Welcome to Levittown!
As many of you already know, I’ve been working on a memoir for the past two years, one now in the capable hands of my editor, Elizabeth Kracht of Kimberley Cameron & Associates, an agency dedicated to publishing 'high quality writing that makes a difference in the world.' Sounds good, no? However, in order to ready the manuscript for publication, it had to be cut down to size—cut down by thousands of words. Rather than leaving the words scattered on the cutting room floor, Liz suggested I blog some of the cut pieces.
As I'm currently on vacation—desperately seeking Paris in the Caribbean—I thought this might be a good a good time to do just that.
So, what’s it all about? It’s a story of a three-year old whose mother dies in childbirth, leaving behind a huge hole in her daughter’s heart—one that will not mend—and a scrawny three-pound baby boy. It’s a love story centering on the writer’s desire to learn the truth about her ‘missing’ mother and a mystery involving a family secret. More than anything, it’s a story about a child’s unending search not only to find her 'missing' mother, but to find a home for her restless heart, to find the security she lost when she lost her mother.
The following segment, told in the child's voice, takes place after her father has remarried and they—her father, stepmother, and brother Eddie—are living in a rented apartment on the upper floor of a single-family house in Yonkers. The apartment lacks a proper door separating it from the landlord's apartment, a situation not to the child's liking. Consequently, she is forever trying to convince her father—without success—to move to a better house, one that she envisions as having a solid door with a brass lock, much like Nancy Drew's house in River Heights.
Welcome to Levittown!
Here’s the latest! A few of my cousins, lucky stiffs, have moved to Levittown. We’re driving out next Sunday to visit and to see what everyone—everyone except my dad, that is—is calling the miracle of Levittown.
Levittown? It’s nothing but potato farms, he says, potato farms and hayseeds. I don’t know what's gotten into my sister Gert, moving the kids from Astoria all the way out to the boondocks.
When Sunday morning rolls around, my mom makes a Presto layer cake that she covers with a butter-cream icing for us to take with us to Levittown. My brother, Eddie, and I hang around the kitchen table waiting for her to finish so we can lick the beaters. My mom’s an excellent baker. She won First Prize, a gold ring, in a school-wide contest in her senior year at Walton High School. She let me wear it when I went off to Girl Scout last summer with my friend Marcia. I was excited because I don’t have any rings.
Camp Rock Hill on Mohegan Lake, is about fifty miles north of where we live. Right away, I was assigned to Pathfinders and my friend, Marcia, was assigned to Brooksiders. It doesn't really matter which group you're in, because all the campers get to sleep in large tents up on raised platforms. And as long as it's not raining, we sleep with the flaps rolled up, so you can fall asleep watching the stars overhead.
The first morning after we arrived, I was taking a swimming lesson in the "crib," a roped off part of the lake for non-swimmers, when disaster struck. I don’t know exactly when it happened or where it happened, but when I wasn’t even thinking about it, the ring slipped off my finger. I panicked and dove under a hundred times or more, but I couldn’t find it. I was so upset I was crying underwater tears. My swimming instructor dove under, too, but she couldn’t find it either. Finding a ring in Mohegan Lake is harder than finding a needle in a haystack.
I felt sick to my stomach, and I was scared that my mom would be angry when she found out I lost her ring. Losing something that belongs to someone else is the worst feeling in the whole world. I promised myself I would never ever borrow anything ever again. Not even a book, except from the library that is. When I got back home, I told my mom that I was sorry, and she said it was okay, but, of course, that doesn’t bring back her ring. I feel terrible every time I think about that ring.
Let’s hit the road early, my father says. I want to beat the traffic.
My father loves getting on the road early, and since it’s a Sunday, with all the churchgoers still in the pews, it doesn’t take us much more than an hour to drive out to Levittown. The first thing I notice is that all the streets have wonderful sounding names. Names like Winding Lane, Windmill Path and Snapdragon Road. But where are the hayseeds and where are the potato fields?
Before we visit the cousins, we stop to see the model homes. I’m beside myself with excitement. To think they let you go through the models is unbelievable. I’ve never seen a model home before; I’ve never seen a brand new house before. It’s such a great idea. Where we live in Sherwood Park, all the houses are old.
Daddy, isn’t Levittown the most wonderful place? Mr Levitt must be a genius. Do you think he’s an architect? To know how to build a whole town with houses and churches and schools and pools, he must be an architect, don’t you think? Did you see that school, Farmedge Elementary? Saying ‘I go to Farmedge Elementary’ sounds better than saying I go to PS #14. Don’t you think?
My dad's non-committal, concentrating on the road; he’s a good driver, hates pokey Sunday drivers. We putter along, driving up one lane and down another, passing hundreds of saplings that have skinny branches but no leaves and empty building lots with more mud than grass. Where I see possibilities, my father sees problems.
Levitt’s going to have to replace all these trees, he says. And that grass seed is never going to take. The ground’s too muddy.
At the Sales Office there are two models—one a ranch-style house, like the one Nancy Drew visited in The Secret at Shadow Ranch, and the other a Cape Cod saltbox like the one in The Bungalow Mystery. I’m over-the-moon about them: Choose one, I tell my heart, either one is fine with me. Watching a sizable crowd milling about, I’m afraid that someone is going to beat us to it, that someone's going to pull out a roll of bills and plunk down their money before we even have a chance. How many houses are for sale?
What’s clear is that I’m not the only one with a bad case of house fever. Dozens of families have driven out to see for themselves the miracle of Levittown. Digging around in my pocket, I give my rabbit foot key-chain a rub for luck.
Welcome to Levittown, booms a salesman coming over to the car, taking us by surprise. Welcome to suburbia! Which of our models would you like to see first? How about you little lady, what’s your choice?
Unable to say a word, choking on the excitement, I’m thinking: I’ll take the Cape Cod, sir, the one with the ocean breezes coming through the windows. Don’t bother to wrap it, I’m in a hurry.
Scrutinizing my father’s face for any interest he may have in a $7,990 house, I’m beginning to wonder if we have enough money. I mean, anyone can see that a $7,990 Levitt house is a bargain, but do we have enough? When my father asks about easy financing, my hopes soar on eagles’ wings.
Are you a veteran? If you’re a vet, the salesman says, you don’t have to put anything down. Zero percent. Can’t beat those terms for easy financing now, can you? And if you’re not a vet, all you have to do is put five per cent down.
Oh, no! Is this how my dream ends? How much is five percent down?
We have thirty-year mortgages available with low payments—$56 a month for vets, just a bit higher for non-vets. And for that, you get a brand new house with GE appliances in the kitchen, a Bendix clothes washer and tiled floors throughout. It’s quite a deal. With three children, you might want to look at the Cape Cod model because that has an unfinished loft which could be made into another bedroom or two. And all the backyards run together, so there’s plenty of open space for the kids to play. Mr Levitt doesn’t want any fences—no walls or fences allowed.
Listening to him, it sounds as if all we have to do is select a model, pick out the property and we could move in within months. Maybe move right next door to my cousins.
And there’s no need to pay it all up front, the salesman says, all you have to do is give us a small down payment.
Dizzy on hope, my brain’s doing somersaults. My dream of living in a nice house, a house with a real front door with a lock—maybe an oak door like the one on Nancy Drew’s house—is closer than its ever been before.
Yep. Pick a site, and we pour the concrete. We’re using prefabricated panels with shipments arriving from the factory every day. Why, little lady, he says, tussling my hair, your house could be rolling off the line in months.
My house, my house. Well, he doesn’t have to convince me, I’m sold. But why months, not weeks? Seeing a solution at hand, I ask: Daddy, can we buy one of the models? Oh, please!
No, they’re not selling the models, not yet. They need them to show people what they’re getting for their money.
Inexplicably, in less time than it takes to say Rumpelstiltskin, this unsettling feeling comes over me. Up until now, I’ve been filling my notebooks with sketches of the Tudors with slate roofs, pachysandra-lined paths and wisps of smoke curling from the chimneys. Like the ones we drive by in Bronxville on Sundays.
Psst! Heart-of-Mine, will you be terribly disappointed if we don’t get to live in a Tudor? I haven’t told you this, but there are some things about Tudors that are not so great. The leaded panes, for instance, are a pain to clean. And you have to polish the coat-of-arms once a month. What if we switched our dreams around? What if we dreamed about a Cape Cod house with sea-blue breezes or a ranch house with a hitching post? What do you say?
C’mon, says the salesman. Don’t be bashful, look around. I thought he would never ask. Following him up the path, I feel like Dorothy on the yellow brick road to Oz. Opening the front door, I walk into a dollhouse made for real people.
Get a load of the GE appliances in the kitchen, says the salesman, elbowing his way through the crowd, leading the way. And how about that? he says, pointing to an air-vent overhead. Gets rid of all the cooking odors in a minute. Sure to please the lady of the house.
The lady of the house? I look around to see if my mom’s paying attention. And how about this? The agent is pointing to a white tile floor, explaining that heated pipes run under those tiles throughout all the rooms.
Sheesh, heated floors! No damp dark basements with mountains of coal. Gosh, Mr Levitt has thought of everything. And when the salesman says it wouldn’t take much to turn that loft into an extra bedroom, I immediately know where I’d put my bed. Where my father sees raw beams, sloping eaves and a lot of work to do, I see a room with a door that has a lock—Please Knock—a four-poster bed, a pink chandelier and ruffled curtains. Upstairs, away from the rest of the family.
If my mom likes the fully equipped modern kitchen and my father approves of the overall layouts, I’m head-over heels in love with a flocked wallpaper in the living room. No one we know has wallpaper, only paint. Checking to see if anyone’s watching, I run a finger over a fuzzy Victorian design, a burgundy print on a creamy background that’s the most stylish thing I’ve ever laid eyes on. How soon could we move in?
Mom, come look at this! I say, pointing to a Bendix washing machine with three cycles—wash, rinse and spin—that’s tucked under the steps to the loft. Isn’t this the best? No more feeding clothes through the wringer, and no more floods. A cardboard advertisement propped on top of the washer shows the woman-of-the-house, beaming like a kid at Christmas, so happy to be doing laundry and saying: It’s a snap with a Bendix.
Can we buy this house, Daddy? Pul-lease! Pul-lease! Pul-lease! Do you think Mr Levitt would let us keep the wallpaper?
Too soon, too soon we have to leave. Pulling to the curb at Ten Crag Lane, I’m slack-jawed at the sight of my cousins’ house, a white Cape Cod with black shutters sitting on a curve in the road. For me, it’s love at first sight, a love colored with craving and envy. Immediately, I imagine myself cutting the grass, watering geraniums in the window boxes, and cooking burgers and franks on a charcoal grill every night of the week all year round.
Welcome to Levittown! Welcome to suburbia! The cousins come running out, asking if we want to see the pool. A pool? You have a pool?
We race three blocks to the South Village Green on Acorn Lane—Leapin’ lizards!—where there’s a pool not yet filled with water, a playground with swings and slides, and a delicatessen newer and nicer than Alphonse’s deli on Mile Square Road. With my head-in-the-clouds at the prospect of swimming in a pool ’s only three blocks from their house—swan-diving off a ten-foot platform, swimming laps like Esther Williams—I ask, can anyone swim here?
You have to be a member, they say pulling out passes. See? It’s private. I’m crestfallen, but only for a second, only until they say I can come as a guest. When?
After visiting Levittown, driving the back roads of Westchester County on Sunday afternoons is never quite the same. I have fallen under the spell of the new: new houses with heated floors and new GE appliances; new streets with romantic sounding names; and new neighborhoods with new schools, new churches, new community swimming pools and, even a brand-new shopping mall. Everything’s up-to-date in Levittown. They’ve gone about as far as they can go.