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The Shipwreck Rose: Blue Moonlight

Wed, 02/28/2024 - 17:15

My childhood friend Sarah said in passing, several years ago, that the household I grew up in was “macho.” Sarah did then and does still now know me better than anyone else on this earth, and this offhand remark gave me pause — given the amount of Old English Wood Polish the housekeeper went through in our household when I was growing up to keep the antiques shining like lemons, and given the armloads of lilacs we stuffed into Spode vases and scattered everywhere on mantels and vanity tables. Thinking on it, I did know what she meant, though.

My father and my two older brothers set the family tone, letting the screen door bang, tromping in over the Persian rugs in their muddy Redwing work boots, having returned from some swamp or bog somewhere, sometimes carrying a shotgun or BB gun. We had a barn out back filled with tools, some ancient and some newish, barrels, scythes, iceboat parts, adhesives and glues, girlie mags from the 1940s, and occasionally explosives. One of my brothers was known to do things like pack an old television set with heavy fireworks and videotape it as it was pushed with a flash-bang from the roof of the barn by a teenage accomplice.

Then, too, a few generations of us have inherited a hard-core brand of Yankee stoicism and emotional toughness from, I believe, the Edwards side of the family, who were working-class watermen from Amangansett who had, apparently, scandalized East Hampton when they married up into the genteel Huntting family, from which side came the lilacs, the lemon oil, the leather-bound novels that flanked the fireplace, and a fluttering tendency to throw aprons over our heads in moments of distress in the kitchen over an angel food cake that failed to rise.

My tiny bedroom on Edwards Lane was painted a truly ugly shade of mauvey-rose that I chose myself when I was 12, a small oasis of bookish and daydreaming girlhood with a slim tin of Crabtree and Evelyn Damask Rose body powder, bought with some excitement at A Little of What You Fancy on Newtown Lane, set before the oval mirror on the wall. It was furnished like a girl’s bedroom in a dollhouse. One ruffled curtain from the Sears catalog.

I kept 48 stuffed animals, arranged in seated parliament on my thin chenille coverlet, my dresser, and bookshelves for company and kissed them night-night before bed. One of the great, unforgivable crimes of childhood committed by one or the other of my macho older brothers was the time when, to mock my nighttime love ritual with my stuffed animals, the very bad boy marked each and every one of the stuffed animals’ fuzzy faces — staring button eyes and shiny plastic noses — with a permanent bright-coral lipstick kiss that could not be washed off. My bedroom, like all the rooms, was (and still is) heated by a cast-iron radiator, and somehow neither of my parents ever noticed that the valve on mine was in the “off” position, righty-tighty, permanently, the entire span of 10 years that I lived in that bedroom. I didn’t know it was supposed to get warm.

I could see my breath when I woke up on a school day in winter. Macho. Not only did we keep our snow boots and work boots on our feet when we came tromping into the house from sledding or trespassing, somewhere, but none of us kids ever wore slippers. We crept down for breakfast on cold bare feet in the dead of January. Macho. The kitchen floorboards did (and still do) let cold in through the cracks between.

Parenthood is a pendulum. Whatever direction our parents swung, too far, in the habits and policies of our own raising, we swing that pendulum far back over to the other side. Tick-tock, tick-tick, a metronome of passing generations.

Coziness and warmth — bodily warmth — became a prime, doting concern when I had kids of my own. A particular memory of an evening in Nova Scotia has stuck in my mind, from when Teddy was 4 years old and we lived in a gray clapboard house on a hill above an ice-bound, stony harbor. It was March but still winter in Canada, snow on the ground under the blue moonlight through the Scottish cotton-lace curtains. Teddy and his big sister, Nettie, were amply provided with slipper moccasins, cunning booties with leather soles from the Swedish company Hanna Andersson, with fox or bunny faces over the toes; they were oversupplied with onesie pajamas in thick fleece, baggy, overwarm union suits with stripes or roses. The memory is nothing: just Teddy going to sleep with a small smile on his face in his parents’ bed, atop a thick, feather mattress topper, under a heavy down duvet, that time when he caught chicken pox (don’t ask!), and I tucked him in up to his chin, and tucked him in tightly on either side under his arms, and confirmed repeatedly, “Are you cozy? Are you cozy?”

Nettie suggests, lately, that I have overcorrected, over-swung the pendulum, and am raising my children to be too soft. The evidence is her little brother’s persistent personal preference for pajama pants over jeans (what the small children these days call “hard pants”), and a desire to spend long hours in bed with a bedside electric heater on “high” — extreme coziness as his preferred mode of being. He’s not a turd-kicker in work boots or a thrower of flaming televisions off roofs. He will be cozy.

Is this generational? Fourteen-year-olds do seem, as a class of Americans — not just my son — to prefer fleecy plaid pajama pants and a bowl of Top Ramen, rather than, if offered, say, an outing to track badgers in the woods. Maybe it was the pandemic that acclimatized them to indoor weather. 

I’m not worried, though, as his mother, about the state of his machismo. Coziness and manliness should co-exist. Coziness is progress. Coziness is a form of love. And Teddy has boldness enough for any young man. I wasn’t thrilled when I learned that he and his boys had been climbing up onto the Long Island Rail Road trestle at North Main Street (and, indeed, I will march Teddy and Da Boyz straight to police headquarters myself if I or anyone else catches them ever again climbing onto any train trestle), but have to admit, even if it makes me a bad mom, that I approve of the spirit. He comes by it naturally.


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