Safe as Houses
A small maple of some decorative species. It gave no comfort in the summer, but who would sit out on North Ave., traffic running by, bus stop at the corner? The little house, shingled and shuttered, was built in the year of my birth, just in time for my arrival. Country cute, we loved its sun parlor, breakfast nook, wrought iron hasps on the cellar door. Should have been in suburbia, a classy town in Connecticut, commuter distance from the city, not this city with factories hanging on for dear life in The Great Depression.
The house accommodated our happiness. Yes, we were that sort of “all alike” family; and, as the song advised, my parents begot a boy for you, a girl for me. I can not recall when I discovered we were misplaced. Perhaps when my mother began to speak of the past, particularly her life as a teacher, her delight in the respectful students who gobbled her dose of geometry and algebra, except for Al Capp who was rude. She took it personally, his mockery of careful diction and fine manners which surfaced in Li’l Abner, but mostly she was pleasantly engaged waiting those years to meet up with my father; enjoying the trips with teacher friends to New York and New Haven where a dose of culture might be enjoyed a world away from Bridgeport. I was well into adolescence when I detected an edge to her voice, a note of self-mockery. So out of date, don’t you know, the evening purse from Lord & Taylor, the Yale pennant from a fella. Oh, at the Schubert in New Haven, shows trying out before Broadway. The theater was heady stuff, The Playboy of the Western World competing with Abie’s Irish Rose for favorite. There was only one harsh stroke. She would edit pleasant spinster expeditions of yore to return again and again to O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms, to the night she drove to New Haven with, I never knew which teacher friend, never knew because that play was a scandal, an offense to my mother who was perfectly capable, thank you, had read of incest, infanticide in the Greek Tragedies that were fair game for O’Neill.
I believed her continuing displeasure with the spectacle of his work and life, had something to do with his departure from her safe corner of Irish Catholic, or perhaps the flat tire on the King’s Highway coming home that night from New Haven. Not at all. Last year I saw a revival of the work that had so offended. Brian Dennehy doing his best, prancing about, old fool bedding his bride. Never out of date, don’t you know, the family feud for house and land. Shocking, well I guess to a school marm shy of her own sexuality, but I believe it was the cradle at the foot of the bed more than the begetting of the child, that empty cradle, shocking to a woman calculating the days left of her child bearing years, Miss Burns of the schoolroom who would marry in the long run, lose her first born, settle to our cottage with an ornamental maple, the world passing by.
O’Neill sets the scene of Desire Under the Elms on the brittle page of my old Modern Library Nine Plays:
Two enormous elms are on each side of the house. They bend
their trailing branches down over the roof. They appear to
protect and at the same time subdue. There is a sinister maternity
in their aspect, a crushing, jealous absorption…
In high school I submitted a script for a possible prize. It was pretentious to say the least, modeled I recall with shame, on my reading of Mourning Becomes Electra. A tragic woman in black silk stands by a glass door. I believe there was a garden beyond, certainly much sorrow to do with the Second World War. It would be years before I understood this exercise in tragedy was meant as a correction to my mother’s continuing cool toward the laureate. I did not, thank the wise judges, even place in the competition. The prize went to a family comedy, much laughter and confusion. The slap happy end of early TV installments was our just reward.