My great-aunts' home is for sale again, although they'd never call it home if they could see it now. When the three of them first bought the place back in the '30s out by what was then the Wardman Park Hotel, later the Sheraton Park (now something else entirely), all their friends asked them why they were moving to the country.
True, the new neighborhood seems pastoral compared with the clang of streetcars and the row of dark narrow townhouses they had left behind on K Street. The stoop of their old house was so close to the next-door porch that the feathers on Aunt Mae's hat once caught fire from the neighbor's gaslight, turned up too high.
But the new house sprawled. Red brick, three full stories tall, it was a creation somewhat colonial, somewhat Georgian and somewhat just good solid construction. And although the house sat on the corner of an otherwise deserted block, my aunts put in a row of spruces, and encouraged them to grow across the deep railed porch on the front of the house.
During those summers in Washington, long before air-conditioning, civil servants, sweltering in downtown office buildings, were allowed to leave work early when the temperature climbed into the 90s. The three of them, all working women, would take the streetcar home and retreat to the sealed-in privacy and the cold stone floor of that porch, and they would spread out on wicker furniture until dusk.
Inside, the house was always dark and silent, swathed in fabric, muffled. The floors were hushed with rose-grey carpets. Layers of drapes shrouded the downstairs windows. The gauze curtains that hung at midday were covered over the heavy silk or velvet drapes at dusk. Approaching at night, one would see a completely darkened house and know that my aunts were at home only by the shafts of lamplight that escaped under the doors or at the seams of the drapes or the edges of the windows. And upstairs, even at midday, a lamp was needed on the landing and in the hallway that led to their bedrooms.
Across the back of the house, on the north side, stretched the pantry. Bushels of onions and potatoes sat on the floor, and just inside the door were two cake tins that inevitably covered very buttery, oversugared concotions. There were jars of honey, maple syrup and molasses, and row after row of well-stocked shelves, canned goods, boxes, bushels and tins all content to wait in the cool, dark pantry's interior.
I took a wrong turn the other night and found myself coming up along the side of the house. A huge complex of "garden-style" apartments has closed the house in on the north side. And a string of pastel brick townhouses, all with sliding glass doors, has taken over the side lot.
The dining room was brightly lit, and even from the street I could see a young family at a streamlined table, gesticulating, serving themselves salad from a big glass bowl, their lives framed by the window -- a one-act play in progress, lit up for anyone who happend by.
The ornate moldings of the room had been done up in high-gloss white paint, and the walls have been painted sky blue. In place of the heavy, tiered chandelier that hung over my great-aunts' lavish table was a fashion lamp, a hugh white orb that floated like a moon in a latex-based blue sky.
The pantry had been gutted, the walls replaced with thermal glass, the roof straddled by domed skylights that looked like alien spacecraft. The dark interiors had been exposed to blinding light so that manicured plants, crowding at the windows or hanging from the little that was left of the ceiling could grow.
The "For Sale" sign was jabbed into the corner of the front yard. Somewhere along the line, someone had ripped up all the trees (the spruce is hard to love) and bared the porch to full view. From its ceiling hung a macrame hammock.
The house had been turned inside out. And all the while, as the neighborhood encroached, the occupants of the hose had worked no to seal themselves in but to show themselves off, like creatures in a doll house whose side has been cut away. And anyone could have stood on that street corner all night and watched the family live its life, watched the lights turn on upstairs after dinner, learned who occupied what room, seen the drama played out in unnumerable acts.
I know, I know. We live in different times. But still, surely, there is something to be said for putting all the plants outdoors where they belong, for coming home at night, dimming the lights, drawing the drapes and living in a very private life.