It took two full days to get there: five children, two adults, a large dog and a month’s worth of luggage squeezed into a used white Suburban that looked like an old-world ambulance. For two days we drove down from Canada, through northern then Mid-Atlantic States, across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, through Cambridge and onto Ross Neck Road. Two days of inhaling cigarette smoke and dog fur. At long last, we turned at the entrance to Littleworth. The crunching of oyster shells beneath our tires signaled our arrival. The lane traveled through acres of dark pinewoods before opening up to brightly lit soybean fields and finally we had arrived at the entrance to my childhood summer home.
Back then, Littleworth seemed a grand old house with white clapboard siding and black shutters. To the left was a two-car garage and on the right, a lean-to where an ancient red Farmall tractor was kept. A 1945 Maytag wringer washing machine stood in front of the outdoor well house. On the waterside, a dock jutted out into Hudson Creek from which we crabbed, tying raw chicken necks on the end of our strings and dangling them in the water. There was a tiny beach maybe 10-15 feet wide where we would wade, but not far, for we didn’t like the seaweed and the nettles that lay farther out. Here, our dog dove for rocks, muddling around in the brackish water until he surfaced with his trophy.
The yard seemed expansive. My grandmother’s flower garden was full of black-eyed Susans and rose bushes and bordered by English boxwoods. Beyond the garden were black cherry trees, where we picked the sour fruit that my mother made into jelly. On the other side of the house was a split-rail fence where once hung a snake my father killed and left there in the sun to rot.
We entered the house as one would enter a church, quietly and full of respect, until we knew who was there and how we were to behave. I believe my grandparents were happy to see us each year, but I’m not entirely sure. I have a singular memory of my grandfather on the kitchen stairs, framed against the light-blue painted paneling, just standing there, watching. Curiously, I have no memories of my grandmother herself during our many trips there.
However, Littleworth was very much her summerhouse. As her country estate, she made sure it fully reflected her gentility and sense of decorum with all the touches of a sophisticated life-- antiques, embroidery, lace and fine china. There was a formal dining room and a formal living room, complete with all the things a child wasn’t supposed to touch or handle. One memorable item placed in the far corner of the dining room, was not gentrified at all. A camel saddle, brought back from Saudi Arabia by my uncle, sat there alone but proud, its fine leather workmanship holding its own amidst the Wedgewood china and the Royal Dalton figurines. Oh how I imagined myself in that saddle, high on a camel’s back, circling pyramids and getting sand in my hair.
Beyond the dining room was the informal living room, which contained the only television in the house. An old black and white affair, it was our sole contact with the outside world and the pop culture we were just beginning to crave. But woe to the person who wanted to watch evening shows in that room. The one chair positioned to see the television was located beside a wall-mounted cedar rifle cabinet. Seated in that chair, particularly in the later hours, you could hear the snakes in the cavities behind the wall. They made continuous scratchy noises as they maneuvered between the studs in search of mice, competing with the television for our attention.
Probably the most central room at Littleworth was hardly central at all, but a large screened porch located on the waterside of the house. It was here that my father held court, like his father before him. He hardly ever strayed from the head of a long wooden table where he sat with a bottle of liquor and an ashtray. Here he was served fried oysters and boiled crabs that we had harvested during the day. Taking after our midwestern mother, none of the kids ate seafood, so he enjoyed his feast alone. As nighttime fell, yellow bug lights were turned on and cigarette smoke and classical music filled the air. My father, a veritable Kurtz sitting in his own dark cave, with eyes glowing, would wax poetic and call me to his side to read and interpret poems he’d written that day. They were Greek to me, always. Try as I might, I could not decipher them and this would anger him—not because they were ever obtuse (which they were), but because he had a daughter so senseless she couldn’t see their obvious meaning.
Sometimes I could escape to my bedroom upstairs. Defined by a lone dormer, the tiny room fit a single bed and not much else. Being the oldest, I had this space to myself, while my siblings had to share rooms with each other. It was on that bed that I vowed that, if my father valued reading, I would never, ever read for pleasure. I furthered my own private rebellion by listening to rock music instead of my father’s classical favorites. Years later, in this small room, I opened and read my first Dear John letter, as the person I thought I would marry calmly explained to me that since he couldn’t tolerate my father, our relationship stood no chance of surviving.
Looking back, I find it strange that this house, dripping in propriety, disguised a dark, disturbing truth. The formal living room, so primly attired with lace doilies and straight-backed upholstered chairs and the equally appointed guest room above it, stood testament to the deceitful act that occurred within those walls. It was from those rooms, where an attractive female guest was staying, that my father strode early one morning, silently passing me in the kitchen as he made his way from her bedroom to his own on the other side of the house.
Littleworth, once considered for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, was eventually sold. Perhaps that’s for the best. Posterity may want to revisit the house for its architectural value, but I prefer some distance. Sometimes remembrances are better sealed securely in the past; so the happy recollections aren’t disturbed and haunting memories are safely locked away.