Memoirville

EXCERPT: House of Happy Endings by Leslie Garis

Monday, November 5th, 2007

By Kim Brittingham

Chapter One
1953: Amherst, Massachusetts
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Read an in-depth interview with Leslie Garis here. Buy the book here.

In those years I spent a lot of time in the dumbwaiter, moving up and down behind the walls, listening to voices. I sat with my knees up: sometimes I clasped my arms around my legs, sometimes I kept my hands on the rope that extended in a loop from the top of the house to the bottom. Two lengths, thick and prickly, were suspended side by side. One for up, one for down. It was dark inside the box, but never entirely black. Faint light seeped in from the square doors that opened on each floor.

No one knew I was there. I was invisible. I could eavesdrop to my heart’s content. I was like blood flowing through a vein, silent and purposeful. There were certain confusing incidents I was trying to interpret, and I hoped I was on the trail of truth. The problem was, I had too much information.

A good person is happy; a happy person is good. I knew this without a doubt because we were wrapped in a dream of perfection, a dream created and refined in vivid detail by the collective imagination of my family.

How warm and cozy it was in Snow Lodge! How bright were the lights, and how the big fire blazed and crackled and roared up the chimney! And what a delightful smell came from the kitchen!

I could jump right into that world. The Bobbsey Twins at Snow Lodge. Granny or Grampy—I wasn’t sure which—wrote it. I was inside the boundless optimism and could hardly wait for time to unfold its treasures. The fact was that when I looked around my own life, I saw something so similar in its physical outlines to that mythic ideal that fictional boundaries tended to fade in my unformed, overactive mind.

Our family was suffused with stories. Dad’s often-told tales of traveling through the desert with an Egyptian prince, Mom’s romantic memory of falling in love with the most debonair, handsome, sophisticated man she had ever met: my father. The stirring story of my grandmother’s life: suffragette, pioneer newspaper woman, author of books . . . But the stories that held us most in thrall were fashioned by my grandfather, and their most distilled form was also the most improbable. After writing hundreds of books in numerous popular children’s series, he became rich and famous by creating a rabbit who wore a top hat and tails and lived in the most idyllic small town America ever produced. His name was Uncle Wiggily, and he inhabited Woodland with Nurse Jane Fuzzy Wuzzy and their animal friends. A rabbit! Yes. The Uncle Wiggily Stories were the bestselling children’s books in America for decades before I was born and my grandfather was still a celebrity on their account. I was known at school as the granddaughter of Uncle Wiggily.

My mother expected my brothers and me to be as kind and well-mannered as Uncle Wiggily, and also as energetic, successful, and well-groomed. I was being brought up on the morality of a make-believe rabbit.

Was she right? Perhaps Woodland was the best place to look for an ethical model. But if that were so, where would I find reality? If, as I was beginning to believe, life wasn’t like my grandparents’ books, was happiness merely a fantasy? I didn’t accept that, but my self-appointed mission was to discover the unvarnished truth. My survival, I sensed, depended on it. I was sure the answers were here in this house, this enormous, magical house—the first great love of my life.

In 1948 Dad left his job at The New York Times Magazine to be a full-time writer, and in celebration of his release from formal employment he bought a “nicer” house in a sleepy New England college town: Amherst, Massachusetts. The house had its own name. It was called The Dell.

That was all I knew—except that I gathered my mother was unsure The Dell was right for us. At age five, I had no idea why. When we drove into Amherst, I was spellbound by the town’s aura of settled calm. Its generous village green was bordered on one side by the princely buildings of Amherst College and on the other by a craggy town hall, a brooding, ivy-covered church, and a group of small stores. The leaves of the old maples on the Common were beginning to turn gold.

At the bottom of the Common, where the white brick Lord Jeffery Inn sprawled in calm splendor, we turned down a narrow road called Spring Street. My three-year-old brother Brooks and I were looking out of the car with the windows cranked down. We came to a shaded crossroads, the air moist and fragrant. Down on the right was a long building with a white porch, which formed a T with the end of the street. It defined the view like a stage set, its windows sparkling in the afternoon sun. Dad said it was called Valentine Hall—such a romantic name!—and it was where the Amherst College students took their meals. Looking to the left from the crossroads, we could see a large stone church with a hefty spire. I can’t recall any people at all on the sidewalks that afternoon; in fact there was an eerie sense of isolation from the real world, almost of a lost village under an enchantment.

Mom held five-month-old Buddy in her arms. Was she apprehensive? I cannot recall. As we entered the driveway of 97 Spring Street, our car tires crunching on gravel, I found myself repeating silently, “The Dell, The Dell,” as if the name could explain the kingdom that opened before us. Dad stepped out of our Packard and looked at a house wrapped in shingles, its rooflines and corners as softly contoured as the land. He smiled like a man who has taken possession of his magic castle, within which his life will be blessed.

It looked to me like a giant playhouse. I couldn’t see the whole shape of the place at first. The sheer size of it prevented me from taking it all in from my low perspective.

Knowing my father’s innate modesty, his shy, deferential, soft-spoken manner, I was surprised that he had bought this imposing place. It’s true that in private he was unusually elegant. He carried a vermeil-engraved cigarette case and kept his many pairs of gold cuff links in a silver box that said asprey on it. He wore silk bathrobes (from Sulka, I would later learn), ascots in cool weather, and finely cut clothes even for gardening. Now his public image would match his private preferences.

I ran around the side to a wide terrace of rose-colored stone overhung by a white arbor encircled by thick arms of wisteria.

Tall doors, their leaded glass panes divided into beautifully balanced curves and angles, completely shaded from the bright afternoon light, looked black under the arbor. I peered through them at a diorama of dark wood.

I ran around another corner of the house past a giant beech tree. The terrace opened up to an even larger expanse bordered by a low stone wall. Looming at one end, and looking alive with power, was a massive stone table in the shape of a mill wheel set on a pedestal. Dotted along the lawns, with tranquil distances between them, were many kinds of trees, one laden with apples. I was tempted to run down there and pick one, but I could hear my mother calling me.

She and my father simultaneously came out of the house from two different doors that opened onto the terrace. They were laughing. Brooks stepped carefully, his blue eyes wide with discovery. My father lifted me up into his arms.

“What do you think of your new house, Les?” he asked.

“I love it, I love it, I love it . . .”

“We’re going to be happy here,” he said.

“Oh, yes!” I answered, hugging him hard, my arms entwined around his neck.

Inside, standing in the hall, I felt dwarfed by the scale of the rooms. The house was designed so that windows were always in view. No matter where you were, light shone in—prismatic and softened by the extraordinary windowpanes. The outdoors was so present that even though the walls were dark, I had the impression that the slightest change of sky, like a cloud passing by, would be reflected inside.

I could see that Dad was in another world. It seemed, even to my five-year-old eyes, that there was something about the feeling he had inside the house—perhaps the dimensions of the rooms, or something as simple as the color of the woodwork, or a particular smell, or maybe a sliver of light on a floorboard—something that made his heart beat faster, a flutter of joy that invaded his chest, a sudden tearing of his eyes. My mother watched him with love.

Everything about The Dell amazed me. The carved crystal doorknobs felt smooth and sharp in my hand, on the walls were lights that looked like old-fashioned oil lamps, doors slipped into wall pockets, and the walls were as thick as my forearms were long. Each door had a large brass plate with a medieval-sized keyhole.

A peach marble fireplace adorned the dining room, and I recognized the Dutch door from which my mother had emerged when I was standing on the terrace. To the left of the fireplace was a swinging door that led to the butler’s pantry and a peculiar kitchen. Stretching along one whole wall, beneath mullioned windows, were a black sink and counter. I’d never seen a black sink before. Red birds congregated in the arborvitae hedge that walled one side of the back driveway.

I ran from the kitchen into a narrow corridor from which you could walk up a back stairway or down gray steps into the cellar. Several feet up from the floor, at the level of my shoulders, was a small, square door with a round brass pull. Why would a door be up there? I called Mom: “What’s this?”

“Look and see,” she said, opening the door and lifting me up. “It’s a dumbwaiter, and it goes all the way up to the top of the house and all the way down to the cellar.”

A dumbwaiter! Plans began forming. Ahhhhh . . . What possibilities.

“Here’s something else, Les. Wait till you see this!” Mom opened the door at the end of the corridor. It led to the front hallway, past paneled woodwork under the main staircase. It was made of what Mom called buttonwood—a buttery light brown. Her fingers searched and found a tiny wooden knob. The panel came away to reveal a dark space with a long coiled hose.

“Mrs. Churchill, who built this house, was afraid of fires. That’s why the walls are so thick, and that’s why this hose is here. It reaches to every single corner of the house. Isn’t it wonderful?”

It surely was. A dumbwaiter, a secret panel . . . I was awestruck.

Back in the hall and through another door, I found the best room of all—a big library with yet another marble fireplace, bowed windows, a very large desk, and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Boxes of books were strewn on the floor. I figured we could put them all away and still have space for more. We would fill up the whole room with books. What bounty.

Later, in a state of restless ecstasy, I was taking a bath in a tub that was so long, my mother had to hold me so I didn’t slip under the warm, soapy water. When she helped me out over the side and wrapped me in a towel, our voices echoed. The floor was covered with thousands of tiny diamond-shaped white tiles in gray grouting. I couldn’t get over all those minuscule tiles; there was something so precise and exorbitant about them. They gave me a strange joy.

A white radiator sat fat and placid under a big window through which the day moved into its last pale moments. The porcelain sink was almost above my head. But that was because I was so small. I stood on a chair and looked into an old, dark-streaked mirror. My eyes looked back at me. Behind me was my strikingly vivid mother, darkly beautiful. She leaned down to pick up Brooks and was gone from the mirror. I studied my face for signs of something. I appeared more knowing than I had yesterday in our utterly familiar Rye home. Today was the beginning of the adventure that would be my life.

Filled with the manic energy of a freshly scrubbed child, I ran downstairs to find my father, who, I believed, was the one person in the world who truly understood my feelings. He stood in the kitchen, playing with an odd-looking contraption attached to the wall.

“Look at this, Les!” He was excited. “This microphone connects to tubes in the walls that go to all the rooms. We can call someone upstairs from here.”

Indeed, a small metal megaphone protruded from the wall. Next to it hung a black disk with tiny holes in it. My father put it to his ear.

“Let’s call Mom and Brooks!” I said.

“Mabs! Mabs!” he yelled into the opening. Everyone called my mother Mabs. Her name was Mabel. “Mabs!”

After waiting some minutes and yelling some more, his face lit up.

“She’s there, Les! Listen.”

I put the receiver to my ear and heard a muffled noise. It was my mother’s voice sounding as far away as a star. I yelled hello to her.

“I think mice have gotten in there,” my father said, not at all concerned. “Anyway, isn’t it marvelous?”

Oh, it was marvelous. Everything was marvelous.

My mother showed me the bedroom she had chosen for me off a spacious rectangular hallway. I loved its central position, so close to the grand staircase and not far from another set of wide stairs that climbed to the third floor. I had my own fireplace, with a deep mantel, and cabinets behind the woodwork, which I imagined I would fill with secret papers.

The walls were a muddy color, which didn’t bother me in these heady circumstances, but Mom promised that soon I could pick out my own wallpaper. There was a door between my room and Brooks’s, which I intended to lock.

Excerpted from House of Happy Endings by Leslie Garis. Copyright © 2007 by Leslie Garis. Published in July 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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