November 28, 2009
I was born under a curse, the kind you find in fairytales. It goes like this: First my parents had a girl. Then, two years later, they had another girl. The next baby — was a girl. After her came another baby — a girl. And then my mother, Adelaide, Wellesley girl, did something very unusual for her, not being Catholic: she threw away her diaphragm. Two years later, I came along, on a hot August day, a Friday, at 4 pm.
This was the day that my dad had an epiphany. “Honey,” he said, taking me out of my mother’s arms right there in the Glen Cove hospital, “This one’s mine.”
He named me Vickery. Vickery Ames. It was a strange name, to be sure. “Like Hickory Dickory?” people like to tease. “Yeah,” I always answer, “something like that.”
My mother had chosen my sisters’ names: nice, unfancy, two-syllable names you couldn’t mispronounce or mimic like nursery rhymes, but no such luck for me. I was named for my dad’s first love, Vickery Gratton, which is never a good thing to do. Fortunately, she was a minister’s daughter, and he was only seven. At least she wasn’t a showgirl. People find this fascinating.
“Did your mother mind?” they are fond of asking. “Probably,” I say, but I forgot to ask and she died when I was a child. Well, I was 31, but I felt like a child. Still do.
Maybe your parents were trying for a boy? This is another favorite comment. Like having five girls is somehow unreasonable. As it turns out, though, I asked my dad once and he denied it. “Really honey, we just loved children,” he reassured me. “Plus, you were a mistake. Your mother suggested trying the rhythm method, but she didn’t know what that was. And so, we had you.”
My parents brought me home to my family’s varnished, modern house on the Old Tiffany estate with its rutted dirt driveway bordered by dogwoods and a canopy of tall oaks and elms shading the yard, just a mile or so from Sagamore Hill in the town of Oyster Bay Cove. And there, I grew.
Being raised on Long Island’s gold coast does much to skew a child’s sense of class and mine was developed at an early age. We may have had a brand new modern home on two and a half acres near the beach, we may have had a lovely summer cottage in the Adirondacks named “Tongue Eyrie,” but our neighbors lived in mansions, on estates, with fancy names like “Topfield” and “Meriwether.” We may have had several boats both at our lake house and a 36-foot sloop sitting down in the harbor, we may have belonged to the local beach club and the Harvard Club and gone to a great public school, but our neighbors had yachts, and pools and kids in private school and in my mind, that meant one thing: we were poor.
While I was a descendent of one US president and one pirate, our neighbors directly across the road were descendents of John D. Rockefeller and therefore very rich indeed. They lived on 30 grand acres, and we never saw them, except for coming and going down their long driveway and of course, they never waved. Indeed, the only family member who gave me the time of day was one solitary pet donkey, named Butterscotch, and that was because she was lonely. Day after day, she stood forlorn, by the fence near our house, swatting flies and eating grass. So I was friends with Butterscotch, but as for the rest of the family, they remained holed up inside one of those typically imposing Georgian style mansions that I never did see up close, except through the cracks in a high, stockade fence, and it was covered in poison ivy, so I really didn’t get too close.
Occasionally, our fancy neighbors would throw large soirees to which my parents were never invited. No one in the neighborhood was. Instead, they sent their gardener door to door bearing potted plants with consolation notes attached (“We’re having a little party tonight. Hope we won’t make too much noise.”) My mother didn’t appreciate this. Her response was to return it promptly with her own little note (“Thanks for the plant, but we’re having our own party.”) This pretty much took care of things until the day that Butterscotch got loose, crossed the road into our woods, and dropped dead of a heart attack. I always felt it was because she preferred us; somehow, we were kinder. In any event, within hours, they’d dispatched a bulldozer to our house, dug a hole, and buried her. Another potted plant and thank you note arrived, which amused my mother no end. “We have a Rockefeller buried on the property,” she was fond of saying afterward. This appeared to break the ice with our neighbors and they did, in fact, invite my parents to one of their fancy parties after that. But only one.
My mother was a snob, but a very minor one. This wasn’t hard in our neighborhood; she was a paint and varnish heiress, after all, living on a two-donkey street. Besides Butterscotch, there was Neely Dunn, whose owner rode him to the beach in a western saddle, his feet nearly dragging on the ground. Next to him lived a one-armed Greek. On the other side and directly behind our house was a man who hated children and picked off unlucky squirrels with a shotgun. My sisters named him “Mr. Mean.”
Next door, was a hillbilly family—not fake ones, either, but real hillbillies, from the Ozark Mountains, who ate something called Slumgullion, butchered their own chickens and whose mother never wore shoes. Further down the street was an even wilder family—of six boys. You think five girls is a curse! They had a sign at the end of their driveway that said “Indian Acres,” and this pretty much described the state of things there. The boys wore their hair in Mohawks and chased us about the woods, throwing rocks and chopping down our trees with hatchets.
As luck would have it, though, there was a really nice German family at the other end of the street that invited us over on Sundays. My dad’s father’s family was German, and our neighbors were very civilized. The dad always wore an ascot, smoked a pipe and drove a Bentley. At Christmas time, his wife invited us over for pfeffernusse and lebchuchen, which I loved. It was only years later that my sister told me that our distinguished neighbor was in the Luftwaffe and that the photo of him on the side table in their hallway was of him shaking hands with Herman Goering. I was really little, then, so of course I remember little of this. The point is, I did not grow up in the normal circumstances, and this may explain why I am the way I am. Or not. When you grow up the youngest of five girls in a two-donkey neighborhood, and are descended from one US president and one pirate, of course anything is possible.