We moved back to the States the summer I was fourteen, back into the house we’d lived in twice before, the one my parents bought when I was three. It was an old white clapboard house that stood back from and above the road.
While we’d been living in England my father had had changes made to the house. Now there was a black asphalt driveway that took you up the hill and curved around to the back of the house that had become the front with a big front door and a porch. The old front of the house looked mournfully down to the road with its plain unadorned face.
At the end of the driveway was now a two-car garage and a short flagstone path bedecked with a rose trellis leading to the house. There was a new front hall with a bathroom (with a shower, something the old house had not had). There was beige wall-to-wall carpeting over the old boards and a set of narrow French doors at the bottom of the stairs leading up from the living room.
I liked the changes. It made the house a little more like other people’s, softer and more comfortable. It looked richer too.
There were other changes. My father lived at home now. In England he had only come home on weekends. Here, he didn’t have a fancy executive job like he used to. He was doing something like selling asphalt and showed me the glossy brochure as if it were his latest international project. I nodded my head, confused, and left the room as soon as I could.
By Christmas I knew we were poor. I had never thought about money in the house before. Suddenly, its lack became very clear.
My father slept on the fold-out couch in the new front hall. He took his morning bath in the new bathroom, kept his suits in the new walk-in closet, his underwear and shirts in the big piece of make-believe antique furniture in the living room. He was always in some stage of his elaborate dressing/bathing ritual in the living room as I went to the kitchen for breakfast. At night he closed the narrow French doors at the bottom of the stairs, and listened alone to his records – Mozart, Beethoven, operas and symphonies, sitting in one of the two new armchairs and nursing a scotch and soda.
My mother bought one week of groceries at a time – a block of CrackerBarrel cheese for the week, one jar of jam, one box of cookies. The houses where I babysat were so different, so American – cupboards crammed with crackers and cookies and cereals, refrigerators so full you had to take things out to see what was there, magazines scattered across the living room floor, scarves and hats falling out of closets, children’s rooms filled with toys no one played with.
Our house was not like that. In our house there was nothing extra.
One set of everyday dishes, One set for holidays. There was the everyday cutlery and the make-believe sterling in the wooden box lined with green felt.
We had our school clothes, one or two pairs of this, one or two of these, “that’s all you need.”
The girls in school didn’t wear the same thing for weeks. I planned my outfits carefully, stretching what I had to give a semblance of plenty – finding a blouse in my mother’s closet she no longer wore, turning a dress into a shirt that looked good with jeans. The other girls were a mystery to me. Where did they buy jeans that fit so well? Where did they get the money?
My father never said anything about being poor. He put the thermostat up to 70. My mother told him to wear long underwear and turned it back down to 65.
Then my father took me out. To the opera, to a fancy restaurant in the city with big menus. At those times I never looked at the prices. We were out of the house and could pretend we didn’t have to go back.