Late last Monday, my American Dream was auctioned off.
On the cold granite steps in front of town hall, my house of twenty-one years was sold in a foreclosure sale. As the late afternoon sun cast a golden haze on the coarse stone, a swarm of eager-beaver vultures clutching cashier checks and bidding paddles lined up, crowding each other out for a deeply discounted piece of that dream.
A few blocks away but a world apart I too stood in a line as my loyal dog Stanley waited by my side.
Consumed by sadness despite being in the midst of a confectioners shop filled with sweets and good cheer, I ordered an ice cream cone, my voice nearly inaudible. Unable to make my usual small talk or hide the pain in my face, the kind server just as quietly gave me a particularly generous scoop.
In need of a hug, the cold, creamy, comfort of my childhood brought me some immediate consolation. Soothing the ragged edges of this loss, my hypothalamus was sated if only temporarily. My despair returned minutes after the last of the ice cream drips had been licked counter-clockwise as they dribbled their way down the crunchy sugar cone.
It was my sweet Stanley’s licks of comfort I would count on now.
As we walked back to my new home in the charming village of Huntington, I knew that the sight un-seen house being bid on at Town Hall bore little resemblance to the one I lived in for two decades.
If gardens could talk, oh, the stories they could tell.
My Own Grey Gardens
In a tale worthy of the Brother’s Grimm my once upon a time Better Homes and Gardens worthy home, had sadly morphed into a grim Grey Gardens. Bearing witness to the sudden physical deterioration of a place once so beloved has been heart-wrenching. It wouldn’t be a stretch for me to morph into Little Edie Beale.
This once lovely home’s downturn began with the foreclosure, its fate sealed when I moved out nine months ago allowing the neglected house and grounds to decline. A place in shambles that eccentric Little Edie would feel right at home in. All that was missing were the family of raccoons and feral cats.
The house that had been foreclosed on at the beginning of COVID finally went to a Sheriff’s auction this past week.
The story has dragged on for the past two years with multiple twists and turns.
When the COVID Moratorium on foreclosures that had allowed me to stay put for a year lifted, I was driven by an intense fear of immediate eviction. My lawyer did nothing to quell that panic. As though caught in a bad Saturday morning cartoon, I lived in constant terror of the cruel sheriff pounding on my door to oust me.
In my nightmares, the sheriff was no homespun, amicable Andy Taylor escorting me out all friendly-like, but a dastardly, mustache-twirling, black-hatted one tossing me and my multitude of collectibles to the curb with glee. Knowing there was no Dudley Do-Right coming to my rescue, I frantically searched for a new home and moved out in June. But the sheriff never came and the house just sat there for months, forlorn.
I had moved out but could never fully move on because in the murky area of foreclosure I still held title to the house until the sale and there were town ordinances that needed to be adhered to.
It was all a tangled mess as tangled as my feelings.
I would check on the house every few weeks, but like a mother who had lost custody rights, there was little I could do. I had to fall out of love with my treasured home. It was the only way to depart emotionally intact. Having your home foreclosed is like leaving a lover who has broken up with you when you had no choice in the matter and were still painfully in love.
For close to a year the house and garden basically sat there, unkempt, neglected, unloved waiting for the sheriff to appear and take it. Icey storms, heavy winds, broken pipes, and tattle tale neighbors took their toll.
The weekend before the sale I spent the day roaming my own Grey Gardens. Bedecked in a headscarf and fur coat, I channeled my inner Little Edie Beale as I traipsed through the fallen debris of that once upon a time dream.
The overgrown garden was as unwieldy as the myriad of states and emotions that were surfacing inside me tumbling out one after the other as I took it all in. It was a perfect emotional melding of creativity, authenticity, and serious dissociation.
I’ve never had to say goodbye to a garden before.
Walking around the property for the last time before it would no longer be mine, its once gracious history raced through my mind at every turn.
A newly built house once stood on an overgrown lot. I made this house in Huntington my home and created a Garden of Eden from scratch. The acre of land had been fallow when I first saw it twenty-one years ago, but my imagination took seed and my artist’s eye saw something else.
The potential for a lush paradise.
I had moved with some trepidation from New York the city I loved to this quiet Long Island town a few days before 9/11. A devout urbanite I nonetheless vowed to adapt to this new life, and with great gusto, embraced a deep connection to the earth and its seasons in ways this former penthouse terrace gardener never had.
I had cultivated this vacant land from its infancy to its full blooming splendor. Anyone walking through the rose-covered arbor would marvel at the floral splendor that lay in front of them.
It became a retreat and a place of calm, something that seemed essential in a post 9/11 world.
It nurtured me in equal measure to the nurturing I gave it.
Once a glorious place to give full expression to my artist’s eye, it was also fueled by my OCD so that nary a weed dared grow between the thousands of bricks of my patio, a patio that now runs wild with weeds, plants, and rubble, making an inviting all you can eat buffet for the birds and rabbits to feast on.
The white picket fence that very embodiment of the American Dream that had gracefully surrounded my well cared for property now lay forlorn, spokes splintered and fallen, in need of a fresh coat of paint. It is the perfect metaphor for this fall from grace.
It began with hope, it ended in despair. The once upon a time well-tended property now overrun with weeds, bramble, and rubble now rivaled Grey Gardens.
Yet one thing I know.
Mother Nature will continue with her timeline and the hundreds of bare deciduous shrubs, and trees will bloom victorious among the invasive weeds and debris, flowering in all their glory despite the neglect.
The air will still be fragrant with lilacs and viburnum in May filling the house with its indescribable perfume. That sense-memory takes me back to 2002 when those multiple lilacs were planted at each entrance and window so I would fill my home if only for a few weeks with that magical smell.
The sweet heady scent of the white flowering hedges that front the property will fill the air in June. The hundreds of perennials still buried in their winter hibernation will begin to poke their heads out soon. Roses will cascade and clamber upward as they always do entangled with the buttercup clematis vining its way up the wrap-around porch railings soon to be encased in climbing, flowering hydrangeas.
The wispy Astilbes and the big beautiful pink peonies will pop this spring bursting through the earth scattered across the gardens in their magnificence just as the dozens of bare Crape Myrtles with their pretty, multi-colored bark will showcase their abundant white flowers in the dappled light.
I will miss the spectacular springtime show stoppers of the blooming azaleas and rhododendrons. My multiple magenta rhododendron bushes will soon be soaring to the second story of my house. For nearly 2 decades they’ve been left alone, save for nourishing food, allowed to grow to full glorious expression and they burst with exuberance unhampered.
So prolific and free they took my breath away and more importantly inspired me.
Likely the new tenants of this house will come in with a hacksaw and lop off their majesty that currently covers the downstairs windows that are filled with close-up images of these flowers. But for me allowing them to rise unencumbered, to rise to their potential gave me immeasurable joy.
I will hold this image in my mind moving forward.
I will not be here to witness any of it but I know the show will go on. Will these strangers with their bidding paddle know what awaits them? Will they even care?
That’s part saddens me too. But the year after year resilience demonstrated by my plants that I admired will survive. Unlike Grey Gardens, this garden will come back.
And so will I. My resilience is not for sale.
Postscript: Grey Gardens
I was 21 when I saw the immortal documentary Grey Gardens for the first time, establishing an enduring fascination with Little Eddie Beale the eccentric cousin of Jackie Kennedy Onassis who became a cult figure in the 1975 Maysles brothers cinema verite classic. Swanning around in her too bright lipstick and various headscarves amid the debris, dancing in front of the camera as she free associated and lamented her missed chances at fame.
To my great fortune, I had the opportunity to see her sing at one of 16 performances she did at Reno Sweeneys, a club in NYC in 1978.
This camp icon was catnip to me. Eccentric, glamor, and tragicomedy made this irresistible. Little Edie came off as someone who, if she didn’t exist, John Waters would have had to invent.
Beale’s mother Big Edie had suffered a series of family and financial problems so the impoverished mother and daughter withdrew to their East Hampton estate Grey Gardens which fell into extreme disrepair. Living in a decaying manse among unkempt trees, shrubs, and vines that closed in around the house the 2 were bound together like Glass Menagerie crushed dreams. For nearly 2 decades Little Edie and her mother became increasingly reclusive, sharing the house with stray cats and raccoons.
Their saga has been mythologized and dramatized umpteen times.
Next: My Grey Gardens PtII
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2022. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.