Friday, March 13, 2009

House Stories: I Love Lucy

House Stories is a collection of personal narratives, a teaching experiment in History of Domestic Architecture (Wesleyan ARTS 637). See Introduction, and Table of Contents.

by Christina Chamberlain

As we drove down the street, I could not stop smiling. It was Memorial Day Weekend, my sophomore year of high school. While most of my friends were at the beach, I had spent eight hours in a car with my mother, journeying from central Connecticut to the far western corner of New York State. The weekend ahead would be filled with celebratory activities, but for now, this was all that mattered; I had been waiting for this for five years. I tried to notice every small business, to engrain every house in my memory, to take in every tree on this serene road in the tiny working-class village of Celeron. With its modest and well-worn homes, rusted cars, and unfashionable stores, the area seemed to lag behind my hometown in the Farmington Valley by several decades. It seemed appropriate, though. This place should be frozen in time, I thought. It contained a piece of history. That was why I had made the pilgrimage.

The tall green street sign we had been searching for finally appeared when we rolled to a quiet intersection. Lucy Lane, it indicated, was to the left. My mother nudged the steering wheel and navigated our family Jeep down the tree-lined road. I held my breath as our car rambled the rutted gray pavement. This was it. Five years of waiting and wishing were coming down to this very moment. I flicked my camera on. “What’s the house number, again?” my mother inquired. I gave no answer. I had never been down this road, nor anywhere in this state west of New York City, but I did not need a house number to know where we were going. I was positive I would know the house when I saw it. I knew it already.

For five years, I had read accounts of activities that took place in the humble 1890 residence, some by its former occupants, others by authors who had never visited. I had stared endlessly at photos of the house, taken from various angles, by various photographers, at various times over the past century. I cringed every time at its sea green aluminum siding, always wondering when it was added—certainly, it could not be original—and why a dignified colonial blue or even deeper green could not have been selected for the façade. I tried to imagine playing dolls on the covered front porch, which spanned the first story. I dreamt of inventing games in the ample backyard or playing hopscotch on the narrow front sidewalk. I envisioned what it would be like to perform in amateur shows in a makeshift theater, with draperies doubling as stage curtains, in the living room. I wondered what impact these spaces could have on who a person became later in life.

Over these years, I had also tried to picture what the inside of the house looked like. What color were the walls? Were the original hardwood floors still there? Was the original woodwork painted? Did the stairs creek? Was the bathroom tiled? Were the table and chairs in the kitchen, or a separate dining room? Whose bedrooms were behind the two side dormers, which flanked the second story like wings, but were hidden from sight when the house was observed straight on? What was the view from the tiny window that was centered just below the front gable? Might there be a scrap of eighty-year old wallpaper buried beneath the more recent layers? Could there be a tiny, cryptic carving in a door, or initials scrolled on a floorboard? Maybe a long-forgotten trinket or memento hidden in the corner of the attic? What treasures from the past did the house have to offer?

I looked out the passenger’s side window, then slowly turned my neck to the left. There, I saw it. The unmistakable green siding made my stomach cinch tight. The white porch, with its narrow columns and slatted rails, looked just like I knew it would. “Oh my God, there’s the house, that’s it, STOP!” I shrieked. My mother pulled over on the side of the street, opposite the house. I stared at it. The tiny window just below the front gable, the double window in the middle of the second story, the front door below and the single window to the left of it, the white porch: it was all there, exactly as I had seen in the photographs, and exactly as I had hoped to see one day for myself. This was it. I was here: fifty-nine Lucy Lane, Celeron, New York. This was the childhood home of Lucille Ball.

The comedienne had been my idol since I was twelve. I did not just watch her television shows and movies, I studied her—her performances, her personality, her personal history. To visit the home where she lived as a child, the site of her earliest experiences and memories, the place she described in so many interviews and autobiographical writings later in life, had long been a dream of mine. While our Jeep idled along the edge of Lucy Lane, I sat in it, not knowing what to do next. “Do you want to take some pictures?” my mom suggested, pointing to the camera in my lap. I hesitated. “Do you want me to take some pictures?” she asked. I handed her the camera and she leaned out the open window.

After taking a few frames, she turned to me. “Go stand in front so I can get you with the house,” she encouraged. As I zipped up my fleece, climbed out of the car, and ambled to the front sidewalk running parallel to the house, I noticed a gray-haired woman sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch. Had she been there the entire time? I was unsure. Would she mind if I took a photo, as long as I stayed this respectful distance away from the house itself? I was too afraid to ask. She probably had fans coming by all the time. I positioned myself on the edge of the front lawn. “Hurry up,” I mouthed to my mom.

Standing awkwardly while the homeowner watched silently behind me, I waited for the camera to flash twice. After the second flash, I was knew I had to return to the car. The elderly woman was making me nervous. But, I was convinced that I needed something else first. I had come all this way, to Lucy’s hometown, for the annual Lucy-Desi Days, but I was not ready to go back to the neighboring city of Jamestown, where the weekend’s activities were centered. I knew I would never get inside the house. That was a dream that would never come true, I was certain. I would probably never know what it looked like, what it felt like to be in there. I would probably never really understand how this house had shaped Lucille Ball, the same way my childhood home shaped me.

Still, I could not leave just yet. I needed some thing to commemorate my experience, beyond a photograph and a memory. Spontaneously, I crafted a plan. Facing the street, my heart pounding in cadence with my racing thoughts, I knelt down as if to adjust my left sandal. In one quick and smooth motion, I furtively slid my hand to the right of my sandal. Because I had my back to the house, my body hid this move from the homeowner. I quickly opened and shut my hand, then rose to my feet, bringing a fistful of grass from the lawn with me. Holding my unique if unethical souvenir in front of me, I sprinted back to the car, where I shoved the grass in empty film canisters for safekeeping until going home. “Go, go, go, before she realizes,” I urged my mother.

To this day, a photo of 59 Lucy Lane and my “Lucy Grass” are in a framed display in my study.

No comments:

Blog Archive

Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States