The Family Toilsome
The Family Toilsome In the fall of 1965, when I was seven, my dad up and quit his editing job at a magazine in the city and transplanted my two brothers, my mother and me to East Hampton. He said he wanted to write his works of fiction among the real artists, the abstract expressionists who had begun migrating out here because the living was easier. My parents, who already knew many of these artists from Greenwich Village, followed their lead. We moved into a rambling, slightly ramshackle, old house with a wrap-around porch on Toilsome Lane, across the street from a rye field and so close to the railroad tracks it shook every time a train went by. Over the next fifteen years, the house would rattle from more than trains: screen doors banged open and closed as neighborhood kids came and went; my parents’ friends appeared, unannounced at any odd hour, with no more warning than the slam of a car door, a shouted “hello” from the porch. The house was always occupied by someone, some buzz of activity. My dad was home all day, clacking away on his typewriter and often—either out of creative frustration or aesthetic restlessness—rearranging the furniture in the house. At least once a month, I’d come home from school and find the living room transformed into a dining room, the TV room, with its old player piano, turned into his study, or the small front parlor suddenly home to a bumper pool table that we’d somehow acquired. I loved the changes. They made the house feel new, over and over again. My mother, however, rolled her eyes at the surprises. One afternoon she found my dad on all fours, pulling up the gold wall-to-wall carpeting in the upstairs hallway. She threw up her arms in protest. Why couldn’t he just leave things be? My dad also stirred things up in the kitchen. With my mother at work every day—she’d begun teaching kindergarten to support us—he became the family chef, experimenting with recipes from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which was always open, grease spattered, near the stove. As he became more confident, he’d improvise with whatever was on sale at the IGA (tongue, say) or in season (mussels gathered from the jetty at Georgica Beach). He’d always tell us, as he presented the meal, “This is how the French eat it,” which was supposed to elevate the food from affordable to sophisticated. And then there were the parties: raucous pot luck dinners at the long, wooden, dining room table. I remember my father moving paintings around, depending on which artist-friends were coming over that evening—Herman and Regina Cherry, James and Charlotte Brooks, Ray and Denise Parker. I can still see the guests streaming in, dressed in their colorful clothes and scarves, covered dishes and bottles in hand. The house was also host to countless Democratic party gatherings and women’s lib meetings, usually centered around cocktails and a platter of hors d’oeuvres that my father prepared and served to my mother and her emancipated friends. Our house became even more chaotic in summer, with my brothers and their friends tracking in sand, dropping wet beach towels on the floor and, when they were teenagers, leaving empty beer cans and chip bags scattered about from one of their afternoon poker games. Maxing out the house’s capacity, we’d rent one of the bedrooms on weekends during the high season to bring in a little extra money, as did many local families. I got used to the guests passing through. They became part of the ebb and flow of summer. Sometimes I’d find them sitting in the living room with my parents at cocktail time, sipping a gin and tonic. My brothers and I took turns giving up our rooms and moving into the attic, which had a separate alcove room with a door and a single window looking onto the street. We furnished it with a couple of mattresses, a turntable, and a fan. It could be very hot and dry up there, with a few dead yellow jackets in the corners, but it was a private little aerie and we never complained about decamping to the third floor. I’d help my mother make up the guest room, tucking the sheets in tightly with hospital corners, plumping the pillows, putting flowers on the end tables. I liked making the room look neat and inn-like. I liked the sense of order. As I grew into my teens, my craving for order and a semblance of normalcy also grew. I became increasingly self-conscious about the bohemian nature of the house and family—a feeling that was heightened when I began hanging out with city kids who had big homes by the ocean. If I had a date with one of these boys, I’d wait outside on the porch swing for him to pick me up and then jump into his car (usually a nice, new BMW) before he had a chance to come inside and see the worn floors and the canvases all over the walls. I did my best to keep house and keep up appearances, a task made harder when my mother unexpectedly moved out to be with a man, someone she’d met at a local political event. She had told me about the affair one afternoon in late May, while we were making beds for the Memorial Day renters. She said she’d be living close by and would stay in touch. She also said she’d be back. I kept smoothing the bedspread while she talked. I was seventeen, young enough to believe her, old enough to intuit why she had the affair in the first place, though she never gave an explanation. I sensed she’d grown weary of waiting for my father to finish his great work of fiction, waiting for him to have some success, some life outside the house. As it turned out, she didn’t come back that summer, leaving me to clean up after two teenaged brothers and a dad who kept whipping up meals, night after night. It was Ironic that she, who didn’t like my father rearranging the furniture, ended up rearranging our lives. Things changed and didn’t change. Friends still came and went—in cars now, as well as bikes—and still sat around the kitchen table playing poker. But a sadness had crept in. My dad often seemed lonely, even though he was dating a bit. On many a balmy August night, as I passed through the parlor on my way out to meet friends, I’d find him watching TV, sipping a scotch. Are you okay? I’d ask. He’d wave me on, saying, don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine. By the next spring, when all the kids were off at college, my parents split up for good. Our house was sold in the divorce and became a restaurant named The House on Toilsome. I went once, with my dad, when I was home on a school break. As we sat there in what was the parlor room of our old house, I thought about the writing on the walls. Literally. My dad had scribbled all over them during a late night writing frenzy. Were the words still under there? Under the new layer of paint? The restaurant, as with so many out here, lasted one season. I like to think it couldn’t be work as a restaurant because it was meant to be home to a family. Not long after the restaurant closed, The House on Toilsome was torn down altogether. In its place went a large, drab office building, which still occupies the lot. The rye field across the street, where I’d spent so much time as a kid stomping down the spike-y shoots to create a fort deep inside, was razed as well, to make room for a village of condominiums. [Sometimes it’s hard to believe that the house is gone. Or that it was ever there. But I can conjure it up—the tk front door, always unlocked, the porch where the bikes lived, leaning against the wall, summer after summer, ready for any of us to hop on and take off.] The train still goes by on schedule, whistle blaring, tracks rumbling. I wonder if the office building shakes. Somehow I doubt it.