The House At The End Of The World
Things weren’t good. By fifth grade I longed to escape my grandmother's house. She got meaner by the day, increasingly she was drunk, and my mother was drunk too, or maybe only sunk deep in a slough of tranquilizers. Too many days Mom slept like the dead on our living room couch, hair unwashed, mouth badly chapped. Even asleep, the misery didn’t clear from her face.
My cousins’ house offered some refuge, especially in the summer, and it was walking distance. They lived in Levittown too, but in a fancier section, Snowball Gate. They had a huge backyard finished off with a tall wood fence, a fine old apple tree, a covered patio, and a kidney bean shaped cement pool. We played Marco Polo, took turns diving for the bottom in the deep end.My Aunt Betsy sunbathed by the pool, brought us pitchers of lemonade and more towels. Aunt Betsy was the queen of summertime suburbia, sashaying around in a short tennis skirt. Unfortunately she also sometimes wore a tiny polka dotted bikini that unnerved me by showcasing livid stretch marks. In a sleeve less top and short shorts her figure was excellent: belly flat, waist small, hips nicely curved, legs shapely. But in the backyard she would bare her midsection with that bikini, exposing a mass of purpled scar tissue. My vain aunt for once was completely unselfconscious. Why did she do this I wondered, when she cared so badly about looking good? Did her tortured stomach frighten no one else? If so, they didn’t mention it. So neither did I.
That year Aunt Betsy and Uncle Tom were building their new house in the mountains, and my cousins Mark, Jack and Annie would be moving to ten acres in the Pennsylvania woods. The house would not be mine, but it rose on my imagination’s horizon like a ship coming to carry me away. Levittown and all its troubles would be left behind. I longed for escape with a desperation that made some change feel inevitable. Something must be about to happen, something would surely happen. So much feeling must raise something into existence.
Aunt Betsy's mountain house had been years in the planning. Already Uncle Tom's brother Robert had a big house and five acres in the country, and there were many visits to Uncle Robert's place. Robert had also built a barn and two paddocks, and boarded horses as a sort of side business. On weekends his place buzzed with families riding their horses, and he led groups on horseback through the mountains. Sometimes I could even come along on a borrowed pony. After dark, a huge bonfire would light up the night, and cups of hot cocoa appeared, along with marshmallows to roast on sticks.
The living room was formal, with colonial fabrics and wing chairs, but we rarely went in there. The family room was where we kids liked to be. The orange carpet was shaggy and pungent; the stone fireplace indestructible, and a real buck’s head decorated the wall. The dogs’ muddy feet were no problem, much less the wet cuffs of our jeans. Sometimes I slipped out alone in the dark, made my way to the barn with apple slices or carrots for the horses, who reached their long necks down for the treats. The horses were colossal creatures; I was still Shetland pony sized myself, but the barn smelled so good, and with the horses in their stalls I was safe from heavy hooves.
I was at Uncle Robert’s one Christmas Eve, and a thick snow began. It poured in cones under all the floodlights outside, and we kids raced around excitedly through that Christmas snow, the first snow of the year. The world couldn’t get any better than this.
The house my cousins were building in the country promised a new life. They were going, and I wanted to go too. I saw myself getting up before dawn to go horseback riding. I would be such a natural rider I wouldn’t need a saddle; I wouldn’t bother with wearing shoes either, and I would spend most of my time in the woods. All the many horse books of my childhood promised freedom: Misty of Chincoteague, the Black Stallion series, the Trixie Belden books. I formed different escape scenarios. I would run away and live off the land, like the boy from My Side of The Mountain. My grandmother would reform, become the gentler lady of my younger years, and buy a house in the country too. Maybe I would somehow just end up living in my cousins’ new house. It was all impractical, but the idea of riding through the woods with the sun coming up was so compelling I couldn’t let go.
And then another picture rose in my mind, so detailed it felt real, and all the more real for being unexpected. For the first time in my childhood, my imagination saw the father I had never met coming back to claim me, and carrying me off to live in a little house under the trees. Someone had told me he lived in Texas sometimes, and everyone in Texas must ride horses, I was certain of it. I saw my father and I on horseback as my cousins drove by in their car. I must have seen a photo of him at some point, because my fantasy had his real face, his curly brown hair and wiry frame. I even saw my mother there, though shadowy, and behind us. For some reason she was riding too, although in real life she was too obese to be comfortable on a horse, and afraid of them besides. But in this new world of my father, she blurrily resembled the shy and lovely young woman she had been, years ago, before my grandmother’s bitterness and her own inability to accomplish anything buried her under an avalanche of tormented flesh and scarred emotions.
I spoke of this dream of my father to no one, only from time to time quietly drawing it from the storehouse of my imaginary worlds, to go over its few pages alone. I pictured a grassy field in front of our house, a nice sunny space for our horses to roam free, for me to play and him to watch over me. The sunlight fell strong and solid on us, our little house sheltering back under the trees. Their trunks rose straight as spires, widening into a canopy high above. My mother wore a peaceful smile at last, under the bower of our woods, with her own home to live in, her own man and daughter. I was free at last, the wild haired tomboy I longed to be, who could ride all day, walk for hours, carry wood, build fires, who was never lost, never too hungry or too far from home.
The fantasy never faded away. As a teenager, "You're lost in a dreamworld," became the refrain from annoyed relatives. When I was middle aged and my father had found me at last, I told him about the little house. It was an "odd congruence," he wrote back. He had also imagined a house in the woods where he could take his daughter, safe from the problems in both their lives. I don’t know if my mother appeared in his house, or if she was too painful a figure to include in an internal refuge. I didn’t ask: we rarely mentioned my mother. We did figure out that this picture had come to both of us around the same time, and it became another example of how strangely linked we really were, how our lives, though separate, echoed one another.
My father died a year or so after this conversation. We had wandered over many subjects, and the little house in the woods renewed its hold over my internal world. After his passing, it seemed more real than ever. I began to wonder if, years from now, when I step through the veil between this world and the next, I will find myself a child again, and my father waiting for me in front of our little house under the tall trees.
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