Sometimes, when I can’t sleep, I count rooms.
Let’s clear the air right now. I never lived in the palace at
Versailles. I lived in a kuchalein in Parksville, New York.
Not as many rooms as Versailles but, for me, no contest as to which is more relevant to my life.
The kuchalein was a former hotel known as the Bauman House, owned by my maternal grandparents who, in a brief period of time, emerged from the shtetls of Poland to becoming hoteliers in the Sullivan County Borscht Belt. They had a mission: to create a dentist. Their middle child, Charlie (who became known as Charles Bauman DDS), was the designee. The eldest child, Dave, was distinctly not interested in becoming any sort of medicine man, and my mother, the youngest, well, she was a girl. A treasured girl for sure. But really: a girl. Dentist. No.
And so, through fiercely hard work and borrowed money, the Bauman House in Parksville NY was born. Its profits would create the dentist! An elegant sign hung on Fifth Avenue in Parksville (which had no First, Second, Third, or Fourth Avenues) providing proof that the Bauman House Hotel was in business. The place survived the Great Depression and thrived throughout the 1930’s. Parksville, as family members were trained to say in the womb, was the highest point in the Catskills and had the very best weather. I am still convinced of the veracity of that statement. We used heavy quilts all summer while the city folk were sitting on their fire escapes fanning themselves with folded pieces of paper.
And so, as my insomnia dooms me to yet another restless night, I remember. The place. Our place! I miss it desperately to this moment.
There were three buildings, all built in the farmhouse style with huge front porches and attached benches, in wood frame. Fire-traps each and every one. We never, in all those years, had a fire, mercifully. But, one year, the Sullivan County Fire Department made us install fire escapes. The third floor in the “big” house had one steep flight of stairs and a long hallway, definitely a major danger.
Today I will welcome you into the “little house”, the house where I spent most of my summers for the first 30 years of my life. This is the house of my dreams.
I walk up the four steps onto the porch. There are assorted rocking chairs, mostly green. I see the ghosts. My Aunts Gussie, Nettie, Fannie, Bessie. Mrs. Lipschitz who was about 90 when I was 10 and who, I am convinced, still is alive somewhere. She gave identity to the concept of “old lady shoes.” I now wear them. Various other characters cloud the screen. Mrs. Levine was a perennial. Mrs. Richman was only there for a few years.
Rarely was my mother seated on the porch. She was always too busy. She had become the general manager during my childhood and hardly had time for sitting and rocking.
On the weekends the men arrived. The ladies “faputzed” which means they curled their hair, put on makeup and discarded the housedresses they favored during weekdays for something “fancier.” The porch was livelier on the weekends. Gussie’s husband, known only by his Russian last name, would sing joyfully in his magnificent tenor tones. Uncle Dave would always beam with his brilliant smile. My father would be reading the latest non-fiction book that the Newark Public Library had entrusted to him, smoking the inevitable cigar.
And always on guard was our precious Phoebe, the most brilliant dog this world has ever known. You could have conversations with Phoebe. She was a true dog genius, rescued from the slums of Brooklyn, she had a blessed life reaching the ancient age of almost 16 with nary a veterinarian’s visit to tone her up.
This little house was summer home to many more people than the two toilets could accommodate. We quickly learned the habits of every occupant. Who was in there for the long haul?
It also provided communal kitchens for way too many cooks! Actually it was remarkably peaceful. I don’t remember serious fights about missing chickens or pickles. Women sharing refrigerators, stoves. Whew! How did they manage? And then the various notions of the best way to wash the kitchen’s wood floors. Some favored putting newspapers down after the washing. Why? I have no idea. I would’ve been in the no paper vote. But, as a kid, I was voteless.
The bedrooms were each equipped with a small sink and one or two old fashioned metal frame beds with striped mattresses of varying degrees of discomfort. These mattresses had the added feature of allowing one to verify the exact number of metal springs beneath the mattress. Fortunately the body soon became acclimated to the aches and pains of the springs. It was on one of these very beds that your devoted diarist learned the important skill of smoking cigarettes. The puffing forced me to lie down as I quickly became dizzy enough so that even the springs caused no pain. This was a since abandoned capability that I could have, and should have, never mastered!
And as already indicated, there were definitely too many bedrooms for the number of bathrooms. Scheduling visits to the “john” required advance planning.
You may have noticed, dear reader, that there has been no mention of showers. What the farmers did in the 1800s I’m not privy to, but we Baumans erected a couple of outdoor, enclosed shower houses, accessible by foot but a rather long walk from the house. That was a cozy arrangement as it allowed everyone sitting on porches or lawns to note when your latest shower was. Shout it from the treetops!
Windows had screens. Air conditioning was never needed. Heat from little electric heaters? Yes! Luckily we survived adding that fuel to our already fragile firetraps.
And candles for Shabbas everywhere on Friday nights. Clearly we were very lucky!
I can still hear the gentle tap of the screen door that led from the porch to the house. The porch was our living room. We had no television. The grownups chatted away endlessly. They were my lullaby as a child. They never ran out of topics as they rocked away. And they still do. In my dreams.