Yesterday’s post got me to thinking about my grandmother’s duplex, particularly the side where my family resided for not quite half a decade. There are a lot of not great memories associated with it. It’s where our domestic dysfunctions entered the final downward spiral culminating in my mother’s death. It’s also where I struggled through the waking nightmare of junior high and some of the dumbest episodes of my adolescence. The place feels cursed to me. I haven’t set foot in it for over thirty years, and shunned it even after I’d relocated to my grandmother’s side of the building. That chapter of my life had closed and I felt no need to revisit it.
It wasn’t all bad, though. Few things ever are.
The place was located off a small cul de sac a few blocks north of Woburn Center and weird on multiple levels. It was oddly sited on the lot, with my grandparents having a backyard the size of a postage stamp while the other tenants had a sprawling expanse big enough to fit another entire unit. (When my grandfather redid the fence between the two after the closing, he pushed it another ten feet or so into the other side in order to have more space for his rose garden and chicken coop.)
My grandparents’ side of the house had been fully midcentury modernized by a previous owner who planned on moving in before passing away shortly after the work was done. The side my family would be invited to inhabit looked like it had barely been updated since the Coolidge Administration. It didn’t even have a shower installed in the bathroom, just an ancient claw-footed bathtub where I took my daily soak for the bulk of my teen years.
My mother didn’t mind the archaic fixtures. In fact, she loved them because they dovetailed perfectly with her own retro obsession with pre-WW2 decor. (So now you know where I got this shit from.) My parents did update a few essential things like the wiring and some of the plumbing, and added a half-bath opposite the cellar stairs to accommodate my father’s mother, who still lived with us and had limited mobility after suffering a stroke in the mid-Seventies.
Across the street, a former big band conductor/record producer lived in a bungalow that had been festooned with a warren of additions and infested by multiple families of raccoons. Abutting my grandparents’ side of the property was an abandoned home where two elderly bachelor siblings had once lived and it remained vacant from the tail end of the Carter Era to the mid-Nineties.
The lead-up to the move from North Woburn was electric. It was the first time since infancy that I’d be relocating to a new address. Instead of six people crammed into a tiny apartment, I was going to be dwelling in a genuine half-house. No more sharing a open plan “bedroom” next to the living room with my grandmother and Lil Bro, my sibling and I were going to have our own room with a door that closed and a swanky new set of bunkbeds. I’d be in walking distance to my school, the handful of places that stocked new comics in Woburn, and the arcade rooms at the pool hall and bowling alley. And I’d be living right next door to my overindulgent grandparents, to boot.
Being a surly adolescent, I wanted our bedroom painted dark. My parents forced me to settle for royal blue, which went nicely with the orange shag carpet we got my from grandparents and the faded crimson drapes repurposed from the master bedroom in North Woburn. My dad sprung for a new TV for us, a Magnavox pushbutton jobber I managed to hold onto until 1994. It was joined by an overpowered stereo system bought on installment at a steep discount through my mother and a succession of electronic gaming platforms (2600, C64, Sega Master System).
After my father’s mother and sister moved out, Lil Bro was shifted to their room in order to reduce the frequency and intensity of our fraternal dust-ups. (My parents were big fans of the “BOTH OF YOU, SEPARATE” school of conflict resolution.) I had the bedroom to myself, and proceeded to make my stamp on it with an wall collage of magazine clippings (Twilight Zone, Fangoria, Nat Geo) and strings of Christmas lights around the windows. My buddy Scott put his electronics savvy to use by wiring up the TV and game consoles to my stereo receiver for maximum volume (and minimal fidelity).
For some reason, I ended up without a mattress for my bed. Instead of attempting to sleep on a box spring, I started using my bed as a writing/drawing desk and proceeded to cover it with art supplies and role playing game materials. I slept on the foam mattress from a trundle bed, which I slid under my actual bed during the day and dragged onto the middle of the floor at night. (One of the minor but significant adjustments I had to make after my mom died was getting used to sleeping in a real bed again.)
The room was hideous and messy and cluttered, but it was a genuine refuge when things got dicey. A hundred Watts per channel of thumping Stax soul was almost enough to drown out the drunken rants of my old man. Almost. (Even then there was the risk he’d decide to kill the power to my room in order to teach me a lesson. Maybe you can finally explain what that lesson was, Dad, since I know you read my posts.)
Enough darkness. There’s a lot of that I can never forget, but there were also many good moments I want to remember. A lot those are small joys, ephemeral fragments of contentment during troubling times. The action figure sagas. Lil Bro perched up in the pear tree in the corner of the yard. The backyard bashes with my parents’ bizarre friends. Hot cider after the city’s annual Halloween parade. Lounging the tire swing my father helped me set up and reading the latest issue of Dragon Magazine. The marathon D&D sessions in my room, punctuated with videogame breaks and midnight junk food runs to a nearby convenience store. Feeding my grandfather’s chickens blueberries from the garden. Sitting with my parents out back on a warm summer evening, listening to the crickets and distant strains of a band concert at Library Park. Working my way through a thick stack of Bronze age back issues while V66 (Boston’s music video channel) played in the background.
On the day my grandmother passed away, I paced around the yard while the rest of my family talked about immediate matters. It bears little resemblance to what it looked like thirty-five years ago. The pear tree and tire swing tree are long gone. The rock garden has become indistinguishable from the gravel driveway. The center plot where my mom used to plant her vegetable garden is now covered by overgrown and misshapen ornamental trees and shrubs.
It was no longer the place I had known so intimately. Any ghosts it held had moved on, surviving only as echoes in my own skull.
It was depressing, but also liberating. I still wouldn’t set foot in that side of the duplex, though.