The grass was rough. We called it “the grass.” We did not call it “the lawn.” It was an irregular shape that drifted into woods on one side and into the house on the other. In places, it sloped, good for somersaults. In one spot, near the tall, wide purple lilac, lay a square pale gray stone, “the well.” My father crossed the grass on weekends wearing khaki shorts, shoes without socks and no shirt, pushing a red lawnmower. My mother had some kind of garden patch with strawberries, and where the grass sloped up towards a grandfather oak, where the grass turned to myrtle, she sometimes stood with strangers who had just driven up, she stood in her garden work clothes, handing them clumps of myrtle cradled in newspaper in exchange for money.
Years later my father tamed the house a little with a garage, a rose trellis path and even an asphalt driveway, things that helped us pass for normal.
In the old days the house faced the road below, faced it with a bare blank stare. And then – in the new days – you ignored that stare. You drove up the side of the house on this new asphalt and entered from the other side, the one with the new verandah and the screened-in porch, so much gentler.
But it was the bare plain side of the house that was our real face.
Frills were suspect, a weakness, artificial. I knew it.
Lunches on the weekends were the only time all five of us ate together, my father home. This is the new years, with the rose trellis, with the make-believe antiques my father had bought just a couple of months before when we still lived in England, cramming the dining room table and the tall armoire into the tiny apartment-sized dining room of our rented English home. The antiques made the voyage back to the States with us, the dining table, a soft rectangle with legs that each curved and ended in a wooden claw clutching a wooden ball. The table was made of two halves that were supposed to fit securely, invisibly, together, but never did, the pegs always falling short of their holes, though we kept pushing, thinking maybe this time they will hold together. Because my father said it was a fine aristocratic table, with its set of matching chairs with their green velvet seats, standing on the old wide floorboards that my mother liked so much.
But we sat at this table, each person always in the same place, and it was as if we ate the same meal over and over again, my mother at the end near the swinging door to the kitchen, an unadorned woman who has given up and is not the person my father wants. My father at the far end, orchestrating the conversation. Without him there would be almost silence. He teases me, my sisters. He irritates us and yet we only mildly complain. We cannot really complain. My father eats large portions. He tells my mother how good her food is. She stops just short of ignoring him. He doesn’t want to make her angry. None of us do.
I clear the dishes. I bring dessert -- the jello or the supermarket ice cream. I like eating, but there is no other reason to sit here. Except that I must. It is impossible to oppose this rule, the one that says we must sit here, be polite, and not upset anyone.
And afterwards we go to different places, each person to their room, and the house is silent. My father naps on the living room couch. My mother reads the New York Review of Books. Each younger sister stretches out on her twin bed with a book. And I go up to my attic room, back to living in my head with book or radio, imagining my life when I am grown up.
The afternoon is long and quiet. We have not fought. It is a relief and an accomplishment.