House of Happy Endings: A Memoir

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9780374299378: House of Happy Endings: A Memoir
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Howard Garis, creator of the famed Uncle Wiggily series, along with his wife, Lilian, were phenomenally productive writers of popular children’s series—including The Bobbsey Twins and Tom Swift—from the turn of the century to the 1950s. In a large, romantic house in Amherst, Massachusetts, Leslie Garis, her two brothers, and their parents and grandparents aimed to live a life that mirrored the idyllic world the elder Garises created nonstop. But inside The Dell—where Robert Frost often sat in conversation over sherry, and stories appeared to spring from the very air—all was not right. Roger Garis’s inability to match his parents’ success in his own work as playwright, novelist, and magazine writer led to his conviction that he was a failure as father, husband, and son, and eventually deepened into mental illness characterized by raging mood swings, drug abuse, and bouts of debilitating and destructive depression. House of Happy Endings is Leslie Garis’s mesmerizing, tender, and harrowing account of coming of age in a wildly imaginative, loving, but fatally wounded family.

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About the Author:

Leslie Garis has written on literary subjects for many national magazines and newspapers. She is best known for New York Times Magazine profiles of such writers as Georges Simenon, Rebecca West, John Fowles, Harold Pinter, Joan Didion, and Susan Sontag.

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Chapter One

 

1953: Amherst, Massachusetts

 

In those years I spent a lot of time in the dumbwaiter, moving up and down behind the walls, listening to voices. I sat with my knees up: sometimes I clasped my arms around my legs, sometimes I kept my hands on the rope that extended in a loop from the top of the house to the bottom. Two lengths, thick and prickly, were suspended side by side. One for up, one for down. It was dark inside the box, but never entirely black. Faint light seeped in from the square doors that opened on each floor.

 

No one knew I was there. I was invisible. I could eavesdrop to my heart’s content. I was like blood flowing through a vein, silent and purposeful. There were certain confusing incidents I was trying to interpret, and I hoped I was on the trail of truth. The problem was, I had too much information.

 

A good person is happy; a happy person is good. I knew this without a doubt because we were wrapped in a dream of perfection, a dream created and refined in vivid detail by the collective imagination of my family.

 

How warm and cozy it was in Snow Lodge! How bright were the lights, and how the big fire blazed and crackled and roared up the chimney! And what a delightful smell came from the kitchen!

 

I could jump right into that world. The Bobbsey Twins at Snow Lodge. Granny or Grampy—I wasn’t sure which—wrote it. I was inside the boundless optimism and could hardly wait for time to unfold its treasures. The fact was that when I looked around my own life, I saw something so similar in its physical outlines to that mythic ideal that fictional boundaries tended to fade in my unformed, overactive mind.

 

Our family was suffused with stories. Dad’s often-told tales of traveling through the desert with an Egyptian prince, Mom’s romantic memory of falling in love with the most debonair, handsome, sophisticated man she had ever met: my father. The stirring story of my grandmother’s life: suffragette, pioneer newspaper woman, author of books . . . But the stories that held us most in thrall were fashioned by my grandfather, and their most distilled form was also the most improbable. After writing hundreds of books in numerous popular children’s series, he became rich and famous by creating a rabbit who wore a top hat and tails and lived in the most idyllic small town America ever produced. His name was Uncle Wiggily, and he inhabited Woodland with Nurse Jane Fuzzy Wuzzy and their animal friends. A rabbit! Yes. The Uncle Wiggily Stories were the bestselling children’s books in America for decades before I was born and my grandfather was still a celebrity on their account. I was known at school as the granddaughter of Uncle Wiggily.

 

My mother expected my brothers and me to be as kind and well-mannered as Uncle Wiggily, and also as energetic, successful, and well-groomed. I was being brought up on the morality of a make-believe rabbit.

 

Was she right? Perhaps Woodland was the best place to look for an ethical model. But if that were so, where would I find reality? If, as I was beginning to believe, life wasn’t like my grandparents’ books, was happiness merely a fantasy? I didn’t accept that, but my self-appointed mission was to discover the unvarnished truth. My survival, I sensed, depended on it. I was sure the answers were here in this house, this enormous, magical house—the first great love of my life.

 

 

In 1948 Dad left his job at The New York Times Magazine to be a full-time writer, and in celebration of his release from formal employment he bought a “nicer” house in a sleepy New England college town: Amherst, Massachusetts. The house had its own name. It was called The Dell.

 

That was all I knew—except that I gathered my mother was unsure The Dell was right for us. At age five, I had no idea why. When we drove into Amherst, I was spellbound by the town’s aura of settled calm. Its generous village green was bordered on one side by the princely buildings of Amherst College and on the other by a craggy town hall, a brooding, ivy-covered church, and a group of small stores. The leaves of the old maples on the Common were beginning to turn gold.

 

At the bottom of the Common, where the white brick Lord Jeffery Inn sprawled in calm splendor, we turned down a narrow road called Spring Street. My three-year-old brother Brooks and I were looking out of the car with the windows cranked down. We came to a shaded crossroads, the air moist and fragrant. Down on the right was a long building with a white porch, which formed a T with the end of the street. It defined the view like a stage set, its windows sparkling in the afternoon sun. Dad said it was called Valentine Hall—such a romantic name!—and it was where the Amherst College students took their meals. Looking to the left from the crossroads, we could see a large stone church with a hefty spire. I can’t recall any people at all on the sidewalks that afternoon; in fact there was an eerie sense of isolation from the real world, almost of a lost village under an enchantment.

 

Mom held five-month-old Buddy in her arms. Was she apprehensive? I cannot recall. As we entered the driveway of 97 Spring Street, our car tires crunching on gravel, I found myself repeating silently, “The Dell, The Dell,” as if the name could explain the kingdom that opened before us. Dad stepped out of our Packard and looked at a house wrapped in shingles, its rooflines and corners as softly contoured as the land. He smiled like a man who has taken possession of his magic castle, within which his life will be blessed.

 

It looked to me like a giant playhouse. I couldn’t see the whole shape of the place at first. The sheer size of it prevented me from taking it all in from my low perspective.

 

Knowing my father’s innate modesty, his shy, deferential, soft-spoken manner, I was surprised that he had bought this imposing place. It’s true that in private he was unusually elegant. He carried a vermeil-engraved cigarette case and kept his many pairs of gold cuff links in a silver box that said asprey on it. He wore silk bathrobes (from Sulka, I would later learn), ascots in cool weather, and finely cut clothes even for gardening. Now his public image would match his private preferences.

 

I ran around the side to a wide terrace of rose-colored stone overhung by a white arbor encircled by thick arms of wisteria.

 

Tall doors, their leaded glass panes divided into beautifully balanced curves and angles, completely shaded from the bright afternoon light, looked black under the arbor. I peered through them at a diorama of dark wood.

 

I ran around another corner of the house past a giant beech tree. The terrace opened up to an even larger expanse bordered by a low stone wall. Looming at one end, and looking alive with power, was a massive stone table in the shape of a mill wheel set on a pedestal. Dotted along the lawns, with tranquil distances between them, were many kinds of trees, one laden with apples. I was tempted to run down there and pick one, but I could hear my mother calling me.

 

She and my father simultaneously came out of the house from two different doors that opened onto the terrace. They were laughing. Brooks stepped carefully, his blue eyes wide with discovery. My father lifted me up into his arms.

 

“What do you think of your new house, Les?” he asked.

 

“I love it, I love it, I love it . . .”

 

“We’re going to be happy here,” he said.

 

“Oh, yes!” I answered, hugging him hard, my arms entwined around his neck.

 

Inside, standing in the hall, I felt dwarfed by the scale of the rooms. The house was designed so that windows were always in view. No matter where you were, light shone in—prismatic and softened by the extraordinary windowpanes. The outdoors was so present that even though the walls were dark, I had the impression that the slightest change of sky, like a cloud passing by, would be reflected inside.

 

I could see that Dad was in another world. It seemed, even to my five-year-old eyes, that there was something about the feeling he had inside the house—perhaps the dimensions of the rooms, or somethin...

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