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August 7, 2020


“We are going to The Octagon House!” my mother chirped.

I was 4 years old, I think. If so, it was the summer of 1959. My father was a lawyer, in the general practice of the mid-century that allowed him to do trusts and estates, public offerings, even a few criminal representations. But that general practice allowed him to represent the author Carl Carmer, too. And the Carmer’s invited the Dickinson’s to dinner, all of us.

So children 15, 10 and 4 we sat, beltless, of course, in the back of our new, used 1957 Fleetwood Cadillac, and we drove the ten minutes from our house in Dobbs Ferry to the Carmer house in Irvington. To a 4 year old the encounter was quizzical: this home was a dome, a monument, a singularity. It was rough around the edges, over-painted white with some grey bits, and visible patching and repairs.

We jumped out of the car and ran into the open home, which, like all the others around us, was un-airconditioned in a sticky summer. That may be the extent of my memory. But a friend who serves on a board with me was there, too. She (a few years older) remembers that night too, as her family also knew ours, and lived locally – in fact I might guess that may be why my father was Carl Carmer’s lawyer.

But the evening, that stopped for my memory, is there for my friend. “Your mother was a bit nuts – she would say whatever came out.” Her memory was also that the kids, herself included, were a little nuts too. And that the booze flowed. “Every adult was fully drunk by the night’s end.” She remembered.

And my father drove home. Three asleep in the back seat I’d guess, the triangular pivoting windows open to to ventilate the Kent smoke thru the night air.

Today would have been my mother’s 106th birthday. She died over 20 years ago, and with her died the 1,000 other nights that I never knew, despite my presence. We in the wake of chaos, survived amid unknown damage. Fifteen years becomes a short time in these older years, but it was the time all of those adults at the dinner had after the end of World War 2, a level of devastation now illuminated by the palest of its reference to the Covid19 plague, where control has also been lost.

But these fragments of memory were triggered yesterday by the picture at the top of this piece, on Instagram and Facebook. I saw, perhaps 25 years ago exquisite pictures in a preservation magazine of the Octagon House fully restored in its shimmering glory now seen on the internet.

Architecture is a touchstone for the rest of life. Events are birthed and harbored with our environment as context. So the shape in print, now cybered, fully colorized, rose to electrify the bits of memory that survived so much time and alcohol. The chaos of children in full rampage as their parents drank themselves into a state of rationalized incapacity is all that remains in me.

But on January 1, 1960 Carl Carmer published a book, intended for “young adults” celebrating Henry Hudson (I think). The timing, I think, was perfect for that dinner to trigger a dedication of that book –  to “The Intrepid Explorers, Susie, Win and Duo Dickinson”. He saw us briefly in 1959 thru the haze of booze and smoke, but we are immortalized by his printed words.

I wish I knew what it meant.


One Comment leave one →
  1. kim permalink
    August 7, 2020 6:10 pm

    I would tell you, but you would be embarrassed. This is where you smile.

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