A Memoir of Home
My mother was in middle school when her parents moved from Maine to Old Saybrook. They first stayed with the Lord family on Old Boston Post Road, a property that backed up to the Goodwin school site. My grandfather was an independent insurance agent and soon found a suitable place for both home and insurance office at 369 Main Street. He rented the house, but it was also for sale.
My grandparents made an offer on that house but could not get it on terms suitable for their situation. Instead, they purchased the house at 351. This all happened in the mid-1950s, so my mother was well-established in that home by the time she attended junior high and high school.
The house was a square Shingle Style structure with cedar shakes and two ells. A large ell to the south (to the left when facing the house from the street) of the main house was the living room on the main floor and the larger bedroom on the second floor. The small ell to the west was a summer kitchen, mudroom, and laundry room.
My grandfather turned the front two rooms of the main house into his insurance office. There was a door in the corner nearest the driveway (which ran down the north side of the house) for the business, and the house had a porch on the front of the living room ell, with a welcoming door into the bright room that got sun morning and evening.
Before my recollection, there had been an enclosed porch on the rear of the ell, but my grandparents removed it. I’ve seen it in pictures in my mother’s old slides. I heard that an old tree damaged it and that my grandmother preferred a bright living room to a back porch.
In my perception of the house, the front was all business, and the back was all fun. We always entered from the driveway in the rear before I lived there. My mother and I moved in when my parents split, two months before my fourth birthday. After that it was my home. And it has been ever since, even though I only lived there four years.
Those were formative years. Although I have memories going back to the age of 18 months, I can only remember living in two places briefly, before living in the house at 351. By the time I moved out of that house, I had lived there half of my life. It was a wonderful place for a young boy.
The second floor of the main house, like the first floor, had been sectioned off. The front two rooms were an apartment with its own stairway down to a side door off the mudroom. The back half was a bedroom and a large bathroom. My mother moved into the apartment area and I had the bedroom behind it. It seemed enormous to me. And it had two lovely windows looking out on my world, the backyard.
Oh my, that backyard. The back steps were stone. Next to the steps, there was a cellar door that provided hours of fun for little boys. Nearby was a clothesline. A cement well enclosure was to the right near the mudroom ell, on the wall of which hung a bird feeder. There was a little step down to the back lawn from the slightly terraced area by the house.
Between the step down and the driveway, there was a small-ish tree. Its lowest limb was right at the furthest reach I could manage on tiptoe. In the shade of that tree we would set out folding lawn chairs in the late spring and enjoy the salty breeze off of the Plum Bank and the Back River.
The backyard was a huge playground of fruit trees, a two-story garage, and my grandfather’s garden. If I were to estimate the size of the yard, I would put it at an acre or more. But my little eyes saw everything much bigger. The property, according to tax records, is half an acre. The same size as the little yard at my current house.
At one age or another I climbed every tree in that backyard, I’m proud to say. Four apple trees, a pear, a cherry, a huge maple, and that little tree by the back door. I even climbed a few of the cedars along the edge of the property. But I don’t recall climbing any of the trees by the road or the giant tree near the corner of the front porch.
One time I even had a summer birthday party in the backyard, with a Slip’n’Slide and a Water Wiggle, and cake and ice cream, the whole works. Which was strange, because my birthday is the end of February. My mother wanted me to have a fun, outdoor party with friends over, so she scheduled the party right after school ended. It was the biggest party I ever had, with a dozen wet seven-year-olds squealing and running pellmell.
The best times I ever had at 351 Main were undoubtedly indoors, though. Like the afternoons “helping” my grandmother bake, waiting for a spoon or beater to lick. Or the family parties around bowls of fresh oyster stew or lobsters. The back rubs from my aunt when I was having trouble sleeping. A Christmas with my father visiting, playing with me on the floor. Or the time my mother made a Winnie-the-Pooh from a McCall’s pattern and presented it to me while I was sick in bed with swollen glands.
So much happened in my young life in those four years. We even moved out and back in one time over the course of two months. I learned that house from the stuffy attic to the drafty cellar where jars of cider were turning into vinegar and growing a cloudy “mother” that scared me witless.
The memories of that house flood in at unexpected times in my life. If I play cards, I remember learning to play Rummy and count my own points at the little marble-top table in the living room. When we decorate for Christmas, I’m flooded with memories of the knitted stocking my mother made back then as I unpack the knitted stockings we have today, all lovingly knitted by my mom over twenty years ago. When I hear of a car hitting a tree, I think of the many accidents on that sweeping corner of Main Street where we often had a front-row seat.
Toys, songs, cartoon characters, TV shows, grass stains, bees, cider, compost, bicycles, Halloween, and a thousand other things have reminded me of living there. And many people, too. Family and friends and strangers. Each person and thing has a memory associated with it, connecting it with the house at 351 and that little slice of time.
This last memory I’ll share is one that you must promise not to misunderstand. There was once a car accident. The car hit a tree, the front porch, the corner of the house, took down a hydrangea, and flattened a signpost before continue on its way up Main Street to to The Monkey Farm.
It happened in the middle of the night, which made the Ford wagon easy for the police to find. Especially because the hydrangea was still dragging under the badly mangled front bumper. The car belonged to a well-known businessman who had a house in Fenwick, but was being driven by an Indian man who worked for him. The Indian fellow had gotten lost when heading back to Fenwick from the Terra Mar.
I don’t know what his employer put him through once he sobered up, but part of his penance was to come and apologize to my grandmother and insist on paying for repairs to the house and yard. He must have dressed up for the occasion, because he arrived at the house in a pajama, sandals, and turban.
My great aunt saw him get out of the car and took off to hide in the bathroom with the door locked. My grandmother was gracious in accepting his apology, but had a hard time keeping a straight face. I only glimpsed him before being sent upstairs. It was a surreal experience in our sheltered lives, seeing and hearing this exotic visitor.
Yes, it was a sheltered life. It was safe and full of support and acceptance. Notwithstanding my aunt’s fears of being dragged off to a harem, it was a home free of prejudice based on religion, race, age or social standing. It was supportive, calm, and slow-paced with time for everyone. I didn’t see the decay. I just felt the love.