Aunt Celestine and cousin Nate picked all four of us kids, my sibs and I, up from the motel in their Volkswagen Bug. I drew the short straw, by dint of there being no choice given, and was relegated to an hour and a half drive curled up in a fetal position in the hatchback. Fortunately I was small for a ten year old, and while snug it wasn’t entirely uncomfortable. Fortunate too, was the fact that I was not yet claustrophobic, a condition that owes its existence in part to this not-so-short trip.
If you’ve never ridden in a Bug with five small children before, you don’t know the pleasure of an endless game of Slug Bug, where sighting a Volkswagen Beetle, first, entitles you to slug one of the others. With four sets of eyes scanning the Long Island Expressway, and all of them thinking it clever to include the car we were riding in, the slugging was nonstop. I couldn’t move to defend myself or join in, but had to suffer the indignity with good humor. I had no idea how Aunt Celestine kept her sanity for the duration.
There was also the Cemetery game where we held our breath whenever passing a graveyard for fear Death would get into us if we didn’t. Not being able to see out of the car left me at a decided disadvantage here as well and when I wasn’t getting slugged I was being given Last Rites.
When we got out to the Whitmore’s home in Center Moriches, Poochie was already parked in the their driveway. My mother’s white station wagon had survived the divorce, and a near-death train tracks incident when the brakes failed, only to abandon me for this trip, I thought as I unfolded and rubbed my legs and neck to relieve the cramping.
Getting away from the motel we had lived in for a couple of years was like a vacation. With woods to roam, and a lake to fish in during summer and skate on during winter, it was paradise compared to the asphalt parking lot playground of the Mid-Island motel.
A neighboring field was littered with derelict P52’s and we played Twelve O’Clock High. We held our jackets open and sailed across the ice on our skates so far out that the shore was a blur. But for me, the best part was the food.
We got to eat something that wasn’t off the Greasy Spoon’s menu, or Rice-A-Roni and Hot Dogs I made on the contraband hotplate in our room. Aunt Celestine was an apparent devotee of the vaunted Julia Childs. Homemade cookies baked for ornaments on the Christmas tree, and plum pudding flambé with the hint of brandy that tasted naughty and made me wonder about where that put me on Santa’s list with all the rest of the mischief I had gotten into during the year.
The next day we loaded up both cars, Aunt Celestine and her three in the Bug and us in Poochie, and drove around all day looking at houses. We had no idea why. My very best friend Nathan and I engaged our imaginations and speculated that our two families were going to move in together. This made an otherwise boring chore a great deal more entertaining as we picked out which room was to be ours and ran off to the far reaches of every property to assess the climb-worthiness of the attendant trees. No decent house was fit for inhabiting without trees to climb, or to possibly build a tree house.
One home was our favorite, though in retrospect I realize it must have been a nightmare for both my mother and Aunt to have considered – though Aunt Celestine was not a blood relative.
Cypresses and weeping willows hung close to this Colonial home like a mangy coat, and the sharp tipped leaves of Holly ringed the place like teeth making it seem feral. The window casements and doors were removed for some reason which didn’t help matters, but to Nate and I, every room felt spacious and airy, and full of potential.
There was one of those exterior basement doors that opened like Ali Baba’s cave, and our eyes widened in unspoken agreement that there were endless possibilities here. Unfortunately the charm of the place was lost on everyone else and we continued on our search.
While we didn’t find a home that day, nor one anywhere near the sanctuary we all had come to love, we did find a beautiful home and moved in together. Sea Cliff was a quaint town that I lived in for less than a year, but it was a dense year.
Mom had not been home for a few days, which unfortunately was not unusual. When Aunt Celestine asked me if I realized that she wasn’t coming back, all I said was, “Can I have her TV?”
After growing up in a foster home, and repeating my abandonment again and again, it seems I am still house hunting, or more accurately, home hunting.
M. Zane McClellan
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