"This is where he shot himself," my friend said in a low voice. "This is where he died."
We were standing in my playroom full of dollhouses and Tonka trucks. I also thought of it as the schoolroom thanks to the presence of a large double students' desk; where a pupil might scratch a quill over a sheet of foolscap under the watchful eye of a tutor or governess. The room had once been someone's study. The bare wood floors and the rustic cabinets along the wall lent an air of masculinity that was different from the rest of the large, stone, English-style house. The cabinets held our old school books, games and some dress-up dolls with their clothes, but I could see they were tall enough to have held hunting rifles.
My friend had grown up in the area. I met her when I spotted her and her sister cimbing around on the rocks in front of the house. She was in a position to have heard rumors about the previous owners.
I do not know why I never asked my mother about that story. Maybe I did, and she dismissed it as my usual histrionics - the word she used often when I was upset about something.
My mother first saw the house from the Yacht Club across the harbor. We had stopped to use the bathroom. She didn't notice it until she was coming back down the dock to my uncle's boat. "Tom," she said to my father, "that's what I want for my birthday."
Local realtors dismissed them for years. "That house will never go on the market. It will never be for sale. Let's look for something else."
And then, very suddenly, it was. For a song.
The house was our summer home for a few years until my father died and we moved into it full-time. My mother wanted to get out of New Jersey and closer to her family in Connecticut where she could start her antique business. It was the kind of house dramatic British novels took place in. Think Atonement.
When I started going to the local High School, the rare friends I brought home would inevitably say, as we rounded the bend in the drive "You live in that house?" One friend in particular drove me crazy looking for secret passageways. We never found any, but the house was full of places to hide from the reality of living there.
Fierce winter storms remind me of nights in that house. It was surrounded on three sides by water and the wind raged constantly after dark. It sounded of anger and despair outside - and in.
Our lives in that house were not the stuff of novels. Nothing dramatic happened while we were there, but it was not a happy place to live. A house like that should have been teeming with guests to put the beach and the rooms and my mother's collections of dinnerware to good use. After my father died, my mother's parents started declining and their eventual deaths led to a split in the family my mother had moved there to be close to. Terrified of losing control of her kids, she sought to keep our world as small as possible, even though, as adolescents, our instinct was to pursue broadened horizons.
It would have been far more prudent to sell the house. Heating and upkeep were ungodly expensive, and my mother was never able to renovate the kitchen the way she and my father had planned. She was trying to run a business, always complaining about the cost of things like phone calls, but it was as if the house was some kind of fortress and to leave it would have been a humiliating defeat.
She finally did sell it when we were grown and moved away. Helping her clean out the house was probably the most emotionally difficult thing I have ever done. I wound up in charge of operations because my mother, normally in control of every detail, was wandering around in small circles, not knowing what to do first.
I found pictures I had never seen of my parents' wedding. I found photos of my mother's first child who died before I was born. I found an enormous collection of portraits of me as a baby - because she was afraid she might lose me too. There were never any personal photos hung in the house. All of the portraits on the walls were of long-dead people we were not related to posing in wicker chairs. I found diaries I had written for the years that I lived there, and disposed of them before I got all the way through them. Aside from the embarrassing teenaged crushes and unrealistic hopes for my future, it was all so sad.
I do have a few happy memories of that house - writing little skits for my cousins to act out on their holiday visits (again, think Atonement); the construction crews that filled the house when my father was having it renovated; learning to slide down the enormous bannister; getting married there surrounded by the friends I had managed to collect and the new, much happier family I was marrying into, the mournful sound of seagulls in the gray early morning.
It looks like the kind of house that gets passed down through the generations, but there's a new family living there now. They've added a tennis court and restored the pool. I'm sure they've renovated the kitchen and a dozen other things my father never finished. I'll never know the answer to this of course, but I do wonder if there lives there are happy.