A Memoir of Three Tenants
My grandparents lived at 351 Main Street, where they ran their insurance business from the mid-1950s until about 1967 when my grandfather passed away. I began living there at the beginning of 1967, and I was there about four years.
During that time, I was friends with the man next door, Mr. Kirtland, who was a widower and retired real estate broker. My good friend Jonathan lived behind Mr. Kirtland’s house and we often cut across his yard or played in the huge puddle that would form at the back of his yard in a heavy rain.
I often visited Mr. Kirtland, especially right after my grandfather died. He was a kind old fellow, just a couple of years older than my grandfather, and I think he was standing in for him while he could.
I remember the inside of his house, entering through the back door into the old kitchen, visiting with him in the big living room with the old radiators, and looking out of the bay window with the great view down Main Street toward Maple Avenue.
Mr. Kirtland moved away around the time I started school, I think. Late ‘68 or early ‘69, I’d guess. His old car sat in the drive, and some people came and emptied the house. My mother had a hard time breaking the news to me. He’d had some health issue and couldn’t live in his house any longer. I can’t remember how I felt.
Within the next year, there were new people moving in. They had a boy and a girl, and I quickly made friends with the boy. Their last name was Petrie, if I recall correctly. Not sure about the spelling, but I remember that it was pronounced “pee tree”, which was funny to a six-year-old.
Their boy was my age, and I walked him to school the first day. But he seemed immature to me, and his jokes were silly. I played with him and introduced him around the neighborhood, but he didn’t get along with my friend Jonathan, so I was happy to leave him behind when we went off to play.
His sister was a little older and her name was Lynn. I was interested in everything she did. She had a bigger bike than I had and I used to try to ride it. She was taller than me, but I was better at climbing trees. I remember showing off and my mother teasing me about having a girlfriend.
And I remember my friend Bobby teasing me about her, too. That’s when I first learned that little ditty about K-I-S-S-I-N-G. I wasn’t sure what kissing had to do with trees, but I remember thinking it sounded like a good idea. But I’m not sure it sounded like fun to her.
I remember Lynn’s name only because I took a picture of her magenta bike, which had a little Connecticut license plate with her name on it. I don’t know why I took the picture, but I still have it somewhere. I don’t recall what she looked like, but the bike is burned deep in my memory.
I moved away from there when I was almost 8 years old. We drove by sometimes and I passed often when my grandmother lived down on Maple Avenue, but for seven years I never visited my grandparents’ home or the house at 355. I saw that someone closed in the porch of number 355 and used it as a real estate office for a few years. And they added some gravel parking spaces to the front yard. But not much changed before my family moved into 355 at the very beginning of 1979.
I had lived in Clinton since the fall of 1971. Just before Christmas of 1978, my parents signed a lease on the house I had visited often but had never loved. Soon I was living right alongside the house I still thought of as home. I often wondered how it must feel to my mother who lived at number 351 through junior high, into college, and then again from ‘67 to ‘71. Or to my grandmother when she came to visit, looking at her home of sixteen years, at her plantings and the updates she and her husband had worked on together.
Initially, my parents gave me the sun porch for my bedroom. It was a good spot, close to the kitchen (very important to a fifteen-year-old boy), and the perfect spot to photograph the sunsets I had often watched from the house at 351. Grammy’s sunset. I recall standing with her, looking out at the orange glow, and saying that. I know she cried, but I might have, too. Just a little.
That is the room where I broke out with chicken pox. I was soon to turn sixteen. Having chicken pox at that age was pure torture. Sleeping was rough, maybe two hours at a time. I took lots of baths in Epsom salts to get a few hours of relief.
While we lived at 355, I took my young siblings on explores through the cornfield and other places behind the houses and up to Homestead Street. The man who lived out behind us brought home a Jaguar XKE carcass and rebuilt the car. He did a beautiful job, and I enjoyed seeing him motoring down the driveway with the top down, wearing a jaunty cap and a wicked smile. I was seventeen and he could probably smell my jealousy from across the yard.
We lived there 18 months. I took advantage of every opportunity to visit the people and places that I had enjoyed in my younger years. Up to the library. Walking my sister to school at Goodwin. Biking out Maple Avenue and around Great Hammock. And plenty of trips to Ed’s Enterprises or models.
After we had been there a few months, our uncle moved in. They gave him my room, and I moved up to the attic. It was great in the spring, but it got stuffy in the summer and frigid in the winter. I slept under an electric blanket. My cat did, too. It was extreme, but the view was outstanding.
From the window on the driveway side of the house, I could see the whole yard over at number 351, which had been my kingdom and playground. I could also see up Main Street to the churches and could glimpse the top of the town hall on a clear day.
From the front window, I could see North Cove and up to Maple Avenue. I could see Gilda’s colorful house and the big shingle house that belonged to the Honers for so many years. And I had room on the huge floor to set up my HO trains and create a little city. And I whacked my head on the rafters a lot.
Meanwhile, down on the enclosed front porch, my step-father started a computer business right in our house. It didn’t take me long to learn to program the computers with both games and educational software. That was when I got to see why my grandfather had located his business on that corner. It was just far enough away from town to feel like home, but close enough for easy access by customers.
We moved up onto Ferry Hill in the summer of 1980 and I missed many things about living in that house and being in town. I even missed my uninsulated attic bedroom. But moving into the woods and up onto the highest point in Old Saybrook was cool, too. We even got to have a pool with a view of the river and the Sound. But a little sadness remained. I think it still does.