Sunday, January 27, 2008

Pools, leaking roofs and beach-front apartments



My first home was a large, 3 story house sitting on a huge corner lot right by the railroad. My parents bought it when my sister was less than one year old, and they themselves decided life was better in suburbia with its fresh air and big open spaces. One of the first things they did was build a swimming pool measuring 12 x 24 feet, something that seemed at bit flamboyant in a country where the summer lasts two months in a good year.
We have a series of photos from the late 70s, showing my sister sitting on the edge of a miniature Grand Canyon dug in the middle of our garden, my dad sitting next to her holding on to the braces of her bib overall. “This”, I imagine him telling her in a soft voice, “is all for you. One day it will be a turquoise pool, and you will make great friends because of it.”

Because of the long winter, I honestly can’t remember being in the pool as much as standing around the edge of it, rescuing bugs or our baby terrier from the murky water, and wondering how on earth my dad would ever get it all clean again. But come summer, the pool was, as promised, a bright turquoise thing, and my sister and I would anxiously wait around in our bathing suits, waiting for my dad to give us the go-ahead to get in. “Is it ready yet?” we would wail impatiently through our snorkels, the pool oozing from the chemicals my dad was pouring in to clean it.

15 years after he bought it, and a good couple of years after my parent’s separation, my dad decided it was time to sell the house, mainly because the pool was becoming a bitch to clean in summer. By this time he had stopped cleaning the whole thing, and only concentrated on one half of it. “This will do”, he would say contently. “Just make sure you stick around this half, OK?”
Adding to it, a good deal of the light bulbs in the house needed replacing, and my father, never a wizard with domestic repairs and refurbishments, deemed it far easier to move.

My mom, in the first couple of years following their separation, was living in a 3rd floor rental pretty close by. Leaving the good bedrooms to my sister and I, she had chosen to place her own bed in the far end of a loft-like living room, in prolongation of our dining section and living area.
Somehow this never resonated with me. Accustomed to living in a house where everyone had their own separate bedroom, seeing a king sized bed in the living room was a severe thorn in my side.
Much to my dismay she seemed fine with it, as she did living without a freestanding cocktail table, something that, after having watched a few too many soap operas with my grandmother, I deemed any respectable household should have. Instead she spent her free time house-hunting for something her stewardess wages could afford, sometimes letting me help her scour the real estate ads for potential homes, even though I had a tendency to aspire to grand mansions, preferably pink, in fancy neighborhoods.

She eventually got a single-storey fixer-upper on the wrong side of town, that she bought from an old man with bad eyesight, who failed to mention it came with a leaking roof. Instead his sales pitch was that you could locate the keyhole for the main door, even in the dark, with the help of something as simple as your fingernail. “Look, it’s so clever”, he explained. “You just move the tip of your thumb around the lock until you locate an elongated dent of sorts. Then you know you’ve found the KEY-HO-LE”.

Always resourceful with paint and a sewing machine, my mom transformed the house from an undistinguishable brown mess into a replica of a House and Garden cover feature, complete with matching bedspreads and wallpapers, and multiple seating arrangements in the living room. At one point she even bought a piano, not because any of us knew how to play it, but simply to add to the atmosphere of the house.
Growing up I always had a taste for grand living, and personally did my best to create the feeling of a cultivated, musical home, repetitively playing the refrain of “Ach Du Lieber Augstin”, the only tune I knew. A gesture my sister, to this day, secretly blames as the cause of her low grade point average.

As I remember it, my mother’s house served as a great unifier in my family, helping us overcome whatever discomforts associated with separation. Hidden from the street at the far end of a long, narrow driveway (so narrow, in fact, that for the full five or six years that we lived there, my dad, in his tiny Volkswagen convertible, never learned to drive down it without killing the tulips on either side), the house had the quality of a safe haven, where we could make up our own rules for what constituted a happy divorced family. It was here we all started celebrating Christmas and birthdays together again, and we sat down all four of us, my mom, dad, sister and I - five counting the terrier - for occasional Sunday dinners or afternoon coffee and cake.

After he sold the house with the pool, my dad, unwilling to go through the hassle of buying real estate, wound up renting a semi-detached house from a friend of his, only to leave it two years later when too many light bulbs needed replacing. He then bought a fancy two-story apartment, with 12 feet tall windows overlooking the beachfront.
Although we quickly learned to mimic the locals’ heartfelt connection with the sea, living so close to it never struck us to be that big of a deal. “Once you’ve lived right by the sea, you can’t ever imagine living anywhere else“, we’d say making grand gestures towards it, while secretly finding it depressingly gray.

The apartment was nice though, and even made it into the style section of one of the national newspapers, as well as a Norwegian interior decoration magazine - something my mom never entirely understood. Being the only one in the family with a collection of fabric swatches and a knowledge of decorating dos and don’ts, seeing my dad’s style described as “retro meets contemporary” along with a photo of him dreamily overlooking the sea, made little if any sense to her. “It really looks unfamiliarly nice”, she said to me flipping through the magazine. “I bet they photo-shopped it”.
My dad, in turn, bought three copies of the magazine, and finally felt justice served for being a good inch shorter than my mother.

By the time I entered high school my mom decided to sell her house - now with a spanking new roof and country style kitchen - hoping to live in a fancier neighborhood. With the good amount of money she made from selling it, she bought a picturesque dollhouse, which despite its tiny size contained just the right amount of bedrooms, not to mention a cat flap, which our dog painfully learned she couldn’t fit through.

These two houses, the dollhouse and the sea-front apartment, were the last to places I lived with my parents before I moved out on my own.
Both of them have since moved again. My dad just recently when he finally realized that the light bulbs in the kitchen would continue to go out unless he had someone rewire the electricity. Even though his new place is equipped with good lighting, he continues to cook in the dark, purely from force of habit.
My mother, the continual upgrader, has moved twice: First into a house with yet another swimming pool, and secondly to her home country of Sweden, where she currently divides her time between a country house and a huge apartment in Stockholm. Both places, my dad sometimes points out, have yet to make it onto the pages of an interior decoration magazine.

1 comment:

johanna said...

This was a very, very awesome thing to read.