Childhood Memory: My Father’s House — 1966

published Dec 6, 2021
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Credit: Maxwell Ryan

NOTE: These short memory stories, dropped in as they are to my Ask Maxwell column, do serve a purpose. While definitely different, my aim is to provide context for what we were thinking when we were children, which will help us to understand our own children. I find that in going back into my own childhood and sharing stories of my own struggles and what I was thinking at the time has been very helpful in connecting with my own daughter as she has grown. I would urge you to take these a little bits of inspiration to share your own childhood stories with your kids at bedtime. I guarantee you will receive rapt attention. 🙂

When my parents split up, my father got to keep the big, old country house on Dunemere Lane in East Hampton. It had really always been his because it was his dream house and Bill Hearst had convinced him to buy it the week I was born. It was a warm April week in 1966 when they brought me home from Columbia Presbyterian Hospital where my dad also worked. My parents were glad I was alive because there were three children conceived before I was born that didn’t make it. I was in another room sleeping, and they were having a high time drinking martinis and feeling good about themselves. It was at that table on that evening that my father told Bill Hearst his dream of a country house. Bill said, “Jim, you’re now a father. It’s time. You should buy that house. Make that dream come true.”

My father was a romantic, but he was also anxious about things working out. He was born in the Depression in a working class Irish Catholic community up in Rochester, New York. He’d lost his own mother when his younger brother was born, which made him fearful of hospitals and childbirth for the rest of his life. He grew up in a sad house with their father traveling to keep his metal plating business afloat — trying to make a living to support three kids. His father eventually decided he couldn’t do it all and sent my dad’s older sister, Nancy, to live with relatives in Florida. With Nancy gone, the two younger boys didn’t have anyone to take care of them and were often alone, fending for themselves, like two lost cubs. My father told me that the neighbors once came over to check on him and his brother and were so horrified by what they found, their father had left them alone for a week and there wasn’t even much food in the house, that they took the boys in til their father came back. 

My father didn’t like talking about this. All he would say was that he had no desire to ever go back to Upstate New York again. And he never did — except for his father’s funeral when we all had to go and pay our respects. He did like one thing about his childhood however, and he showed us what it was when we passed the lake on the way to the funeral. He pulled the car over in front of a big sign that said “White Hots!” Right on the roadside there by the lake was one of Rochester’s famous White Hots hot dog stands. We each had a white hot and were late for the funeral.  

To get himself out of Rochester, my dad met a guy in his town who helped him get a football scholarship to Yale University. It was a working scholarship and in the summer’s he had to be a lifeguard at the lake in Rochester. He never looked back. While he was the varsity quarterback in 1952 and admired for his role at winning games, he admired the classmates he met who came from nice places, nice homes, with parents who took care of them. He heard of a better life from the guys he met in college — better childhoods — and he made a beeline for it. He used his football fame to get himself into Harvard medical school, became a psychiatrist, met my mother in San Francisco while working in a hospital and eventually moved to New York City, driving cross country in a packed convertible. 

My father wanted to pack the car with the top down and drive across, but my mother, who was far more practical, stopped him, and he had to repack the car with the top up. He was a romantic, my father. Which is also why he had a dream of a house in the country where he could raise kids who would be able to grow up playing on the grass, learning to swim in the ocean and not worry so much. It was a complicated dream and hard for him at times to even be at peace with it. Sometimes it felt as if my father resented the life he was giving to us because it wasn’t like his. If we got too comfortable or asked to stop at McDonald’s for lunch when on a long car ride or even asked for something new for Christmas, he’d often ignore us and make it clear that he had no intention of spoiling us. His favorite line to say in front of his friends when we asked for a hot dog in the summer by the beach was, “But you had one last year.” and he’d let out a big laugh. 

My parents had looked at a few houses in East Hampton, but they were all too expensive. He chose East Hampton because he’d heard friends in college talk about growing up there and it sounded idyllic to him. There was one house in particular that he really liked. It was old, built as a summer “cottage” in the 1800s, and looked grand, like an aging elegant lady. 

The night my parents came back from the hospital, I slept soundly in the other room, they poured drinks and Bill Hearst saw his opening. As the martinis got deeper, he told them that he was madly in love with another woman who was not his wife, and he very much needed a place to run away with her for the next winter. Buy a house, he said, and he’d move in and fix it up. My father said the house he liked was too expensive, but Bill Hearst was convinced that if my father called the owners then and there, they would sell to him for what he offered. Why not? He said. What have you got to lose? 

So my father had another sip — straight up with twist … and cold please — and dialed the Fraser’s phone number. The Frasers lived in Chicago. They were an older couple and they only travelled to Long Island for a few months each summer, but they loved their house and all its memories. They were holding on to it for their children, who didn’t seem to want it. My dad got them on the phone, introduced himself and made his pitch. I can just imagine my mother in the background listening to him and worrying about where the conversation was going. Would he leave the top up again? By the time my dad got off the phone, the deal was done, my parents had a new house, and Bill Hearst had an escape plan for the winter.

Credit: Maxwell Ryan
The attic. Although it had three rooms and a bathroom, people rarely ever slept up here. It was spooky.

Back then, 62 Dunemere Lane was surrounded by farmers and their fields. You could walk to town through rows of wheat. When we eventually moved in, the street was quiet and the house itself was large, drafty and lovable. The floors sagged a little in the attic and the plaster walls were cracked on the second floor by the roadside. The doors tended not to shut all the way, but it was big and airy and our home to grow up in for all our weekends and summers as kids. We never went anywhere else. My father said it was the most beautiful place in the world, so why should we? 

Credit: Maxwell Ryan
The living room the spring we fixed it up to rent out when my father and stepmother finally moved out to a smaller house.

My father was always happy when he was in that house. He liked to sit in the living room in winter and read his grey medical journals by the fire, pee off the side porch at night in the fall, and sit with him on the front porch to watch the cars go by in the summer. Where he grew up, he said, everyone sat on their front porches and watched folks go by. It brought him back to his roots. Even though he didn’t say it, and even though he did say he didn’t like growing up in Rochester, there was a small town boy deep inside of him that never left home. 

All repairs were strictly done by my dad and he hated the idea of having to hire anyone to help him with the house. This left him to do important technical work like repairing the chimney up 30 feet off the ground and jacking up the foundation posts by himself in the crawl space by the basement, which meant that most things always needed fixing again sooner rather than later. It also meant my stepmother forever did the yard work. She, like him, resented asking for help and she often, in later years, used to say that she was the only one on the street raking her own leaves. All the neighbors hired leaf raking out and eventually had teams of professionals with leaf blowers.

Credit: Maxwell Ryan
The guest room with the wallpaper my mother put in.

It was a big house. It had eight bedrooms and seven bathrooms. My mother tried to fix it up when they were together and she was able to wallpaper one room in bright green flowers. It was the guest room and it was the nicest in the house. After that I think she gave up. She wasn’t into decorating anyway. She wanted to have chickens and goats in the backyard, which we did for a while. When my stepmother moved in she really gave it a go and did manage to put down carpeting in the living room and runners up the stairs. I had to admit the house was a lot more comfortable after she came. She was our favorite of all our father’s girlfriends so we were happy when they got married. The house got nicer and the food got a lot better too. 

But what I remember most is the kitchen. Built as it was — a summer cottage for wealthy people in the 1800s — the kitchen was for staff only. It was a small, square affair with an old gas stove, a small pantry off the side and a refrigerator in the back room by the toilet. In the center was a round oak table with big claw feet. My father’s chairs were always eclectic, but the ones I remember the best were the blue canvas director’s chairs his college roommate, John Garvey, convinced him to buy. They were comfortable and my father and his friends would sit around the table at night, drinking red Gallo wine, smoking and laughing. My father was relaxed. If I didn’t want to go to bed, he’d say, “Okay, then you sleep under the side table here in the kitchen.” That was a special treat — to slowly drift off listening to laughter in that small, old kitchen. 

Credit: Maxwell Ryan
My favorite bathroom in the house - one of the guest rooms with a big tub and lots of sunlight.

Bill Hearst spent the winter in the house the first year I was born. He was the first tenant and years later we discovered that he’d left a heavy box in our attic under the eaves, overlooked for years. My brother and I found it one afternoon and brought it downstairs to show to our mother. It was a strange and rich collection of valuables including buffalo head nickels, real silver dollars and paper bills from the Union days. It was probably tens of  thousands of dollars worth of vintage money. Our mother said we could each have one coin and then sent the whole thing back to his daughter who she found was living in New Jersey. Bill Hearst had passed away before then.

On one side of the kitchen was an old brick fireplace opening, which had ceased being used years before and which the previous owners had painted with green paint. When Bill Hearst spent the winter in the house, he didn’t fix up much but he did do one thing. He sat every night in the kitchen and had one martini for every brick he scraped the green paint off of. That was his work agreement with my father. Bill Hearst’s relationship with his girlfriend didn’t make it through the winter, but when spring came and he moved out there was no green paint left on any of the bricks in the kitchen.

Credit: Maxwell Ryan
Saying goodbye to the house with Ursula just before we finally sold it.

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Maxwell Ryan is a father and was an elementary school teacher in NYC before founding Apartment Therapy. He’d love to answer your question: This piece was created for Cubby, our weekly newsletter for families at home. Want more? Sign up here for a weekly splash of fun and good ideas for families with kids.

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