Burning Down the House

#WhereILivedWednesday: Mrs. Black’s House

This is part of a series of entries about places you once called home, started by Ann Imig of Ann’s Rants. Check out the links on her site for more stories!

My mother started a new job in a small Maine town during the summer of 1983. Our house in New York was on the market but not generating much interest and the three of us still left at home needed to join my mother up in Maine by the start of the school year. When the first day of school rolled around, we were still living at a summer place an hour away, in the tiny beach town where we’d spent many summers of our childhood. After two weeks of making that drive with three reluctant passengers at 6am, my mother found someplace closer to school.

Our new temporary home was also a summer house, right down by the water, but in the same town as my mom’s new job and our school. It was owned by an old lady named Mrs. Black who cleared out after Labor Day and was happy to have some extra income by renting it to us. The reason she moved back into town then was because the house wasn’t winterized; a new term for me that I didn’t fully appreciate until later.

At first it was great. September in Maine is still beautiful, with the fall colors starting, and you could still look forward to warm afternoons. The house had a very large open room with a double fireplace smack in the middle. One corner was the dining area, the opposite corner had a big sofa and one of those lobster trap tables common in Maine summer houses. There were two bedrooms back behind the living room area of the open room, and one small bathroom. There was another bedroom tucked in behind the kitchen but it was a little creepy and we preferred to double up in the regular bedrooms.

Even though we were now in the same town as our school, it was about as far away as you could be and still be in the same district. We could have taken a school bus, and in fact my younger sister did start taking the bus home from school after a couple of weeks. But my older sister and I were New York snobs and absolutely refused to do anything so rural as ride a school bus. Besides, there was nothing to do at Mrs. Black’s house. It was lovely but remote. You could go for a walk past the deserted summer community and that was about it. My mother borrowed a black and white tv from a young guy in her office but again, being that far away from a broadcast center, you could get maybe two channels, no cable, no MTV.

September turned to October and the sun set earlier every day. Those crisp fall days everyone loves? Not so fun when your summer cabin has no heat or insulation. That big double fireplace didn’t really work. We tried once but just managed to smoke up the whole room. There actually was some kind of electric heat source, a grate in the floor blew hot air when you flipped a switch on the wall, but after my younger sister nearly set her sweater on fire by placing it on top of the grate to warm up one frosty morning, my mother declared it off limits. The bedroom my older sister and I shared had a little space heater that was basically like leaving the door open on a toaster oven. We were allowed to run it for a few minutes before going to bed to take the chill off the room so you could stand to change into pajamas. Under no circumstances were we allowed to let it run all night for fear of it shorting out and starting a fire. I think my mother was more afraid of us burning down the rental house than of our own personal safety but it was a pretty sketchy heater so we obeyed.

By November it was bad. Really bad. We now had no hot water either. It turns out that one night when it got really cold, the hot water pipe had cracked and every time we turned on the hot water, instead of coming out of the sink or shower head, it was dumped onto the rocks beneath the house and trickled down to the ocean. We wore long underwear, sweatpants, and flannel nightgowns, all at the same time, two pairs of socks, and mittens, when we went to bed. My mother and little sister started sharing a twin bed, for warmth, with the cat sleeping on top of them trying to get in on some of that body heat.

We lived out there until Thanksgiving. Our house in New York still hadn’t sold but we couldn’t stay in the non-winterized house any longer. A person my mother knew at work had built a new house and was having trouble selling his old one, just like we were. He agreed to rent it to us until he had a buyer or we managed to sell ours and finally really move up to Maine.

Hey, it’s my two-year blogiversary! I’ve got a tradition going now of posting Talking Heads songs on this day, this makes the third one. We listened to this album a lot that first year up in Maine, and the last song on the record is my favorite TH song, but that’s the song on my first post so I took this one instead. It seemed to fit better anyway.

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16 comments

  1. This actually makes me want to reach back in time and give your Mom a big hug! Doing her best to get it right and it just went wrong, wrong, wrong!

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    1. And this only half of it, or maybe a third. There was also the house in New York with its own disasters, and the car fiascos (yes, plural) that were going on at the same time.

      I actually find great solace in remembering how hard that year was and how normal life became after it. I am now the same age my mother was then and it helps immensely to look at my mom now and tell myself, it’s going to be fine.

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  2. I could feel that bone-chilling cold as I read this. I’ve moved around some as an adult but settled not far from where I was born, up here in the north country close to the coast. Your mom was incredibly brave to try to make things work. While you never come out and say it, I can’t believe you weren’t completely miserable in ME for quite a while. What a culture shock.

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    1. Oh, we were completely miserable. I’m sorry to say I don’t think we appreciated how hard this was for my mom and we weren’t very good about hiding our discontent. It really was a culture shock. My older sister only had that one year of high school left and then went straight back to civilization at NYU.

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    1. Thanks, Lori!

      Yeah, no hot water was the straw that broke the camel’s back. We would wait at my mom’s office until everyone had left and wash our hair in the sink there. That got old fast.

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  3. sitting here in the -30 windchill day in Wisconsin, I could feel the biting cold of this, and wanted to warm you up with a good rub and warm fire. no hot water? ah.

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    1. I have thought about that house a lot during this endless winter of polar vortices. Those of you in the upper midwest really get my utmost sympathy, you’ve had it worse than anyone!

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