Houses of Dreams

20 03 2011

Back in the day when I was a high school classroom teacher, one of my favorite classes was American Studies (AS); AS is an integration of American Literature and American History at the 11th grade level that students could also get college credit for if their grades were high enough.  Most major liberal arts universities and colleges offer a major in AS.

In the AS curriculum, one of my favorite assignments was an essay with a writing prompt something like this:

If it exists, what is the American Dream?  Include examples from the novels, The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath, along with examples from American history between the years of 1914 and 1941 to support your answer.

We would assign this essay prior to reading of the two novels or a study of the time period.  I think what made me enjoy this assignment so much was watching the mental evolution of the students as they wrestled with developing a thesis statement that met the criteria necessary to answer the question.

Generally, most students would be quick to answer the question with something like, “A good job, a nice house, and a comfortable living.”  To which I would reply, “Oh? Are you sure?”  That was all the mental grease necessary to start the wheels turning for all but the most lazy of students.  They were not going to read the novels anyways or think any deeper than the their next post on Facebook.  They are probably the ones who today are sitting at home watching Jerry Springer along with all those damned “Judge” shows and thinking that is the way the world works.

Eventually, after several weeks, the lights would go on for most students and they came to an understanding that the American Dream has nothing to do with outcome but rather opportunity for outcome and the ability to re-create oneself and start over as often as one has the drive and determination to do it.


As I was driving around Princeton earlier this week, I drove down Hall Street.  There in the 400 block of Hall Street was the two-story house with the upstairs apartment that my parents and I occupied in the early 1950s.  The home has been well taken care of and, in fact, looks better than I remembered it.  That got me to thinking about the American Dream essay writing prompt and wondering how my parents might have answered it.

A quick perusal of American history will show that the housing boom and the baby boom in America were simultaneous occurrences. The fifteen to twenty years following the end of WWII were filled with a collective enthusiasm and desire to achieve a better life, a.k.a. The American Dream.  A large part of that American Dream was home ownership and purchasing new cars every two to three years facilitated by a robust manufacturing economy, effective television marketing and greater access to consumer credit.

In 1954, my parents bought their first house; a small frame structure with two bedrooms, a kitchen-dining area, living room, bathroom and a leaky basement on Stormont Street.  I don’t exactly remember but I assume they were very proud of that little white house with the brick porch on front.  For me, it was ideal; neighborhood kids to play ball with at the Little League park at the end of the block and my elementary school on the next block.  We lived on Stormont Street until 1960 at which time my parents decided to upgrade and bought a house three blocks away on Seminary Street.

Unlike the little house on Stormont that was built just a couple of years before we moved in, the house on Seminary was an older, solid-brick structure with a free-standing garage.  It was similar to my maternal grandparents’ home on Race Street in size and age, built during the late 1920s-early 1930s.  I was not happy to leave my neighborhood but that is another story for another time.  As a family, we were moving to a bigger and better house as we took another step in what my parents saw as their American Dream. The little house served our needs fine but, back in that era when it came to the blue-collar, middle class concept of success, bigger was better.  They did what they had to do–work hard and save money–to have the luxury of making a choice.

Four years after purchasing the house on Seminary Street and doing extensive innovations to it, my parents decided to build their dream home out in the country on the south side of Princeton.  Both my mom and my dad had very good jobs; my dad was a lineman for the electric company and my mother worked at a factory that made electrical parts for submarines and airplanes. They were definitely not overreaching as they moved up from the three-room apartment on Hall Street to the 2000 sq. ft. brick, ranch-style, custom-built house in the country within just a little less than ten years.

My dad worked on the design of their dream house as long as I could remember.  He was very good at drawing blueprint-quality plans and he kept scrap books full of pictures clipped from magazines and newspapers showing details of what he and mom wanted the interior and exterior to look like.  As the construction of the house progressed, my parents invested a lot of sweat equity into their dream.  That was a real learning experience for me that I put into practice between 1982 and 1992–the ten years before Linda and I built our dream home.

Fast forward almost fifty years to today and I am sitting in the bedroom that was mine when we moved into the dream home on Hight’s Chapel Road.  The room looks a lot different today than when I occupied it as a teenager in the 1960s.  It contains an impressive Victorian-era walnut bedroom suite and floral pictures encased in gilded frames hanging on the wall. Long gone are the posters of the Beatles and the Beach Boys along with the twin beds and area rugs in what was called a Bosa Nova design as well as my electric guitar and amp in the corner. However, the quality of the construction of the room and the house in general with the beautiful oak floors, stone fireplace and spacious rooms with large windows is still apparent. Sometime soon, I expect, we will sell this house as part of settling the estate.  I’m not sure how that will impact me emotionally.   Of course, as is the case with many dream homes of elderly people, the small things that need upkeep are showing some age and will have to be dealt with before we put it on the market; nothing a little paint and a new faucet or two won’t resolve.  Once my mom is gone, their house will be the last vestige of my life in Princeton except for my parents’ gravestone.  Again, I am not sure how I feel about that.

Linda and I have been here much longer than anyone involved in my mom’s end-of-life experience ever anticipated.  On both the long term emotional level and the everyday practical level, the strain on us, our children and their families cannot be overstated. That is just the way it is.  We have been willing to do this because that is what we are supposed to do, but there is more to it than just the obligation to take care of family when needed.  This house, for better or worse, was my parents’ declaration to themselves and, maybe, to the world that they had achieved the American Dream.  Because of that, my mom has stated on more than one occasion that she wants to be in this house when she dies, if possible.  Oh sure, it would be much easier on Linda, me and our children’s families if we could take care of her at our place but I figure maybe the real answer to the American Dream question is having a choice.  I guess that is what we are providing my mom.

On a related issue, this whole experience in Princeton has given Linda and me an insight towards our future and the choice we will make in a much clearer, more defined and family-friendly manner than it might have been six months ago.  We want to avoid putting our kids in this type of situation.  We plan to sell our dream home and build ourselves a small one-bedroom retirement house relatively close to several of our children and their families within the very near future. The thing that no one should ever forget about choices is that those choices have consequences for and impact on not only the person making the choice but also the friends and family of that person.  That will be our choice–our American Dream.





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