“Oh, my God! Not water again,” I wailed as I stepped into the basement of our split-level house up to my ankles in what looked like the shallow end of the community pool. After weeks of listening to my complaints, a neighbor suggested that we sell the house…during the dry season. What a novel idea! It was 1961 and house inspections were lax, so we traded a now-and-then wet basement for an enormous English Tudor built in 1906 on top of a hill on a tree-lined street in a fancy section of Summit, New Jersey, one town away. (It wasn’t until later that we discovered the termites, but they really never bothered us.) People were unloading big houses at bargain prices, so we bought it for $30,000, $3,000 less than what we were paid for our split-level. Nobody wanted such a huge ark, except someone like us, with five children, hoping to place them in a separate wing where they couldn’t find us in the middle of the night. It worked.
Glen and I were overjoyed, but the kids were sure it was haunted. There was dark oak panel wainscoting with exquisite brass sconces on the downstairs walls and main staircase, and ornamental chandeliers hanging from the high ceilings of the living room, hallway, and dining room. A set of large, bowed Victorian-draped cross-hatched windows overlooked a beautifully-landscaped sloping front lawn. The front entrance, which we seldom used, had an ample cement porch surrounded by a wide brick, ivy-covered protective parapet typical of Merry Old England. The walkway was so rocky and perilous that even the postman chose the back entrance. After a few years of neglect it had grown over and joined the native woodland that surrounded the house.
An impressive staircase rose from the center hall to a landing from which you could open a huge leaded window and command the world below. The banister and railing doubled back and led down a long hallway off of which were five bedrooms, two baths, and a back hallway leading to two small bedrooms (formerly maids’ quarters) and a steep curved stairway leading down to the kitchen. An ample linen closet off the hallway boasted a corner laundry chute to the basement, and, true to form, I caught Robert trying to step into it for the ride. It was quite a challenge to make it inaccessible. But I did. I remember overhearing Cary, as she was taking some friends down to the basement, saying, “We used to have a very nice place, but this will be fine when my mother fixes it up.”
This basement, by the way, was labyrinthian, with two intersecting halls, wide wooden baseboards, a furnace room where our dog, Skeesix, delivered her six puppies, a small adjacent room used in the past for coal, and a laundry room with full bathroom. Covering the windows were old World War II blackout curtains made of fabric decorated with B-52 airplanes. This fit right in with our plan to make a darkroom out of the adjoining bathroom.
Down the hall was a workshop, a wine cellar, and a huge recreation room complete with fireplace. The coal bin was turned into a clubhouse on whose walls the boys had painted a grotesque face with a huge tongue hanging, unceremoniously, out of its mouth. But the rec room became the children’s favorite domain and was the center of whatever experiment was going on at the moment, such as the raising of guinea pigs and white mice, or the production of a float for an upcoming parade. There were several other small rooms along the hallway that you had to duck down to get into and this was scary enough to keep the kids guessing as to what was in them and what was their function. Off of one, where we had stashed two barrels of yet-unopened wedding gifts, was a large three-foot-wide tunnel or crawl space leading we knew not where. Ancient prison? Place for naughty children? Repository for pirate treasure? It was perfect for playing out dark childhood anxieties. I told them to use their imaginations, and I did the same. It was just as creepy to me. No one, to my knowledge, ever entered that tunnel.
In addition to the seven bedrooms, there were five tall fireplaces including the one in the basement, two on the ground floor, and two upstairs, a solarium, and two large closed-in side porches, one with a tiled pool that opened onto a beautiful pine tree-lined stone patio with a sit-on rock wall bordering the driveway. A one-person elevator, like the ones used in period dramas, ran from the porch up to Cary’s room. And each section of the house had thick oak sliding doors for privacy. Yes, we could actually hunker down in our own parental suite without annoying the children and vice versa.
Every child had a room and was free to decorate it (I grabbed the extra one for my office). Chris housed a pet parrot for a period of time that shat green everywhere, until I insisted that it be confined to a cage. Cary had one of the fireplaces and the upstairs entrance to the elevator. Her wallpaper depicted a woodland paradise of pinecones and pine needle clusters. She loved it, because it doubled as her filing system, bulletin board, and address book. (Remember, we had no computers.) She was allowed to write on the paper. It was old and would be removed long before the house was up for sale. And as the children grew the rooms were rotated. I believe this particular room’s last incarnation, courtesy of Robert, consisted of wide horizontal stripes of Italian bicycle-racing colors encircling the walls.
At the time we thought Martha’s room was beautiful, but now I wonder. It certainly was different! We installed a ballet bar and huge wall mirror on the side next to the covered upstairs porch, and hung a bank of pink silk curtains to line the alcove in which her bed resided. Martha was an avid seamstress and her thick purple rug could hide a multitude of detritus. Robert once stepped so hard on a needle imbedded in its long tendrils that it disappeared into his foot. Nobody could see it, except the X ray machine at the emergency room. Poor kid. The doctor had to cut it out. A painful experience. And we all thought he’d been faking. You could have hidden a dead rat in the raised nap of that purple shag!
The two youngest boys were not fussy. They each had one of the small rooms near the back stairs, and nestled into them like bear cubs in a cave. They hadn’t reached the age where they cared about room size. They wanted cozy. Besides, they had a huge house as their playground. With so much space, who cared about room size? Three years later, when we decided to make one large room, I was surprised and disappointed to find that neither boy really wanted the space. What a mistake that was. They found it cold and barren, and missed their cozy caves!
Tom confessed to me, recently, that he was terrified of what might lie behind the distant door to the attic, which is why he invariably urged me to shut his door at night. I had already made a cover for the closet doorknob, because, he insisted, it shone in the dark like an evil eye. But I didn’t know about the terror he experienced heading down the hall to the bathroom in the middle of the night, fearing what might jump out at him from the back stairway on the right or the attic on the left. No matter how much we try to make sure our children feel safe and loved, there is always that imagination lurking within us all that can be triggered and activate our deepest fears. And nobody knows for sure what can set it in motion.
There was a splendid winding stairway leading to this attic, which was huge and became the site of numerous neighborhood theatrical productions, mounted by Martha and her friends over ths years. A curtain was installed, chairs of varying stability set up, and a small shack, called the “voting booth,” built by the former owners, used for costumes and secret meetings. I shudder to think of those secret meetings, and if I were a less naïve parent of present-day teenagers, I would surely have been more attentive, or maybe even banned the meetings altogether.
The solarium off the living room was equipped with a charming rock pool and a decorative spigot for filling it. It also had a raised toilet in one corner, so the previous owner, an ample elderly lady, could get up and down easily. It was separated from the rest of the room by a faded curtain.
The problem with the toilet was its height. Our little boys couldn’t manage it. And it also gave little privacy. It had to go. Finally, we took out a $10,000 loan on our mortgage and were able to renovate the kitchen and butler’s pantry, install a new downstairs bathroom by remodeling one of the china closets in the dining room, and enclose a handy mud porch at the kitchen entrance. And it only added pennies to our monthly mortgage payment of $171.95. Do I hear it for the Good Old Days? However, while salivating over the prices of that bygone era it would do well to realize that my husband, with a responsible job at the National Municipal League in New York City, and, later, the Effective Citizen’s Organization, was still only earning around $7,500 annually. And supporting a wife and five children. Hard to believe.
A word about house maintenance: One of the major downsides of owning such a large house is keeping it clean and maintaining some semblance of order. Nobody wanted to do it, but somebody had to…namely me. So I took care of it myself, with a little help from the kids and, yes, a sporadic cleaning woman. As a child I had not helped my mother as much as I should have and I always felt bad about it. I didn’t want my children to grow up with that kind of guilty conscience. They didn’t. Everyone had his or her specific job and I readily enforced the rules.
THE GAMES OF YORE
Opposite us lived a family of eight children in an equally large house butting up against a wooded dell. Our hill, which comprised our front lawn, was covered with eleven large trees, and, combined with the neighbors’ ample expanse of lawn leading to an impressive portico, became a perfect place to launch wars, forge formidable alliances, and hold enemies for ransom. Nobody had a gun (I’m talking toy or otherwise), but everybody was fortified with imagination and a loud voice. The “war games” were replaced by sledding in the winter and other energetic running games that resulted in hours of turf repair every spring.
Shortly after we moved in the police warned us, and the neighboring families, that there would be consequences if the children didn’t stop playing in the street. This led us to uproot the beautiful formal garden and one of the two pools that came with the house and preempted the backyard, and to put in a lawn where children could play. It was a difficult trade-off, but kept the authorities happy. There were exquisite walkways planted with flowers like iris, dahlias, poppies, and a variety of ferns, and all of these we put out for any neighbor who wanted to give them a home. This was, for me, the most difficult part of the renovation. The previous owner had been an avid gardener and this was no ordinary backyard, but an authentic work of art.
On the bright side, this new “recreation” area solved the problem. Kick-the-can was on its way out, but there were plenty of other games, like croquet, running bases, tag, capture the flag, hide-and-seek, tetherball, which was attached to the flagpole in the turnaround, and go-cart and bicycle races on the turnaround. Sounds positively archaic, doesn’t it? It was only recently that I was appraised of the number of “crashes” that occurred during those races, and the number of go-carts that were demolished. Seems it was hilarious to “slide out” coming around the curves and, on occasion, fly over the handlebars onto the side patio. I must have been busy in another wing of the house to have missed the mini-demolition derby going on outside the solarium. They were smart kids. They never told me or I would have taken the bikes and carts away for sure.
CALLING ALL GARDENERS
It was during the late ‘60’s that people were becoming aware of the health consequences caused by lawn chemicals, and this became a heated subject at family pow-wows. The two eldest children refused to allow chemicals, and their father agreed to stop using them only if they did the weeding by hand. I felt sorry for them—it was grueling work—but I rationalized that it got them outdoors and taught some lasting lessons: don’t mess with Dad unless you’re prepared to follow through, and a lawn is really rather useless unless you can raise vegetables on it. A forest is much more practical. It also taught them a down and dirty respect for nature and a love of gardening, which they have to this day.
As I look back on all the work it took to maintain our dream house, I realize what a big bone of contention yard work had become over the years. The massive front lawn sloping to the street needed regular mowing. All those trees…and all those leaves that had to be raked, burned, or bagged for the dump. Indeed, it seemed never-ending.
One day after enduring a great deal of complaining, we were on our way to JFK airport and happened to pass Lefrak City, a huge apartment complex in Queens. I pointed to what to me was a replica of sterile cell blocks and told the kids that we were thinking of moving there, for it was all concrete and they wouldn’t have to mow the lawn, weed the garden, or rake the leaves. “How about that, kids? What do you say?”
From then on I heard no more complaints about yard work.
My husband loved to build walls. It’s a male thing I’ve been told, but I wouldn’t bet on it. He built a beautiful rock wall bordering the back of our property. Once it was finished it needed periodic weeding, just like the lawn. And all this child labor needed supervision, which he gladly accepted. One day our youngest was assigned the task of clipping along the bottom of the wall, a job he completed, so he said, in a matter of minutes. Glen took him to the wall and pointed out numerous tufts of grass growing several inches high.
“But Dad, I already cut them, I promise.”
“And you mean to tell me that in the short time between when you cut them and when I arrived on the scene they have grown that much?”
“Yes,” he replied.
There he stood, looking up at his father, defying the big man with the insouciance of a six-year-old.
Glen shook his head and walked into the house. “Meggie,” he said, choking with laughter. “That kid is incorrigible. I have to give him credit for the gall to tell such a whopper and face me down like that. But I dare not laugh in front of him. Let me just get over it before I head back out.”
One near catastrophe related to yard work occurred shortly thereafter, when Glen was cracking slates with a hammer to complete the new backyard patio. Once again he was supervising the children as they went about helping with the placement of the pieces. All of a sudden Robert appeared from nowhere and Glen’s hammer came down full on his head, dropping him to his knees. Blood spurted everywhere and Glen turned ashen.
I said, aghast, “You hit him with a hammer?”
“I didn’t mean to. He ran under it. I swear….”
Thus ensued another visit to the emergency room for Robert and me. It turns out that his skull was so strong that only the capillaries bled. Otherwise, no concussion, no harm done, except to his traumatized parents.
Years later Rob recalled this episode and said to me, “You know, Mom, Dad was not to blame for hitting me on the head with a hammer.”
“I know,” I said.
“I was watching him pounding the slates and yelling at us kids to stop fooling around. I noticed that he did it in a figure eight pattern. I calculated that if I started running very fast when he moved the hammer to the right, I could get under it just before he finished the last curve and the hammer came down. Martha said something sisterly to me as I was starting out and threw me off my timing. That was it. You know the rest.”
This sort of behavior is blamed on hyperactivity and lack of judgment. I tend to think of it as natural daredevil risk-taking. It’s the same as trying to slip your finger under the needle in the sewing machine without getting sewn (doesn’t work) or following a spider down the drain to see if you can catch it. Yuk! Any mother has seen it all.
There wasn’t much that this old house hadn’t seen in the twenty years that the Petersons reigned. It welcomed everybody. It was always open. In fact, I don’t even think we had a key to the enormous front door or the one we used to enter from the circular drive in the back. I tried to keep it orderly, for otherwise, with so many people coming and going, it could have deteriorated into a pigsty (the most insulting thing you could say about poor housekeeping. Now that I know more about pigs, I feel that it’s a gratuitous and unfounded insult).
Still, it was relaxed enough that teenagers felt comfortable lounging on the sofas and sitting around the kitchen table, watching Martha bake endless batches of cookies from scratch. While they were lounging, I took the opportunity to enroll them in various tasks that only strong young men could accomplish. And why not? I was a very pragmatic person, and all that free labor need not go to waste. Those eager males who circulated with the idea of catching a glimpse of my daughters could be cajoled, easily, into removing screens and putting up storm windows, carrying heavy loads up from the basement, or even joining in on an occasional painting party. My kids were very critical of me on that score, but when I asked if they wanted to do the work, they kept quiet.
One day a particularly muscular youth wandered into the living room and, as he was wont to do, plopped down on one of the couches. Glen always said that Joe didn’t just sit down…he stood over the couch and let his whole body collapse. On this occasion the left side of the sofa collapsed with him. He was horrified and deeply contrite, promising to do anything he could to rectify the situation. We all felt that this was a case of the straw that broke the camel’s back, and not his fault, but, since he insisted on doing some chore as redress, Glen gave him the task of putting up a basketball hoop pole near the garage. It had been hanging around far too long. This meant using a pickaxe to chop up the cement, something that turned into a monumental job. Glen had not realized that the pavement was about 4 ft. deep! Watching that young man sweat and grunt as he completed the job really upset me. But he prevailed at the end and even enjoyed beating the Petersons with his long shots. Some guy!
From that day on Joe became one of my heroes. And until the day that we hauled it away, the sofa remained perfectly intact, with two books holding it aloft.
Yes, for twenty years the Peterson domain was an open book. As I said, we always kept the doors unlocked, and to our knowledge, nobody ever broke in, although there was the story of someone trying to get into the side porch by way of the patio. Luckily, however, we had a yappy dog, just in case. Who was to know that her bark was worse than her bite?
This beloved old house was a joy and an albatross at the same time, but when we finally left it in 1983 it was traumatic for all of us.
We sold it for the paltry sum of $265,000. Thirty years later it sold for two million. But who cares? 14 Badeau Avenue provided the Petersons with a priceless family experience for twenty precious years. It owes us nothing.