I was horrified by what I’d done. I’d start at the top of Davis Street, and slowly make my way down one side and up the other. It was a long exercise that I never tired of.
The first house I entered was one made of stucco. The sides of it looked like shredded wheat covered in mounds of white sugar. Inside, lived an elderly woman who kept a collection of glass birds. She was considered rich because in a town of frame bungalows, hers was not a bungalow, nor was it frame. What looked like fancy green grass climbed up the outside and two large evergreens shaded the front walk. Sun, reflecting from her bay window, would wink at me as I made my way to her front door. In her dining room, she kept a collection of glass birds that I was just itching to hold. Blue ones, clear ones, yellow for finches, and pale pinks. I don’t remember much about her bathroom, which she insisted was a powder room, or her, except to one so young such as me, she seemed ancient with white hair and a whispery voice, but I loved those glass birds. She taught me how to cup each one in my hand and to “watch out, they’re fragile.” Today, I have glass birds, wooden birds that sing, and plastic birds that move their necks, but nothing as special as her collection.
The next door I knocked on belonged to a man who lived alone. His voice sounded like Jamie’s when he barked in defiance to heeling. Mr. Henry was his name. I’m not sure if that was his first or last name. I didn’t really have to use his bathroom, but instead I’d merely stop to chat while he was mowing his lawn. He had a push mower that he used every day. We had a push mower too, but once a week was how often my daddy used his. My father made fun of him. He’d look at the very short grass on his lawn and say, “What would possess a man to mow his lawn every day? He must be lonely or bored.” I’d often ask Mr. Henry to take me to the carousel. His answer was always the same, “A little later in the day, Merry, okay?” Later in the day we were both on to something else.
Next to his house lived the Dells. They were Catholic. By the time I was in my teens, I knew that being Catholic in the 50s was like being black any decade. Blacks by far were at the end of a totem pole of prejudice, but Catholics crowded lower rungs too. Irish Catholics, that is. Nowadays I know that once Protestants didn’t like Irish Catholics because they didn’t use birth control, but in 9th grade History, I’d learned the Irish were prejudiced against since immigrating to America in the 1850s. More Irish meant fewer jobs for their brethren already trying to accept their place in the world. In Ireland in the mid-1900s, they fought each other in a religious civil war, Protestants against Catholics. Kids as young as five threw rocks at kids as young as three. The British Army move in to try and make peace, but instead Irish blood ran putrid in the streets from the oppression of British presence in their country. Italian Catholics owned the bakery my father and I frequented, and were respected more than Irish Catholics. Non Catholic Whites of course, topped the totem pole and never faced prejudice anywhere. Not that at age four I knew what prejudice was, or that people worldwide suffered from poverty. All I knew is that I lived in a land of white people – at the park, the bakery, my sister’s school, and up and down our street.
There were two Catholic families on Davis Street. The Dells and the Cains. The Dells’ father went to work five days a week carrying a briefcase, but Mr. Cain went to work only sometimes. The Dells had four children, while the Cains fit seven into their tiny bungalow. Everyone shared a bedroom. Mr. Dell didn’t have a drinking problem like Mr. Cain, who sometimes on Friday nights would come home in the dark singing so loud he made dogs bark, and then he and Mrs. Cain would fight, and he’d push her into the bushes. But the Dells kissed in their front door when Mr. Dell arrived home from work. My parents kissed behind closed doors, without hugs and they didn’t laugh about it like the Dells. We were Protestants, after all.
Mary Magdalene Cain was my age, and already she was in charge of Charlie, the two year old, who’d flee the house every morning stark naked, no matter the weather. Mary’s job was to catch and dress him. Sometimes it took all day, if I helped. I was fascinated by his little penis that bounced between his chubby legs. In my family, my sister and I lacked penises. Maybe being Catholic gave you more body parts than being Episcopal. Both the Dells and Mrs. Cain and her children went to church with handkerchiefs on their heads but my family hardly ever went to church, and even then, I got stuck in Sunday school. The only good thing about that were graham crackers we earned as snacks.
When I turned 5, there were less days spent on carousels, and more days spent with the neighborhood hooligans. Being 5 meant I could hang out with 6 year olds after they got out of school. They did daring things, like climb trees, riding two wheeled bikes, and ringing people’s doorbells, then running away. Peer pressure taught me to graduate from a tricycle to a two wheeler. Another game we played at night was called Boo. I always had more boy friends then girls. Boys who got to stay up later than the little kids, would crouch under bedroom windows and shout a series of “Boo”, scaring the little ones half to death. There was a lot of daring going on. “Dare you to run across the street without looking!” Jimmy Cain would chant. It was silly, because no one ever came down the street except the mailman. But if you didn’t complete a dare from time to time, you were considered chicken. Chicken was the worst. I became an expert tree climber, sometimes daring myself if no one else did. But I never squeezed a kitten through a mail slot, or ate those strange looking plump flowers on the ground. “Mushrooms won’t kill you. It’s only toadstools that are dangerous” Timmy Cain goaded. Tommy or Mickey, or maybe it was Johnny who finally stepped forward and gulped the toadstool down in one fearless bite. When he didn’t turn purple or barf on his shoes, we all scattered home for dinner. Not long after, though, Johnny began moaning in pain, and his mother, frustrated at what she thought was hijinks, found out through me that he’d eaten a toadstool. She didn’t know whether to believe me or not, given my sense of story-telling. But, when he got worse, she rushed him to the hospital, and had his stomach pumped just in time. Neighbors never doubted me again.
And then all of a sudden my idyllic childhood changed. We moved! This time, through the mountains with falling rock signs and Jamie puking in my father’s suit pockets, to a large metropolitan city called Baltimore in a place called Maryland. There was no snow in May and sometimes no snow all year! To me, moving to Baltimore, Maryland was like moving to another country. I’d been to Canada where my father was born, but that was merely an 8 hour trip from Binghamton. It took us two whole days to follow the moving van to Maryland. It was May when we left, and June when we arrived in steaming hot weather.
We stopped just over the border of Pennsylvania to have lunch at Howard Johnson. To my delight, they had chocolate ice cream sundaes on the dessert menu! But instead, I had a hard lesson to swallow about Segregation. My father had already been living in Maryland for a year when our entire family made the move, so he was immune to it, but my mother was horrified. A journalist, Mom had heard of segregation, but had not yet confronted it first-hand. And, my father, through all his reports about how friendly people were in Baltimore, and how lovely our house was, never once mentioned the travesty. So when my mom emerged from our car and saw brown people lined up at the carryout entrance while only white people were seated inside, she nearly created a riot. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but she yanked my sisters and me from our table and headed outside. At the same time, our Sheltie greeted us at the entrance, wagging his tail, as if he too found segregation deplorable in 1957. My mother swore she would not set foot in Maryland if “things” were like this happened everywhere. I remember my father’s exasperation about Jamie getting loose, but I was still trying to figure out what had gone wrong in Howard Johnson’s. Trying to make peace, my father settled Jamie in his lap, and we drove further down the road to a Gino’s, where everything was carry out. My questions about why some people were brown went unanswered as my parents quibbled in the front seat.
Once ensconced in Baltimore, I never checked out a bathroom again. There was much exploring to be done. I learned to roller skate in little circles called Garths, and make friends in alleys behind our house, there were fish in two large lakes at the bottom of our street. I made a lot of friends that summer that I’d see in school in my class in September.
School. I didn’t like it, even though I’d never been to kindergarten. We were always being told to keep quiet, or read aloud about Sally and Billy, each one of us in first grade taking turns. First grade was confusing. There was a lot of standing in lines, facing forward, hands to yourself. And very scary Air Raid drills, where we ducked under our desks and put our hands behind our necks. No one ever explained what Air Raid drills meant, except David, who’d say, “It’s the Commies. They’re going to make us fry!” His heads were airplanes and Pshaw was the sound a bomb would make.
School lasted from 9 in the morning to 11:30, when first graders like me, were sent home for lunch and a nap, and returned to our sunny classroom by 1 for reading, writing and arithmetic. By spring, I’d learned how to ride public busses, and trolleys, accompanied by brown people who kept their eyes downcast, while other brown women wore gray uniforms and white aprons. Both my parents went to work. while my sister and dogs and I were cared for by a colored maid.
So much had changed in such a short while. I turned six during that summer, but despite my old age, was unsure how to act with this dark skinned woman in our house. I was warned that I would obey Sara just like I obeyed my parents, or else. I wondered if she didn’t take baths that made her skin look dirty, but I was too scared to ask. I mean, she saw me in my underwear, and gave me baths, and had two gold teeth. She was nice, and my father paid her transportation every day in cash. She lived way far away in Baltimore City with her daughter and three children. Her daughter was 20, and the children were ages 4, 3 and 2.
The first time I got Tonsillitis in our new town, Sara sat by my bed feeding me Jello and Ginger Ale. She’d give me sponge baths, which is when you stay in bed and get rubbed with a wet sponge. She said it would bring down the fever. It was then that I realized I loved her. The sponge bath did indeed bring down my fever. And when school ended, she’d sometimes bring over Peaches, her oldest grandchild. Peaches had 5 braids on her head, and they all stood up straight on her scalp. She would always say to me, “Yes, mam,” which I didn’t like, but otherwise we got along fine, sharing Good Humor ice cream together. My sister and I had been cared for her for a year when Sara had a stroke on a trolley, and died instantly. A stroke is a very bad headache that made you die. I was so sad I hadn’t said goodbye, so my father took me to her funeral service. Sara’s relatives and friends stopped talking when my father and I arrived, him in a suit, and me in a plaid dress ironed by Sara. I placed a singled long stemmed red rose on her casket and then asked the man who patted me on the head if he scrubbed really hard, maybe he could be white too.
It was a while before I caught on about segregation. My school was all white, and so was my neighborhood. Everyone had maids, but not everyone treated them nicely. The Irish Catholics who lived next door would sic their Dobermans on maids when they left at night. They’d laugh really loud when the maids screamed. The term maid comes from England, having to do with maids in waiting, young girls who waited on the Queen, serving her tea and helping her undress at night, but they were never colored. About a month after Sara died, Marie showed up and cared for my sister and I until we were in high school. Years later, Marie even attended my wedding.
My father treated Marie as well as he’d treated Sara. He opened a social security account for her and gave her a raise before she’d even started working. He bought her three uniforms too. Summertime, he’d allow her to occasionally bring her great granddaughter with her, and it turned out to be Peaches, again. I didn’t understand how Sara could have Peaches as a granddaughter, and Marie have Peaches as a great granddaughter when Marie was only 40.
School in second grade was even harder than first. In second grade, once I learned how to use a ruler, I began designing houses during Art. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t another Frank Lloyd Wright in the making. All I wanted was to grow up and have babies. But I created elaborate mansions, pink bungalows, and high rise apartment buildings. Over a span of 10 years, I got better and better at it. I switched to colored pencils, and then ink pens. I numbered and named each design, and filled binder after binder. I had 100s of McCall paper dolls that I’d dress up and act out entire family scenarios, using the houses as their background design. I’d even ask family members what was their dream house and draw it to specification. A lot of my creations were imitations of our house in Maryland – complete with step down living rooms, French doors, a backyard Koi pond with a waterfall, wall to wall built in bookcases with a fireplace in the center, a whole other room under a staircase, too big for a closet and too small for a bedroom, a basement with slaves’ quarters where my sister and I roller-skated on rainy days. A front porch made of slate and a back terrace with steps leading into a massive garden. Windows made of wrought iron that opened out instead of up and down. A kitchen with not only stainless steel appliances, but also stainless steel countertops. A pantry my mother used as an office. There were built in corner cabinets in the dining room and ceiling molding in every room.
Everyone thought I was merely designing houses, but in reality, I was creating whole families to live in these mansions. There was the hotsy-totsy lady who religiously wore pink with her white fur neck scarf. She was Elizabeth Monroe. There were the Cains who came alive in my portfolio, fully dressed, standing as a family of 9 at the altar of a Catholic church. There was Johnny, who hired a maid to taste every dish before he dug in, just in case it was poisoned.
In Baltimore, I sometimes ached for the glass birds I’d once held in my tiny hands, or Mr. Henry, who push mowed his lawn every day, and of course, carousel rides. Some things you remember as easily as the freckle on your hand, and others you search the entire house for. I returned to Binghamton with my son in tow many years later, and drove up and down Davis Street where I’d once lived. Pointing left, pointing right, I could still recite the name of every person who lived in what house and exactly how their bathroom looked in 1956.
Why did I take up such a peculiar habit and not become an architect? My only answer is that there are many types of architects: industrial, commercial, residential, garden, and garage. I’m an architect of sorts but I don’t actually build buildings. To be more specific, I’m a story architect, superior mother to the characters in my tales. In my first two published novels, the families lived in townhouses. I once called them stitched together houses as if the families were sewn inside, nice and tight. In fact, my first home as an adult was a row house with a bay window and bright yellow kitchen.
I’ve been crafting a novel for five years. This fictional family of 8 has recently moved from their birth home to a smaller house in another city, three under one roof, 4 under another. In real life, people want to know your beginning more than they care about your end. Your beginning has a lot to do with how you turn out as a human being. As the health of this fictional family improves, one by one, the curtains once tightly shut will begin to open, as the father, once a soldier and now a citizen, begins to shed one persona for another. I, like an architect, created these characters, Ali, Bean, Matt and Merry for a certain specification, starting all the way back to when I was 4 years old and critiquing neighborhood bathrooms.