In the Houses of Others
by Anita Kestin
We are in England, in a house with a garden. My mother and I are visiting her friend, Penny. Penny: born into wealth, solitary, childless, tall, educated at Cambridge, elegant. I am holding onto my mother’s hand. Penny shows me to a staircase and tells me that a fairy lives under the stairs—a fairy who has hidden treasures for me all over the garden. Penny hands me a large wicker basket. “Go on,” says my mother, removing her hand from my grasp, and she and Penny return to the table where they are having a meal, laughing, and talking.
The garden is unmanicured, even wild in places, and filled with rosebushes. I have no experience of treasure hunts and Easter eggs, but, once I get the hang of it, I scamper about, finding chocolate eggs and little toy rabbits everywhere. Into the basket they go, and now the basket is filled and things are spilling out as I run, so I stop, pick up the things I have dropped, and return to the table, where my mother has prepared me a plate of small sandwiches and cakes. My piece of cake is laden with pink roses with elaborate green leaves, all made of frosting. I take a few bites and then set about looking for the fairy who created this wonderful surprise for me, but she proves impossible to find. And then it is time to leave, and Penny tells me that I can keep the basket and she hopes to see us again soon.
I begin to wake up the next morning in our house in London—the house my parents and I have been living in for several months at this point, but it is also the house that my parents are shortly planning to sell because the three of us are going to live in America from now on. Our house is a modest one with a tiny garden. Yesterday begins to take shape in my mind, and I lie in bed thinking of Penny’s garden and the white wooden staircase where the fairy sleeps.
Did my father ever visit Penny’s house with my mother and me? I cannot recall, but I think not. Penny belonged to my mother’s world and not his. How old was I? I must have been three or four years old. I had never before seen such a place, and Penny was a stranger to me.
My mother’s childhood in Warsaw had included some degree of luxury and art of all kinds; my father’s childhood in Warsaw had not. They had both wound up in wartime London with nothing. Where had my mother first met Penny? I have no idea, but running through my mother’s adult life was a longing and a gravitational pull toward places that felt like her childhood home—graceful places, rooms where music and art and literature flourished. The house, the garden, the spring air, the china, my mother’s laughter, Penny’s elegance, and the rosebushes not yet in bloom: I remember all these things from our visit to Penny’s, but most of all, I remember the fairy who had hidden the treasures for me to find.
Some of my grade school and college friends have had houses like Penny’s where I have wandered beside the botanical prints and the chintz armchairs, never quite feeling that I belonged, but returning time and time again to spend the night or be caught up in the magic of parties that took place there.
Right after college, I am scheduled to be in London for ten days. My mother writes to Penny to ask if I can stay with her, at Penny’s apartment in the city. The answer comes back on one of the thin blue paper aerogrammes people used in those days: Yes.
In college, I had been startled by the effect on me of a live performance of Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. When the dancers waved long blue cloths to represent waves and stepped into those waves, I felt the cool water, the heat of the sun, and the force of the waves. As I watched, I could feel my hands quiver at the intensity and magic of the performance.
In London, I want to see more live events as I had heard that this was the place to experience live theater. I also want to taste the things I had eaten as a child: Ribena, biscuits, mashed potatoes, and milk chocolate with hazelnuts. I want to have a Guinness draft in a real pub.
I land at Heathrow and take a taxi into the city. We pass gardens and row houses and small stucco houses with tiny gardens. I think of the rosebushes, the basket full of sweets, and the fairy under the stairs.
The woman who opens the door is bent over, with unwashed hair pulled into a bun held with a plain elastic band.
She walks me around the apartment. Her eyes are aimed perpetually at the ground because of the curve in her spine. The place is filled with stuff: newspapers, old letters, three capsules and an apple core on a plant saucer. The fridge is empty and she is apologetic and visibly ashamed. I am tired, and my clothes are damp and stale, but she immediately proposes a trip to the grocery store, fumbling around for her list while talking about a range of unconnected subjects.
We set off at a slow pace, her face turned downward. She asks after my mother but struggles to reach the store, stopping at every bench to rest. At the grocery shop, she cannot find her list.
When I wake up the next morning, I am still tired. The room is dingy and loaded with piles of clothes and magazines. I lie in bed, thinking of the garden and the stairs from long ago, of yesterday’s empty refrigerator and lost grocery list (which, as it turned out, had been in the woman’s pocket all along.) I think of the Penny I remembered– especially of her elegance, and how the things she said had delighted and amused my mother. Had my memory been so inaccurate? Was I confusing her with someone else? For a while, I wonder whether I have gone to sleep in the wrong house. When had my mother last spoken to Penny or seen her? Was this what my mother had expected when she had proposed that I stay with Penny?
The woman has managed to make coffee but is visibly frustrated as she tries to find the food we bought last night. She is shuffling around the kitchen, face trained on the floor. When she needs to look at something higher, she has to tilt her torso backwards and I am afraid that she will fall. I pick up an envelope that has fallen on the floor and there is Penny’s name, so I am in the right place after all. This is reassuring and not reassuring at the same time. The only phone I have access to is in this apartment. I think of calling my mother, but what would I say?
I ask Penny about the house and the garden. “That was sold a long time ago,” she says. I tell her about my memories of the fairy under the stairs and the Easter egg hunt. At this, Penny stares off into space for a while, but she never answers.
My trip does not go as I had fantasized. Mostly, I try to help Penny as she struggles to get things done. I do manage to have a Guinness at a pub, and it is as rich and acrid and reminiscent of molasses as I had imagined it would be. At the market on a trip I make by myself, I discover containers of yoghurt stuffed with hazelnuts and buy 12 pots of them, adding them to the basket already filled with biscuits and Ribena.
There are no outings to the theater, but Penny insists on that we go by train to Cambridge for the day. When I see her contend with the mechanics of buying a ticket and locating the correct platform, I realize how much she has wanted to see Cambridge again, how much pleasure the sight of its buildings might give her—and how incapable she is of traveling to Cambridge on her own. I feel a surge of warmth towards her that I had not felt before. When I comment that Cambridge looks like Princeton, I see a flash of the old Penny I thought I had been coming to visit when she replies acidly: “No, dear, Princeton looks like Cambridge.”
I do take the Tube to see some old friends of my parents at their flat. This couple had also emigrated from Poland, and they knew my parents when they all were young and living in London. They live in an elegant stone building, but the staircase leading to their apartment is shabby and full of litter. The apartment is glorious, with wood floors, interesting artwork, and bookshelves lining many of the walls. The wife is vivacious and an excellent cook. The husband is a raconteur, and they tell me many stories about my parents that I had not heard previously. They treat me like a real grown-up, and the husband pours me a glass of cognac in exactly the proper glass for such a thing. I have never tasted cognac before. It is fiery and metallic, and I like these people immensely.
But when I settle back into my chair and start free-associating because of the cognac, I recall the story of my grandmother telling my parents that my father should have married the woman in whose house I am sitting. That is a story I do know, and the thought of the pain felt by my mother when my grandmother said this shoots through me. The warmth generated by the cognac and the armchair and the books fades to a chill. Was my immediate reaction to this woman disloyal to my mother? Or is it unfair to blame the woman for the cruelty of my grandmother’s remark?
When it is time to leave, the husband offers to drive me back to Penny’s. His wife will not accompany us and, as they explain why, the disconnect between the condition of the stairwell and the apartment becomes clear. The building has been partly taken over by squatters, and this has occurred when apartments have been unoccupied for even a time as brief as an hour. The couple owns their apartment, but there is an ordinance that has prevented rightful owners from reclaiming their apartments when squatters take over, and long legal battles ensue. So, for the past two years, this couple has never gone out at the same time together. I think of this often, years later, during the pandemic.
When I return to Providence, my mother is shocked and despondent at the news I give her of Penny and she also feels guilty about sending me to stay there. I have not yet started medical school, and I am unable to put the pieces together, but my mother and I surmise that Penny has developed some sort of dementia. My mother and I write Penny a letter to thank her but no reply arrives. Three years later, in another aerogramme, Penny tells us that she has been suffering for a long time from undiagnosed hypothyroidism and memory loss, and now that the diagnosis has been made and she has been prescribed medication, she is hoping she will get better. That is the last communication my mother receives from Penny, and neither of us learns anything more about her. When I Google her name, nothing informative appears.
When my children were small, and I was overwhelmed with the joy of hearing their happy sounds and the sounds of their friends reverberating through the house, I sometimes dreamed at night of finding a whole corridor in my house that I had not previously known existed. I would run through the new parts of my home, throwing open doors and thinking of what I would do with these rooms. How would I furnish and decorate them? What could I make of this new wing in my house? A suite for visitors? A study? A place for the kids to hang out with friends?
When I woke up from these dreams, I would try to place the rooms, for they would often turn out to be from houses I had seen before or from places I had imagined when I lost myself in the books of my childhood. Here was Sara’s bedroom from A Little Princess, the one she occupied before she was banished to the attic. Another morning, I awoke from a dream in which I had been wandering in an immense house with views of the water on three sides. The house was open and airy, filled with shells and maps of the Bahamas, and pillows with images of flowers and birds. On the ground floor, hibiscus blooms were visible from the many windows and a breeze lifted the slight curtains away from the window frames. I remembered passing by this house long ago when we were on vacation in Eleuthera. I had peered inside and wondered what it might be like to live there.
Now, years later, I wake up from a different dream. My children have grown and the house no longer bursts with the sounds of children playing. My first thought upon awakening: it is still the pandemic. In recent dreams, I am being moved against my will into a tiny space, consisting of three tiny rooms. I see my belongings being flung into a large garbage bin and when I cry out and ask them to stop, no one seems to hear me.
Some of our neighbors throw parties when the weather is good. Through our open windows or during our solitary walks, we hear the laughter and see the gardens lit up with lanterns and the outlines of the guests inside the houses. A pandemic walking route takes me by a property that reminds me of Penny’s garden. The house is rambling and white and sits on a hill, the gardens filled with hydrangea blossoms that spill over fences and masses of rose bushes. I remember the parties there—especially the walk I would make up the giant driveway and the times I waited on the doorstep to be let in.
The evenings spent in those houses were, for me, filled with the same sort of evanescent magic as Penny’s garden, but my memories are always coupled with my memories of myself, standing outside on those doorsteps, hoping to be let in to these other worlds.
My husband and I have always enjoyed visiting homes for sale when there are open houses near us. During the pandemic, we embark on virtual tours of the places someone might choose to buy. If the house is elegant enough, it will have been photographed from many angles. We move through these houses, from room to room, in three dimensions, and once again find ourselves lost in the houses of others.
Anita Kestin, MD, MPH, has worked in academics, nursing homes, hospices, and locked wards of a psychiatric facility. She’s a daughter (of immigrants fleeing the Holocaust), wife, mother, grandmother, and a progressive activist. She is now attempting to calm nerves and stave off longing for family by writing (memoir, short fiction, nonfiction, poetry). She submitted her first non-scientific piece in her sixties (during the Pandemic) and is thrilled that over a dozen short pieces have been accepted for publication.