Duff ’n Stuff, Jan. 29, 2013
The two houses of my youth have given me a lot of important memories and, because my children are both teenagers now, I think that period in my own life has come into focus lately. That was when we lived in the house on Mansur Street.
The Mansur Street house was a 21-room southern style behemoth built in Lowell, Mass. in the early 1900s by a lumber merchant from Georgia. It was a tribute to his southern roots and, although they too were large, it looked like none of the other houses in the neighborhood.
My father purchased the house in the summer after my 16th birthday and I was not happy about moving from the only home I ever knew in a New Jersey suburb, to one in an unfamiliar city in New England.
The house was beautiful and big and white, with Corinthian columns in front, a portico over the driveway on one side and an unattached “carriage house” (with actual stables for horses) beyond the yard on the other. Inside, the house was built with dark, warm mahogany all through the place, including in the big main entrance foyer with its huge fireplace, and for the bannister up the wide grand staircase with its classic beveled glass window over the first landing balcony that led up to the second floor.
The ceilings of each of the rooms were extraordinarily high and we became used to tall Christmas trees and to using the balcony for practicing scenes from “Romeo and Juliet,” and attending my parents’ parties where we met interesting people (and some strange characters we made fun of and who remain in the annals) because of my father’s job at the local university.
The large windows in every room were adorned with long, luxurious drapes, all designed and some handmade by my mother, a master of every craft, who also did some of the wallpapering. There was a music room, a sewing room, a screened sun porch, a breakfast room, a butler’s pantry, a laundry shoot and a wine cellar in the basement. There was even a servant’s bell box in the kitchen but, much to my dismay, it was out of order. My parents installed a modern kitchen and updated the paint and wallpaper in each room, put down their collection of oriental rugs, and then generally left the house the way it was in all its elegant and aging charm.
My five siblings and I all moved into our new rooms reluctantly at first, having had to leave the only home and friends we ever knew, and start anew in this 75-year-old foreign-looking place. Eventually, the house took on the character of the family and became a part of us. We started calling it “the mansion” but ironically so, perhaps because we knew we were not a mansion type of family. The name stuck and we still call it that.
The mansion became right for us. It embraced us and brought us together around the warmth of my mother’s aromatic kitchen, where kids and their friends were often gathered, and around the always loud and lively dinner table, where we were cajoled into talking about the world and ourselves by my father the historian and traveler, who told us his own stories about life and his family and about each of us, while my mother egged all of us on and told us her side of the story.
The third floor of the house also became a gathering place for my brothers and sisters and me and our friends. We retreated to it often to listen to music and smoke a clandestine joint and fantasize about the people who must have partied there when it was a 1920s billiard room. From the third floor you could get to the the roof above Mansur Street, which was the “widow’s walk.” To get to it, you had to climb a short, steep, stairway and step out onto the aged-green copper landing. Joints were smoked there too, while we tried to imagine the ships those widows might have hope to see coming down the mighty Merrimack River, and tried to imagine Henry David Thoreau floating down from its mouth where it meets the Altantic Ocean in Newburyport, while he was writing “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack River.”
I remember one particular night, when my parents were away traveling and it was raining and my boyfriend (who was just the type to discuss Thoreau with me) and I lay on the floor of the billiard room on a makeshift bed listening to water pelt the tin roof. I had written down somewhere later about how in that moment it struck me how strange it was that a lovely, consistent sound can make everything seem quieter. That night, the light from a street lamp fell through the large, arched beveled window that dominated one side of the room. It illuminated our skin as we lay in its pool and I remember thinking in that moment of a painting I had seen in some museum and how I would have liked to be a painter to be able to capture such a luminous moment with our skin lit up like that. The boy and I lay there for a long time listening to the rain instead of speaking. It remains one of the most romantic moments of my life.
There were many luminous moments that happened on Mansur Street and it was funny that my family, of all families, ended up in the mansion’s old-timey, thick-with-history atmosphere, because you would not have pegged us for the family that belonged there. Funny, too, how right it became for us in the end.
My fondness for our time in the mansion is fueled by any number of milestones and indelible moments connected to its rooms. It was the backdrop for the place that fed into who I would become; the place helped to form me in a way. I made my first lasagna in the mansion, and helped to raise my little sister Emily there; went to my first rock concert and first prom from that house; saw my Italian grandparents celebrate their 50th anniversary there and had the biggest party of my lifetime in the carriage house, a memorable fiasco that got me into big trouble with my parents.
I also held Emily in my arms in all the rooms of that house, and watched from afar when she lived there alone with my mother and father after we older kids all went off to college.
It was also where my mother would endure the pain of my father’s betrayal and how that would tear us all away from the mansion forever.
From the heart,