|| By Maureen Ellen O’Leary
When I was very young, too many kids and too many workdays missed by my ailing father had left us pretty broke; we had to abandon the house I was born in, one on a shady street just blocks from Harvard Yard, for a much smaller one. Our years there were not happy.
If left up to my father, we would have remained in that shoebox of a place. He was a daydreamer, not a doer; a ponderer, not a planner. He quoted Shakespeare with ease and found whole universes in single words. But his imagination stopped short of envisioning ways to improve our lot in the world we lived in. Even after the operation that saved his life and returned him to work, my father took no steps to improve our living situation.
Fortunately, my mother was of a different breed. Her heart a little lighter and her pockets a little heavier following my father’s recovery, my practical, determined mother set out to move us back up a notch in the world, reversing the process we had undergone years earlier. She set out to find a home where we did not have to shrink ourselves down physically and emotionally, a home with more marching space between doors and more breathing space for developing psyches. Thus it was that, in the early 1960s, we embarked on the thrilling, somewhat desperate search for a better place to be. We kids embraced the challenge eagerly.
Pre-Internet, we relied on the newspaper to bring us our dream house. My older brother would arrive home from the corner store with the impossibly fat Sunday Boston Globe. Quickly dispensing with more frivolous sections, we turned with profound excitement and dead seriousness to the residential listings in the real estate pages. We were, after all, not only figuring out where we would live but, in doing so, who we would be.
We became adept at weeding out lemons and weren’t fooled by euphemistic phrasing: “Ready access to public transportation” meant a bus stop in front of the house; “modern” meant boring and charmless. On the other hand, “rambling” and “airy” tempted us as did “great potential, needs work.” We weren’t afraid of putting some elbow grease into our new start.
We circled in red good bets and then presented them to my mother who, after careful scrutiny, selected three or four that seemed worth viewing. Once the Sunday roast was in the oven, we piled into the family car that so humiliated us, we would duck to tighten shoelaces when we passed anyone we knew or might want to know. My father never joined us. Only long walks tempted him away from his books and newspapers.
Looking with my mother and my siblings for potential houses, I absorbed early the idea that setting was destiny. Each new house offered the possibility of a new family lurking behind the one that had masqueraded as the O’Learys for so long. We children would shed all our anxieties. Our father would be competent, perhaps successful. Our mother would be attentive and affectionate.
I consciously tried on every place we visited. Who would I be, I wondered, if this were my new home? Sometimes I felt I would be the wrong me; at other times, I grew almost feverish with excitement, sniffing out an exotic persona just waiting to be called into being. When my mother rejected a house I was drawn to, I felt as if I was abandoning a potential new self.
One rejection was unanimous: We all gave the thumbs-down to a Victorian house on Brattle Street in Cambridge. Such a rejection by our family was both astounding and ludicrous. It took a lot of chutzpah—or a weak head—to turn down a chance to reside on this illustrious street, the former and current home of so many intellectual, political, and commercial giants of our country. I like to think of us showing up on a gray November Sunday afternoon in our aged automobile, tumbling into the show house with missing buttons on too big or too small overcoats, looking around and saying emphatically, “Sorry, but this simply won’t do.”
Each of us could have had our own room and, well, you really could not have asked for more enlightened neighbors since the descendants of Emerson himself lived nearby. But while untreed grounds repelled us, those stately towering elms on all sides shrouded the house in an untenable way. We craved light. “Thanks but no thanks,” we said apologetically, climbing back into our pumpkin coach, retreating like so many Cinderellas to our humble but well-lit hearth. I’m sure that Brattle Street house was never a real option; it must have been wildly out of our range. But I like to think that the choice was ours and we turned it down.
After a search of a year or more, our tireless mother found the place—battered and drafty, but in all important respects ideal—in which I would spend my last years at home. We were wild with the contrast between this house and the cramped, breathless one we had left behind. Although tall trees framed the house, the nine rooms were full of light and the exuberantly long hallway promised to lead us to the brightest of futures. I had never seen my mother so happy.
A house isn’t everything, of course. After our big move, my family learned the hard lesson that, wherever you go, you’ll be there. We were, mostly, the mother, the father, and the children we had been. But I have no doubt that our glorious new place allowed all of us to be more of what we wanted to be than if we had stayed put.
As I floated, drunk with delight, from room to lovely room, I echoed in a whisper words uttered by my father, who ended up being as emotionally transported as the rest of us. Gazing out at gracious trees through tall bay windows, he rather histrionically exclaimed, “We live, my dears, in the midst of a veritable forest! Oh, we are so blessed!” His words would appear on no real estate prospectus; they would never clinch a deal. But that didn’t matter. We were sold.
Maureen Ellen O’Leary lives in Oakland and is a professor of English at Diablo Valley College.
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Photo by Jacek Sopotnicki.