Heart of Glass
The summers of my childhood were spent at Nana’s house in Montauk.
My great-grandmother lived all the year round in an old gray cottage overlooking the Atlantic. Every inch of that house was beloved to me: every stick of furniture, every bit of old glass, every worn blanket. The chair I was sitting in had been scooped off a Brooklyn sidewalk by Nana in 1914. Nana’s mother had made her living as a seamstress on the ancient Singer. The framed embroidery on the living room wall had been executed by some dimly remembered Swedish ancestor; the many-colored dishes in the little kitchenette on the porch were collected at the movies in the 1940s.
Best of all was Nana’s attic. I was usually not allowed to go up the steep stairs because it was believed I’d break my neck. But if I could come up with a plausible pretext, the attic was fun to dig through, filled with the detritus of many years of family history. There were books, coins and stamps collected by my long-dead great-grandfather and furniture painted with Swedish folk-art designs by some distant relation. Mom had painted SUSAN IS A RAT (about her sister) on one cupboard in the 1950s. The one window offered a spectacular view of the ocean.
In the back of Nana’s house was the tiny guest cottage where we stayed as a family, four kids in one room, two parents in another. The kitchen of the cottage had worn linoleum on the floor with holes you needed to avoid with bare feet. The living room was lined with beds where we children slept head to foot.
The room might have been cramped, but the beds in Montauk were great. I loved the feeling of shivering with sunburn (it was the 1970s) under a wool blanket and a crisp sheet. Nana had a huge stock of extra sheets from the laundry, and though I’ve looked long and hard for their like today, I can’t find them. They were smooth with much washing and sweet-smelling when dried on the line in a garden overlooking the sea, often hung out by me. And the wool blankets smelled like mothballs. Most people hate that smell, but I don’t, because it reminds me of Nana.
The living room also contained an old porcelain-topped table under which I hid the Judy Blume novels my mother would have confiscated. (The leaves on the table slid out, but when they were under the table, you could slip a slim paperback between them. You have to be creative to find privacy in a fourteen-by-fifteen room with four beds and three siblings in it.)
One summer, Nana decided to clear out some of the stuff in the attic. Dad and my brother set up tables on the lawn, and my brother carefully lettered “ATTIC SALE!” on wooden boards and propped them on Old Montauk Highway.
On one of the tables, Mom set out glassware no one wanted. There I saw that my favorite thing in Nana’s house was for sale. It was an old glass dessert set, emerald green with painted daisies, so pretty I just wanted to be able keep looking at it. Everything pleased me about it: the graceful Victorian shapes, the color, and the daisies, a less obvious choice than roses.
I yearned for the dessert set, but Nana had put a price of ten dollars on it and I didn’t have ten dollars. My allowance was 25¢ a week. I considered asking Nana if I could have it, but Mom said no. “Nana is excited about possibly making some money from the sale,” she said, and what my great-grandmother wanted was law as far as Mom was concerned. Mom was Nana Lulu’s favorite, always had been.
To help with the attic sale, my grandmother Nana Mildred had made the journey out to Montauk. I almost never saw her at Nana Lulu’s, even though it was her mother’s house. They didn’t get along. An only child, Nana Mildred had been spoiled by her father, Mom said. Nana Mildred had a favorite too, Mom’s sister Aunt Susan (the rat).
I, spiky and contrary, was no one’s favorite and I knew it. I didn’t particularly look like anyone else–my older brother was the favorite of Dad’s family, since he was a boy and looked just like Dad. More damningly, I was often fresh. I tended to contradict adults when I found their pronouncements annoying, which was often. (“You’re so tall, you’ll have to marry a short man just so that your children aren’t giants,” Nana Mildred informed me. “I’m not getting married, ever,” I said flatly.) And I wasn’t sociable and Mom said I always had my nose stuck in a book.