The Washerwoman’s Genes

March 27, 2007

Intersection of Parallel Universes

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 11:39 am

Among the homes and apartments mentioned by my “uncle-in-law,” Win, in his family history is a vacation house: “In the summers, they rented at Greenwich, Connecticut, or at M—, Long Island, before the completion of their large summer home in M— in 1915” (9).

As Win grew up and the depression curtailed the family’s resources, this home became their main one. In fact, Win largely grew up there and went to elementary school in the town.

Strangely, M— is also the town where I was raised, many decades after Win’s youth there. We went to the same elementary school. At his time, it was the only school in the town, situated on the main street, quite far from his family’s house near the bay in the southern end of town. [Sometime I must ask him how he was transported to school.] I attended the school because it was walking distance from my house—a small Cape Cod built by my dad on a 50’ x 100’ lot. My little joke with Win has been that we went to the same school, he when it was new, and I when it was old!

Win summarizes his transition in and out of the New York suburbs:

By 1926, my parents must have realized the impossibility of maintaining two homes and the need to recoup some funds, so they sold the 39th Street [Manhattan] brownstone and settled into the M— house. Sister and I were sent to private schools in Garden City, while brother Henry was enrolled at St. Mark’s School at Southboro, Massachusetts.

After the fourth grade at St. Mary’s at Garden City, I went to M—‘s public school for three or four years and was then enrolled at St. Mark’s for the first form (7th grade). . .

During these lean years, father never let his financial concerns show in front of his children. He was ever one to enjoy outings at Jones Beach with his family and to socialize with his many M—friends.

Years later, while waiting to be called to fight in World War II, Win returned for a visit to his hometown, and in his book he quotes from the journal he kept at that time:

Good old M—! Our house [built by my parents in 1915 and rented to others since father’s death seven years ago] stands across the road from a small privately owned lake, noted mainly for its seaweed and bullrushes and one huge weeping willow. The lake empties through a small dam into one of the millions of creeks of the Great South Bay. We used to catch lots of eels, crabs, and snappers in the creeks in the old days. Mussels lined the banks of the small tributary creeks, but we never thought of them as edible. Meadows and swamps extended along the shores in great patches and probably still do where they haven’t been laid out in blocks and promoted by indefatigable real estate operators (or simply optimists).

I had friends in that south part of town when I was in high school, and their homes were new, built on landfill by those “indefatigable real estate operators.” But they were hardly “laid out in blocks”; rather, these developments were prototypes, I suppose, of today’s McMansions, with swirling streets confusingly lapping around, and houses with features I’d never imagined: atriums, loft bedrooms, walk-in closets, two-story family rooms, gourmet kitchens with islands, pendulum lights, wall ovens and stone-floored patios, and possessions I simply didn’t know were available: grand pianos, original oil paintings by New York artists, sectional sofas, pedigreed dogs. Simply: my public high school was as excellent as it was because of the taxes paid by the engineer-, physician-, and stockbroker-parents of the kids in my classes.

The particular niche in the layout of M— where Win grew up was unknown to me: an older neighborhood surrounded by the homes of the nouveau riche erected on acres of landfill. We drove out, my husband and I, some years ago, to see our respective ancestral homes, and while the S— house still stands, and is still elite, clearly some of its grounds have been sold off for new construction. Win’s expectation that the “meadows and swamps” he knew probably still existed in 1989 was surely over-optimistic.

Further journal entries reveal both the oncoming suburbanization of the town and the lingering lifestyle of the old social set.

In June of 1942, Win writes, he and his sister

. . .came out to M— to join mother. Her apartment is right across the street from the little tennis club to which our old “social community” belonged. The apartment is part of the house that the Swansen family rented in the old days. Mr. Swansen[‘s] . . . son Ed went to Kindergarten with me here in M— and later was my St. Andrews School and Yale roommate.

Mother and I went out to dinner with the Kanes, old friends of the family. We dined at the Shore Terrace, a new and swanky night club in M— complete with orchestra, floor show, and tables for a hundred or more! And then to think back to when I used to go to the public school here, and to when I heard Mr. Kane tell of how his father came to M— in 1892 and how for a couple years they had no gas or electricity and had to pump their own water! When Mr. Kane built his present house about 1900, M— was a village of not even 200 people. Those were the days when everyone in the village knew everyone else and the whole village would have parties down by the bay. Now he hardly knows a soul as he stands with the crowd taking the morning train for New York.

Though much of Win’s descriptions refer to a town and neighborhood alien to my experience there, I did have a bolt of recognition when he described the library as it existed in 1942:

M—‘s new population uses the same library which was functioning when I was born – a tiny one-room affair which used to be supported privately at an annual cost of $300. It is now under the Board of Education and has a budget of $5,000. I don’t know how this shanty can gobble up so much money in a year.

In my day, this library was still a shanty, although it had several narrow extensions also crammed with books. I remember my mother taking me there and my studious perusal of shelf after shelf of plastic-sheathed books. It was on wooded grounds next to the Catholic Church, itself on a large plot harboring a tan brick steepled ediface, a grade school, an old-house turned rectory, a nun’s quarters, and an extensive parking lot. By the time I left town, a new, modern library had been constructed on land at the other side of the church. When we visited M— in the ‘90s, the shanty was still standing and in use in some official capacity. A lot of people loved that old shack, I think, notwithstanding Win’s scorn.


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