“I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.”
-Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
The first house I remember was my family’s semi-detached Tudor in Queens, narrow and dark, with a small galley kitchen and a long alleyway in the back that ran the length of the block. My bedroom, shared with my younger sister, was covered in pink, rose-trellised wallpaper that I picked at along the seam beside my bed. In the unfinished attic, spiders, suitcases, and dusty boxes of books, and my father’s hidden stash of circa 1968 Playboys. I studied the naked bodies with great enthusiasm, along with anxiety: those women were lush, full-breasted and round-hipped while I had a flat-chest and stick skinny legs. This was the house of my childhood, where I lived for the greater part of twelve years, but it is not the house of my dreams. And when I say dream house, I don’t mean the sleek, sophisticated wonders in the pages of Architectural Digest, but the house that allowed me to dream.
“We’re going to the country this weekend,” my mother would say, “get packed up.” The country. That’s what we called Mattituck. Queens, by its proximity to Manhattan, was the city, pavement and numbered streets, a grid. The country meant meandering lanes, whiffle ball games in the grassy field, and a squeaky porch door. We used laundry baskets instead of suitcases. Mine was filled with Nancy Drew books and a sketch pad with a rudimentary water color set: mystery and creation, all that was necessary.
My grandparents had renovated a modest, summer house along Bungalow Lane on Deephole Creek in Mattituck. Despite living hundreds of miles away now in Western Pennsylvania, despite having owned my own homes twice over, despite not returning to Bungalow Lane in almost twenty years, that is where my imagination returns. My grandparents are both dead–my grandfather prematurely from cancer, my grandmother made it to ninety-three–and the house has fallen into disrepair, rotted roof and raccoons breaking their way through the floorboards. Without my grandfather, the lynch pin of the family, traffic wasn’t worth the two days in the country, golf courses were too far away, and you couldn’t really swim in the Creek anyway without emerging from the water speckled in little red bites.
Deephole Creek is always quiet and still, at least that’s how I remember it, suspended in time, pricked with water striders skating across the surface, and blue dragonflies darting between the tall reeds. The long dock, gray and splintery, built by my grandfather, seems to extend into eternity. My memory often relies on photographs: they make a second in time permanent. There is a photograph of my father and me lying on the dock, bellies down, our arms dangling into the water. I’m approximately four years old, wearing red-flowered overalls and a yellow turtleneck; my father is in jeans and a blue and white striped shirt. He looks a little bohemian: his usually tidy hair curly and windblown, and the jeans which he only wore when painting, and that sailor’s shirt, so different from the serious man of my adolescence when there was the typical awkward distance between father and daughter. But there! Proof in that moment as we sprawled beside each other on the dock, looking down at the water, that we were connected, intimates. What did we talk about? The rabbit I’d seen in the grass, nose and white cottontail twitching, and how I crept slowly, hand -hand-foot-foot, towards it, longing to run my fingers through its soft fur, and then dash–it was gone? A trip in the rowboat, skimming the shoreline in search of the regal swans and cygnets that paddled behind in determined pursuit?
The bungalow, built on a rise, was white with black trim, and I see my grandfather, Fred, sitting on the front steps sorting through his tackle box. He watches over my sister and me as we play in the sand, dumping buckets of water in the moat around the sand castle and skimming our nets in the creek, catching guppies which we release only under protest. He is my secret hero: the tallest person I’d ever seen, able to fix motors, plumbing, and grilled cheese sandwiches.
Besides my grandparents, parents, and sister, my aunt and uncle sometimes spend the weekend. The house is small, but crammed with beds and laughter, and usually, we are at the beach anyway, or sitting under the shade in the backyard on lawn chairs. Cocktail hour in the late afternoon—gin and tonics, icy Coca-cola, sliced salami, and Triscuits swirled over in orange squirt cheese. My parents hardly ever lazed around back home—my mother busy at the hospital or teaching or running us to ballet, basketball, and tennis, my father off to the law firm in the city early in the morning and often not home until later at night. But here, where there was nothing really to do except mow the lawn, load the dishwasher, and pack the cooler for the beach, everyone was happily at loose ends.
Most days, my grandfather would motor out into Peconic Bay to fish. Sometimes I climbed in the boat beside him, itching all over from the old, salt-hardened life jacket which weighed down my neck and was cinched tight to my body, and the fiberglass beneath my bum. But I loved the spray in my face, and as we bumped across the waves, I pretended to be a dolphin flying towards the open waters. Later, my grandfather would skin the flounder he’d caught, dredge them in egg and breadcrumbs, and cook them in the electric fryer on the front porch. My family gathered around the porch table, passing wedges of lemon and corn on the cob bought from the farm stand down the road, Deephole Creek reflected the setting sun, and swans waddled onto the lawn, honking and poking around with their orange beaks.
For hours I read on the glider, pushing it back and forth with my tippy-toes, lost in Nancy Drew, rereading The Secret at Lilac Inn and the Password to Larkspur Lane. Or my sister and I pretend to be Nancy Drew, writing up clues and leaving them for each other in the mailbox, under a rock, or wedged under the bark of the oak tree. Or paint the white clam shells we’d collected at the town beach: blurry seascapes with little, v-shaped birds in the sky. Or loll about in the twin and connected trundle bed, tracing patters in the stucco wall, mourning doves chortling in excitement, the warm, forgiving sun falling across our faces. Or visit with Elsie next door, who seemed ancient to us then; she made tea and let us hold all the miniature blown glass figurines she’d collected over the years—a slender fawn, a snail with a blue-swirled shell, a skunk with its tail raised in alarm. One day, I determined, I would have a collection of magnificent things, too.
And always, we had to leave too soon to go back to the city. Shake the sand out of our shoes. Bow our heads for tick inspection. Pile into the station wagon for the long, congested drive back to Queens. Nothing to do but to look out the window into other cars and their exasperated passengers, or argue with my sister over her elbow invading my side of the back seat. Leaving my grandparents behind—they stayed the whole summer. And they have stayed there ever since—the former fire lieutenant gunning up the motor of his boat, calling to the rest of us that it was time to push off, not yet wasted by brain cancer. My grandmother on the beach, the wide straw-brimmed hat on her head, perfect lipstick, like a glamorous 1950’s movie star, not yet the decade long invalid confined to a bed. My mother under the umbrella reading a Danielle Steele novel, because what else is there to read at the beach? My father at the water’s edge in his blue swim trunks, the top of his head bright pink. They are both so young, younger than I am now. And my sister and I crouched on the dock, staring down into the watery world, certain that we never want to leave.