Updated: Mar 30, 2020
The opening of a memoir that won't be published
All my memories are locked in a house at 8 Woodbine Avenue. Whatever happened (and I still cannot be sure of what “it” was), I know it happened there. We moved there when I was eight and left when I was twenty. Whenever I am back in Larchmont, New York, visiting my mother or three siblings (out of the six) who live nearby, I drive by Woodbine. Something about it still pulls. Is it the apple blossoms that drop their white petals like snow in May? The back stairs that creaked when, as a teen, I snuck back into our home after skipping out? The slow sizzle of the dying embers in one of the five fireplaces? Some misty hand of memory pulls me out of whatever home I’ve made in the world and drops me, with all my ambivalence about Larchmont and my conflicted love toward my family, back to Woodbine.
We were royalty once. It was the early seventies. We were the O’Keefes. We lived in the same neighborhood as the Mooneys, the Auerbachs, the Boyers, and the Clearys. We were big Catholic families whose kids went to St. Augustine’s school. We played tackle football on fall weekends and swam in Long Island Sound or country club pools in the summer. We lived under large oak, beech, and chestnut trees, trees that cantilevered out and canopied streets with the same names. We thought it was heaven.
The sweep of the gravel driveway in front of my childhood home resembled a scimitar. It emptied out to the two streets—Larchmont and Woodbine—that made the leafy corner. Our house was built as a shingle-style in the upscale section of town named the Manor. The shingles had been replaced in the 1950s, well before we bought the house, back when there was a stucco craze in home remodeling. Homes in Larchmont were privy to the vagaries of trends, and to own a home, especially one in the Manor, was to take on certain historical responsibilities.
People walking by might say we lived in a mansion. We didn’t refer to it that way, but it was big enough for all seven kids to have their own bedrooms. Yes, the stink of privilege was on me and sometimes I even knew it.
You entered the house from under a porte-cochere in the center of the driveway. The front door was oversized and had an old-fashioned brass lock that never worked properly. Then you passed into a vestibule with another door that had a stained-glass window and into a large foyer, presided over by a chandelier. To your left was a library with dark wood paneling, tons of books, and an altar my father had erected to himself.
All of my adult life I’ve hesitated to tell people where I grew up, because I didn’t want to be judged by them. As if their judgment could ever be harsher than mine. I hate being defined, boxed in, or otherwise understood as Larchmont. I hate the subtle class differences between the haves and the have-mores that made me feel as if I didn’t belong, the understated competition that I participated in while at the same time trying to pretend it didn’t bother me, the country clubs and cotillions where I wore my rented tux, the alligator shirts and Top-Siders on the fresh-faced, white-teeth kids like me.
Our scimitar driveway had gray gravel an inch thick, and any arriving car announced itself through the louvered windows of the sun porch. We lay about on floral-patterned couches watching TV and waiting for Mom to return from the Grand Union with groceries. When she did we’d empty the back of the Ford Fairlane of more than a dozen large brown paper bags and then return to Gilligan’s Island.
Am I the ghost that haunts the present owner’s home? When the waitress comes with the check and I don’t see it or her, is it because I am frozen on the third-floor landing listening to my mother weep in the middle of the night? When I drive from New York to Vermont and cannot recall Massachusetts, is it because I’m hiding in the broom closet during a game of tag? When I’m reading a book and don’t remember the main character’s name, is it because I’m sliding my turtle down the edge of the third-floor bathtub and into the putrid gray water?
All my changes, all my secrets
All my beginnings, triumphs and despair
All my scars, grief and poetry
They’re all trapped here, buried beneath the rose bushes, clipped near the hedges, taken out with the garbage, folded next to the laundry, burnt with the dinner rolls, Lemon Pledge–rubbed into the dining room table by Betty—our black maid from nearby New Rochelle.
Eight (MF how come it is the numeral above and written here?) Woodbine Avenue: storehouse of complexity, mansion of insight, watermelon of memory, hall of mirrors, house of horror, home sweet home.
You haunt me and I long for you. Take me back, Woodbine, to the thick lawn beside the scimitar driveway that cut me in half.