As one house is built, another crumbles.
In the summer of 1989, my mother built a house. The Granville, as it was called, was a ready-to-construct Victorian dollhouse precisely modeled after the Granville Mansion in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. When my mother came across the advert in the local newspaper it read simply: “Experienced craftsperson wanted… excellent pay” and listed a telephone number which she soon learned belonged to some woman up in Yonkers, who had purchased the dollhouse as a gift for her young niece, though upon its delivery—packaged as a hefty boxed kit—realized she’d be best off hiring someone more apt to construct it. My mother had been searching the classifieds for months, taking odd jobs to make some extra money “for a rainy day.” As a young girl of seven years old, I had no way of knowing what that meant. It rained every day that month. The summer was marked by the earthy metallic scent before a thunderstorm when the streets of the city burned with acidic thirst.
She was the only person to call about the job, and it was hers. Within a week, in the form of varying sheets of perforated balsa wood and blueprint instructions for assembly, the makings of the Granville dollhouse arrived. And so my mother set to work constructing a mansion, in a half-emptied room in our family’s Bronx apartment.
My mother sat looking over her supplies. Ever a curious young girl, I rose to my knees from my spot on the floor beside her and peered over the table where she had laid out the thin slabs of wood, several bottles of glue, small clamps, and a slick utility knife.
“How does that song go?” My mother asked, looking down at me with a half-vacant expression that I understood required no response. She hummed a few muffled words about a “very very very fine house.” Little did I know then that Graham Nash’s chorus to “Our House,” written about his love affair with Joni Mitchell, was a constant soundtrack running through my mother’s head. At the time, it just lightened the thickness in the air.
I sat examining the family—a set of four miniature dolls my mother sewed precisely to model our own family, their muslin faces painted in life-like acrylic, a red heart stitched on the breast under each felted jumper.
A warm, sticky breeze entered through the room and wafted the smell of the honeysuckle that lined the fence to the neighbor’s garden. I watched my mother breathe in deeply. Then, worried the humidity might affect the balsa; she rose and stepped over me to shut the window. I asked her how big the house would be when was finished, if there would be room enough for all of us. “We’ll have to wait and see,” she said, studying the blueprint. Her patience was as soothing as her whispered song: With two cats in the yard, life used to be so hard, now everything is easy ‘cause of you….
In her high school yearbook, just below Library Aide and Student Council, my mother’s peers listed her most distinctive qualities: “fantastic seamstress, squeaky and feminine.” Below her photograph reads a line from Walt Whitman’s inquiring verse O Me! O Life! “That you are here—that life exists. That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”
My mother began to align the thicker slabs of the Granville’s foundation. Her hands were delicate, long. As she sanded smooth the edge of a floor panel, sawdust sprinkled her forearms. At 35, she still had the slender frame of her high school years, though no longer the mousy blonde hair. Now, her hair cropped short and prematurely grey, she stared off with the same lost wonder she held in her teenage years, the same strength of conviction waiting to bud from the flowers in her hair.
I looked down at the dolls in my lap. They were near perfect, though too small to bear the minor details—the hands and feet, the slight angle of a jaw—that compose the visual image of a family.
My father has flat feet. They spared him service in the Vietnam War, and what may have been a risky trip across the Canadian border. I didn’t inherit my father’s feet, or his wrestler’s build, or the fading halo of his black kinky hair. I have high arches, like my mother. We do share the same facial features—same nose, same cheekbones—which makes me, unmistakably, my father’s daughter. But my skin is shades lighter, filtering somewhere between his walnut-brown and the fair white skin of my blue-eyed, Irish mother.
My parents married in the 1970s, a biracial marriage that defied their families and tested the conservative boundaries of their Pennsylvania suburbs. As college dropouts and art school graduates, they moved to New York for a breath of urban tolerance.
I was born in 1982 into the hands of a peace-loving midwife named Lorna Davis after 10 hours in a maternity center on East 92nd Street and Madison Avenue. At the time my mother held a steady stream of work as a seamstress then found a secretarial position at a prestigious high school, where my brother and I later reaped the rewards of private education. My father was enrolled in seminary at Columbia Presbyterian because somewhere between art and religion he believed he might find his doctrine.
By the time I was five years old, we had moved into a small garden apartment in the Bronx, nestled due north of Manhattan. It was a yellow stucco house built into a hill. A house divided—about a quarter of which on the second storey (reached by a set of stone steps along the south end) was our small back-facing apartment with access to a terraced yard and a small portion of the attic.
My mother fixed up the back yard into a wild green garden, grew tomatoes and peppers, sunflowers that dwarfed us all. There, we brought home paint swatches from the hardware store and painted each room a different color based on the beauty of its name—Shrimp Toast, Celadon Cloud, Rusted Persimmon—and danced barefoot on the patio when it rained. My mother nurtured her green thumb, wrote poetry and waited for the Solstice; my father composed music on his guitar and painted in the attic; and my older brother and I grew up sewing patches on our corduroys, worshipping Cat Stevens.
On the morning my older brother turned nine years old, we woke in our bunked beds draped in a web of colored string that criss-crossed our bedroom walls, led out to the hallway, and transformed the entire apartment into a labyrinth of died yarn and twine. We found our parents in the living room, taking their tea and newspaper amidst the wild tangle of threads, like two fish caught in a net.
“Good morning,” was all my father said.
“Breakfast?” my mother asked.
I never understood how they managed to marvel us—to fool us—so straight-faced and composed.
In an hour or two my brother’s friends arrived, raided our dress-up box for hunting caps and cowboy hats, disguised in oversized glasses, tweed coats and field vests, like a troop out of Sherlock Holmes, and my father read dramatic riddles to an epic scavenger hunt in which each string, attached with a written clue, lead to another, unraveling the great maze.
I helped my mother ice cupcakes as she prepared lunch. From the kitchen window, I licked at the bowl of icing, rolled my eyes and laughed as my brother and his friends played exaggerated detectives to the mastermind of the great mystery web, and tried to imagine my next birthday—a decadent Mad-Hatter Tea Party set in the garden.
We were happy. My parents provided enough opportunity—a handful of friends and family to visit with outside of the city—to toggle between urban streets and natural landscapes. In the summer we made sun tea and rock candy. My brother and I caught salamanders along the creek roads of Vermont, and collected sea glass and cowry shells on the shores of Cape Ann. In winter we decorated gingerbread men with licorice, candied molasses in the snow, and every other year went west to my grandfather’s ranch in Tucson, where we baked fudge on Christmas, and weighed horse feed at dawn
But it was New York that grounded us. The city afforded my parents, with little to their name, freedom to craft an elaborate world of magic and possibility in which my brother and I—when not consumed with our own quarreling—were free to flourish, safe and supported.
We lived on the line where the affluent enclave of Riverdale dissolves into the massive borough of the Bronx. Tucked neatly below the suburbs of Westchester County, the neighborhood is bookended by the Hudson River to the west, and two-way traffic on Broadway to the east. Orthodox Jewish families stroll the tree-lined streets on Saturdays, while the Irish bagpipes sound off a game of hurling at Gaelic Park. On 238th street, old couples with their Sunday hats and swollen ankles line up outside the diner at dawn for the bus to Atlantic City. Slow-moving trains creak along the elevated subway platform heading one stop north to retire, like gutted silver fish, in the train yard near Van Courtlandt Park where, on summer afternoons the air fills with the sound of salsa or meringue, and the smell of sweet-charred barbeque.
They say John F. Kennedy owned a house on Independence Avenue. The women in the Laundromat would gossip about Ed Sullivan’s home in the Whitehall building. And, though it meant little then—a real TV man in the same building as my dentist—it confirmed my suspicions that the closer my brother and I rode our bicycles toward the river, the larger the houses grew, and the richer the people inside. But despite my observations, our attentions were tuned in elsewhere. My parents kept a steady tap into the world of downtown city politics. Newspapers piled in the hallway. Public radio broadcasted through the kitchen while my mother washed dishes.
“Turn that up for me would you honey?” she would say, motioning a soapy hand toward the clock radio propped on the counter. And inevitably, my father’s voice would bellow from the living room reminding “us kids” to “keep it down” each night during the McNeil Lehrer News Hour.
Ed Koch was in his third term as mayor. It had been nearly a year since the rioting in Tompkins Square, when the city dispatched police to enforce a curfew to rid the park of the homeless and street folk. Downtown New York was a ripe epicenter of creative chaos and evictions.
My mother was squatting before her worktable, installing a banister along what was to become the Granville’s front porch steps. She was dressed down to work in the heat. Her turquoise jersey, cut loose around the neck, hung slightly off her shoulder and billowed over a pair of cut-off shorts. Her ears, normally adorned with dangling stones and Mexican beads, were bare; her silvery grey hair wrapped neatly away in a pale bandana. Her legs were strong from running, her feet tan along the lines of her Birkenstock sandals. She knelt in close to look at what she had done.
The smell of wood glue tickled my nose. I marveled at the weightlessness of the balsa wood as my mother handed me a leftover scrap. I knelt down and scrawled my name in the thin coat of sawdust blanketing our own parquet floor, just enough to rouse my dust allergy and send me off with an incessant sneeze. My mother’s half-amused expression seeped through her eyes, barely biting back a “serves you right” before she smiled and reached down to untwist a strap of my overalls. She knew how much I loved it there, with her, with The Granville. Still, I was careful not to be a bother. I knew even then, there was something in her silence that summer that suggested she needed to build the house alone.
Instead, I became more interested in the reality that the Granville represented than the house itself. It seemed we all did for a while. When we had nothing to talk about we talked about the Granville. At dinner my father would ask my mother how it was coming along. My mother issued steady progress reports as I watched her spoon green peas onto my plate, and glanced up at my brother silently daring me to eat them one by one.
“Who ever gets the dollhouse should paint it camouflage,” my brother once said.
“That’s ridiculous,” I said as if knowing then that mansion’s grandiose refinement was fit for a scene of Fitzgerald where the wealthy parvenus of Long Island Sound gather indoors while Gatsby’s yellow roadster awaits outside. I hoped it would belong to a girl with a wagging ponytail, crisply pressed dresses, and enough sensibility to wallpaper the interior.
“The house will be one color and the shutters another. Just like the picture on the box. There are nine rooms,” I explained.
“Yes, well let’s just remember,” my mother said softly. “The house is going to another family when it’s all done.”
Many of my friends lived in big houses that I visited on play dates as their invisible parents entertained in a distant dining room and checked in every hour. In our one-bedroom apartment we tripped over one another. I recognized, with a certain envy, what fun it might be to slide down a banister into a spacious foyer, or close the door to my very own bedroom. Like any young child, I filtered between my want of large houses, new toys, and all other concepts deemed “normal” at the time, and my own distinct pride in our family’s differences. There was a certain comfort in our close quarters—each of us no more than a name call away. Yet that summer it seemed my parents hardly crossed paths. As if the humid air had swelled, not only the Balsa wood, but an invisible rift between them.
It was in those months I realized my parents rarely addressed one another, but instead spoke directly to my brother and me. I wondered if they were mad at each other, and why. It was like the silent treatment I used with my brother when he pulled at my curls or teased me with his friends. I tried my hardest not to look him in the eye. But he would inevitably make me laugh for some reason or another and I always broke my silence.
“They could put jungle moss along the balcony, like canopy cover in case of attack,” my brother continued.
“It’s supposed to be beautiful. Stupid.”
“Alright. Enough,” my father said. “Eat your food.”
As my brother offered far-fetched ideas for a secluded base camp for his G.I. Joe action figures, I countered with my own imaginings of a house filled with bright dreams and miniature armoires. And, like any well-loved children bathed in the unassuming ease of youth, we bickered wildly, played with our vegetables, and in our own oblivion, filled a deafening silence.
Inside, our apartment was a near-perfect portrait of bohemian disorder. Books covered every surface. A pair of overalls pinned down to my size lay waiting for weeks near the Singer sewing machine, draped with a half-knit sweater. Color photographs of my parents when they first met at art school in Pittsburgh lined the bookshelves, the edges tawny as if steeped in sepia. The walls were covered in mirrors, crocheted tapestries, my brother’s drawings of amiable wizards and elves with crossbows—meticulously convincing scenes from Tolkien novels. Canvases leaned against the television set, an old wooden box unit with a tight-clicking knob that ushered in one or two channels—three at best with the antenna propped just so. It was a small haven, cramped and cluttered. It was home. And I rarely thought to question it.
I remember one day I found my mother kneeling in the yard staking tomato plants along the stoned wall of our garden, scanning the stems and leaves for aphids. The sunflowers had been growing steadily all summer. They hung in the awkward lankiness of their adolescence. By summer’s end their stalks would thicken like torch handles stemming from their wide-seeded faces and petals of flame.
I watched our neighbor Frank—old, Italian, with kind eyes and a widowed heart—as he nursed a vine of cucumbers that crawled along the fence between our yards. He dropped a few, ripe and mature, on our side of the fence for my mother to chop for salad, and gave a quick wave to be sure she noticed. Frank’s house was built farther up into the hill. So I rarely caught sight of him from level ground but rather a sharp angle—a small old man looking down at us from above.
Next door to Frank, on the same hillside shelf where Waldo Avenue and Dash Place meet at a sharp curving bend, lived another young couple with two children. My brother and I played there often. Their house was large and creaky, built of stone and mortar with wide-planked mahogany floors.
“I get goose bumps all over,” I once told my mother, as I was convinced the structure held the haunting residuals of an ancient ghost story.
“It is certainly very old. In fact, years ago that was likely the main house,” my mother said. “And these two,” she motioned a hand full of weeds pulled at the root towards our house, then Frank’s, “probably belonged to the grown children.” My mother continued, attempting to explain how in the 19th century, the Riverdale section of the Bronx was an estate district where Manhattan moguls built their country homes.
“Back then it was considered the country around here,” she said.
“So we live in the daughter’s house?” I asked.
“Not exactly. The entire house likely belonged to the daughter. Our apartment would have been the maid’s quarters.”
In some pockets of the neighborhood, historic mansions of the past remained more or less intact, though with the turn of the century—the dawn of rail commuting, and the advent of small houses and apartment living—several streets transformed to create a modern-day architectural hodgepodge of distinguished Georgian- and Tudor- revival style homes from the 20th century, pre-war co-ops, multi-story buildings from the 1950s and 1960s, high-scale luxury condos, and mid-range housing projects.
We lived in the maid’s quarters. I tried to imagine where we might fit in on the architectural scale, just how we measured up in the neighborhood, in life.
I had known from a young age that my parents were different. They expected more from the world and there was a certain radicalism about them, but their politics were not manifest in picket lines. I wasn’t thrown on my father’s back attending protest rallies downtown. I have no lasting images of my mother perched on a soapbox amidst a swarming crowd. Theirs was a quiet defiance. It cried softly through their art. Members of society’s voiceless underbelly surfaced as protagonists of my mother’s verse, which she scrawled in notebooks alongside nature poems and folk illustrations. Rebellion echoed from the graphite drawings that hung above my father’s drafting table. In one, a young black boy peers up at a mounted officer, a small stone—the hinted promise of rebellion—clenched in the fist behind his back. For years, I tried to imagine, had it been a still frame from a motion picture, what might have happened next.
“If you had three wishes, what would you wish for?” I asked my mother. She stood by her worktable sweeping matchsticks and sawdust from the floor, remnants of another day’s work.
“That’s a good question,” she said as she stopped to prop her chin on the upright broomstick. The dollhouse sat on the nearby table. Each day it had slowly begun to take form. I circled around it peering in and around its skeletal frame of interior nooks and doorways, zig-zagging staircases. My mother leaned her broom against the wall and joined me, crouching down to inspect the innards of her mansion. On opposite sides we could see each other through the structure by way of the cavernous foyer, in between the slender columns. Small vertical beams, soon to be full walls, hid the full image of my mother’s face, like the rosewood grating of a confessional.
“I would wish for a big house like this one,” I whispered.
Through the Granville I could see only my mother’s eyes, sharply blue as the light turned to evening, and the air pressure hardened, bracing for the rain. I stood and ran around to her kneeling on the floor.
“I also wish that I had a cat, like my friend Susannah’s,” I said. “Her cat goes in circles before he sits in your lap. Like this—” I rolled my hands into paw-like fists and kneaded them gently into her thigh. My mother laughed and squeezed my hands.
“That does sound nice, doesn’t it?” She stood and reached for the broom again, perusing the floor. “Meanwhile, what a mess.”
I shrugged, happy to have made her laugh, and headed off to find my brother. Before I got too far, I stopped to listen: the broom swept against the wooden floor keeping time as my mother, left alone, began to hum her favorite song.
By the end of the summer, the Granville was complete. My father carried the house out to the garden and placed it on a stool. My mother posed for a photograph, her arm draped awkwardly over the shingled roof. There was a melancholy blush of accomplishment in her otherwise stiff expression.
As my father and brother fussed about, tinkering with the flash on his old Pentax camera, my mother leaned down to me. “Go and bring the family,” she said, fingering the curls at the nape of my neck. I ran in search of the dolls and propped them one by one around the exterior—my father and brother leaned forward on the second floor balcony, my own doll bent to sit on the front porch steps, my mother propped at a slant in main threshold behind me. They were the perfect size for the otherwise unfurnished home.
After the last photograph, I collected the dolls from the house, stood them up in the front pocket of my overalls, and watched my father carry the house away.
“We wouldn’t really fit in there, anyhow,” I said crinkling my nose up to stifle a sneeze, or a shiver. “Too much dust.”
My mother’s smile was warm. I leaned back into her and pulled her arms tight around my neck. I realized how much she hated to see it go. In the crease of her elbow the faint smell of Patchouli oil, sawdust, and sweat turned to the earthy metallic of a coming rain.
A few weeks later my mother announced at the dinner table that she had joined a female Outward Bound group and was heading off for a month to hike in the mountains of North Carolina. She said she needed to be in nature. She needed a change of pace. I looked over at my father nodding along silently as my mother spoke to us, looking down as he stacked a bite of food on the tines of his fork. I wished I could go with her. Before she left my mother took me in her arms. “When things start to feel too hard,” she said burrowing her cheek against my head of curls, “remember to be kind to yourself.” At the time, I was unsure what to make of her words, and it didn’t occur to me to ask, though I carried them with me for years. In all likelihood, her trip was the “rainy day” she had been saving for along. And I now realize the irony of her spending a summer to build a model house in order to flee—for a short while, a stint of kindness—the four walls of her own. In her absence, I drew pictures of her climbing the tallest mountains. I wrote to her—proud letters with nowhere to send them. But the time went quickly, and before I grew too curious, my mother was back home.
After that there had been a period of relative normalcy. Sometimes I wonder at how little I remember of those years. Or rather, how well my parents masked the budding divide between them, because for us children it just read as a prolonged period of silence, we grew accustomed. My father spent more and more time holed away in the attic writing music and my mother took night workshops at a nearby city college to hone her poetry and make new friends. Meanwhile, I entered the second grade and assumed a dose of healthy elementary-level diversions: pottery classes, extended recess, Laura Ingalls Wilder novels. And likewise, more grappling concepts: friendship circles, crushes on boys, pop music. I came to ignore the hushed interactions in another room, the closed doors behind which my parents, young and disappointed, were desperately negotiating how to save their marriage.
I was nine years old when my parents divorced. It was 1991, two years after the Granville dollhouse, and a late summer evening, when my father’s clenched fist came down against the half-cleared kitchen table, cracking the white linoleum Formica finish, breaking the bones in his left hand. My brother and I sat in the family room staring at the changing grey glow of an old Marx Brothers film playing on the television set, a muted scene from Horse Feathers, when cigar-toting Groucho in his painted mustache and slapstick routine tries to get the girl. My brother and I listened, trying to piece together severed strips of our parents’ muffled cries from the kitchen. But my father’s deep barreling growls and my mother’s angry shrills carried, not as decipherable words, but a disorienting noise that filled every corner of our apartment.
“What are they saying?” I whispered, tugging at my brother’s shirt.
“I don’t know. Shut up.” He brushed my hand away so hard that it pinged through my arm. I heard the crash of dishes, the deep clink of broken pottery down the hall. I was angry with my brother for turning on me but I was too paralyzed by the sounds from the kitchen to fight back. I tried to slide away from him but my dress had risen up under me and, in the heat, the warm sticky skin of my bare legs felt glued to the wooden floor.
“I’m sorry,” my brother’s voice softened. “It’s going to be okay.” He inched closer to me on the floor and we sat, cross-legged with our backs touching, as if to fend of an attack on all sides. A hot gust of air entered the living room window and boiled around us. Beneath the rich humidity I felt the chill of my own sweat. We waited.
After a few minutes, I heard my parents’ footsteps in the hallway. The next moment they were crouched on floor beside us, wrapping my brother and I in their arms.
“I’m so sorry,” my mother wept into my ear. “Everything is going to be alright.”
In the tangle of our parents embrace, I felt my father’s hand on my head, stroking my hair, and watched it move to cup and knead my brother’s shoulder. “We are going to change things. Things will be better now,” he said. His voice was heavy, smooth like tar.
We ate at the kitchen table for days after, setting our plates over the cracked divide left by my father’s fist, trying to ignore the harsh way it interrupted the surface, until my mother opened the other side for us to use. My father’s hand was in a cast for weeks while he moved into an apartment down the street.
A week or two later, my mother knelt on the floor with a newspaper spread out, packing a box of my father’s odds and ends. She stopped to skim a news story before clipping the article and pinning it in her nearby notebook. The headline said something about bulldozing in the shantytowns. By then it was Mayor Dinkins holding the reigns of the city as police in riot gear escorted men and women from abandoned buildings and East Village squats. The half-faded picture on the newspaper showed a woman in a wheelchair cast onto the streets with her cat Misty Blue. “The city doesn’t know how to handle its homeless population,” my mother said, wrapping up my father’s favorite coffee mug. I nodded in agreement, trying to emulate her quiet scorn. I looked down again at the newspaper and studied the woman’s face, photographed minutes after her eviction, with her belongings piled high into a metal shopping cart. I thought about my father moving out, his boxes piled by the front door ready to go. I understood the woman’s grimacing expression, torn between resentment and fear. I felt a cringe of nausea at the sudden realization: now I had two homes. Our structure was not holding. The world I knew had fallen victim to a great demolition.
“Honey?” My mother reached down and threaded her long fingers in between mine. My heart raced quickly as a mound of tears swelled in the base of my throat. I couldn’t bring myself to look up at her. I ran off to separate my things.
That evening, I pictured the dollhouse—the two-story tower, fancy cornices, and wrap-around porch—and the four family dolls, before I tucked the memory away.
It was the 1960s when Graham Nash penned his lyrics to “Our House,” with fire light in the windows, flowers in the vase, and “two cats in the yard,” nodding to the complexity of domestic stability and family life in the era of free love. And though the song’s scene belonged to a house in Laurel Canyon, it struck a chord from the hills of California to the streets of New York where, I have no doubt, my parents set forth to build a lasting future. But by the time I was seven years old I had learned about the transient properties of things. Just as the Granville, adorned in all its decadent possibility, would come and go, my parents were architects of their own wonderland, but it was not built to last.
The 1990s arrived. We watched Bill Clinton’s inauguration live on television at school, huddled on the reading carpet in the library. While New York City’s homeless still took up lodging in the streets, news of Mayor Giuliani’s crackdown aired on the radio. In time, my father worked a few jobs painting folk tale illustrations for children’s books, but made rent with a graphic design job. My mother charted her way from odd jobs and secretarial work to become an eighth grade English teacher and brought home dog-eared copies of Steinbeck and Salinger. My brother and I settled into our routine shuffle between our parents’ two apartments. Life went on. But we were all changed: my father stopped writing love songs on his guitar; my mother no longer gathered wildflowers along the side of the road; and though I cannot speak for my older brother, I spent years trying to understand what had gone wrong.