So begins the gothic novel Rebecca, written in 1938 by Dame Daphne du Maurier. My own version might begin, “Last night I dreamt of the house in Clifton Park.”
The old farmhouse on Plant Road wasn’t much to look at when my parents purchased it, the barn and garage across the road, and the surrounding acreage in the early 1950s for what was then the princely sum of ten thousand dollars. The house was old even then; how old, I don’t know although certainly in excess of one hundred years. A covered porch ran across the front in the years before I was born, ultimately torn down and a raised cement slab erected in its place. (I think Mom had some ideas of a patio, but that’s as far as it ever got and I don’t remember us using it for much of anything.) Dad and a friend, George Carley, built the chimney and fireplace that adorned the west end of the living room and became a central hub in winter, the place where we huddled on the coldest of nights.
An immense sycamore grew just outside the kitchen window, a tree so large that it took at least three adults, arms extended, to circle its trunk. It grew much too close to the house and its root system eventually invaded the foundation, slowing tearing the structure apart and precipitating my parents’ move to Saratoga. Dad hung first a tire and then a wooden-seated swing on a limb and I spent hours spinning myself to fall-down dizziness. (Mom hated the tree, with its propensity for shedding bark everywhere, but I loved it, and used the bark like parchment, scrawling messages.)
Each season in that house brings its memories: wet springs when the meadow would flood and the frogs appear; baking summers playing outdoors while Mom listened to her beloved Yankees on the radio; autumns of leaf piles made only for jumping; winters sailing down the hill out back in a metal saucer, the bottom of which Mom had polished with Pledge. (I think she harbored a secret desire to kill me; she once used Pledge on my metal slide, too. I shot down it so fast–and off the end, clearing several feet–that it scared me to tears.) I remember nights playing outdoors beyond sunset, rolling down the hill in the long grass and catching fireflies in a jar.
I best remember the house at Christmas, when I draped my pajamas over the hearth screen to warm before putting them on and Mom hung the cards we received against the brickwork. The fireplace had a raised marble hearthstone custom made for sitting, where I placed Santa’s plate of cookies and mug of hot chocolate on Christmas Eve. (Much later, Dad installed a matching mantelpiece that Mom festooned with garland.) The walls were an ugly pale gray/brown wallboard that Dad eventually replaced with the warm, golden glow of knotty pine. Mom was forever rearranging the furniture, so the Christmas tree might end up anywhere, so long as it wasn’t too near the fire. The windows were hung with red cellophane wreaths with electric candles, and a two-candle art deco piece I still own (which my husband is rewiring so I can use it).
This was the house of my growing up; the house I was brought to after being born at Albany Medical Center in 1957; the house I learned to crawl in, then walk, then run. The house where I learned to ride a bike and enjoyed the pride of having my training wheels removed. The house where dogs and cats sprawled (and my mother once–under protest–housed a few gerbils overnight.) From there I set forth in late October to trick-or-treat with my then best friend, David Micklas, returning with plastic sacks bursting with swag. From there we set out together on bike adventures, or to roam the woods, play baseball or play pretend. On one memorable occasion we beat his older brothers, Tom and Bob, at war, ambushing poor Bob from inside a culvert that ran beneath the road, then ruthlessly hunting Tom with our plastic guns. This was home from kindergarten through high school graduation, and beyond. I married my first husband in that living room, and played with my first and second generation of nieces and nephews.
The house is gone now, torn down to make way for a Stewart’s. (For those of you unfamiliar with the franchise, it’s a chain of convenience stores.) The sycamore is still there, grand in its old age and, I hope, protected. (If the house was old, the tree is far older.) There’s a poignancy to visiting the old place in dreams, walking through those rooms. I see them so clearly, though its been well over 40 years. Each has its echo, a sound I will always hear.