A Roof and Someone at Your Side

“I Love L. A.”
Randy Newman

A Bigger Splash

David Hockney



A Roof and Someone at Your Side

What does it mean to know a place? In the song Randy Newman identifies a number of locations familiar to anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in Los Angeles. Imperial Highway, The Valley, the East Side, and the West Side; if you have lived in Los Angeles you know these places and can picture not only the name of the street on the traffic sign, but the shops and sites that live there. Imperial Highway is a very long street that goes through well to do sections of town and some not so well to do sections. The West side has the mansions of Bel Aire and Pacific Palisades; but the East Side is where much of the poverty is found. If you live in L. A. you know these places and are familiar with them.

David Hockney is a painter born in Great Britain but he too has made Los Angeles his home. The painting captures the swimming pool and palm tree character of certain parts of L. A. When I was four years old my parents moved from Schenectady, New York to Arcadia, a suburb of Los Angeles, California. We soon moved to the San Fernando Valley, or The Valley. There were many houses in the neighborhoods I grew up in that resembled the painting by Hockney. Even though I never really felt at home in Los Angeles and always missed the snow I know most of the places in Newman’s song and the ethos captured in Hockney’s painting.

Still when I first moved to The Valley it was not developed. It consisted of a few rambling neighborhoods that were becoming the outskirts of a great city but it also consisted of small ranches and a great deal of open undeveloped land. I hiked, fished (after a fashion), swam in ponds within walking distance of my house. For most of the time that I lived there orange groves were always close, in our last house they were at the edge of our back yard. We would purloin the oranges and dodge the agricultural police. Fruit always tastes best fresh off the tree. But we finally left because the city finally overtook the wilderness, or what felt like a wilderness to a child of ten or so years old.

The point is that home is represented by many things. In part it is represented by memories. But it is more than the house in which you live it is the relationships, family and otherwise that are made. If growing up is a pleasant experience these memories and relationships can contribute to the success that is experienced later in life. But of course, like most things it depends on what we do with the experiences. They might just as easily form a kind of cocoon from which we cannot easily escape in order to shape our own unique existence. Though on the whole, a positive home environment is more likely to produce success than an unhappy one.

The Artist’s House at Argenteuil

Claude Monet


The house that Claude Monet called home when this painting was done appears to be a very pleasant space in which to grow up. The child seems happy and the woman at the door watching the child seems to be content. Of course as the woman is almost invisible and the child has her or his back to us it is difficult to know for certain. The house looks like the kind of house most would be happy to call home. A more traditional house than David Hockney’s but it has the same bright blue sky. The house was enchanting enough to Monet that he decided to live there and also decided to paint it. It is a public face and it is difficult to know if the private face would be less compelling. Often the home and family the world sees is different from the home and family we grow up in day to day, or grew up in in the days of our youth.

There was an article in the magazine section of this Sunday’s New York Times. It was called “What It Takes to Make a Student“. It concluded that to a large degree what makes a successful student is successful parents in a successful home environment. The article concerned itself with how well we educate those who come from less successful households with less successful parents, especially those households whose lack of success is largely due to social inequities, largely, but not entirely, of race. The article suggests that the conditions in which children are raised, the vocabulary they are exposed to as children, the positive reinforcement they receive when very young have a lot to do with the academic success these children have in school.

The Little Street (Perhaps the street where he lived, perhaps not, but homey non the less)

Johannes Vermeer

I do not know, but this street does not look affluent to me. It looks like an old street that has been allowed to fall into a bit of disrepair. The look of the brick and the shutters in the windows and the people all suggest poverty to me. This may be because I do not know that much about life in Holland in Vermeer’s lifetime, but poverty has a face that it wears and this painting seems to reflect that face. I wonder about the lives of the people in this painting. The two figures kneeling on the street look like children to me, but it is difficult to say. But if they are children what is their life like? What were their educational opportunities?

I think that present day America takes more seriously the education of its children than do many cultures past and present. The difference between Holland of the seventeenth century and America of today (at least the stereotype that I carry with me) is that we question the quality of education those in poverty receive and take steps, not always effective, to achieve parity between the schools of the rich and the schools of the poor. Often this is little more than lip service, but certainly not always. The strength of the private schools in America is that, for the most part, they only accept those students they can succeed in educating, but that is also their weakness. What does success mean when the possibility of failure is largely removed from the equation? It is often the fear of the consequences of failure that produces the most striking innovations. On the other hand America’s public schools attempt to educate everyone and that is their strength. This is also their weakness. How can schools give a quality education to all when there is such a broad mix of skills and academic needs, not to mention political forces?

I wonder about the article in the New York Times because on one level it suggests that poor families care less about their children than rich families. Parents on the whole want the best for their children, though they may not always know how to provide the best. Poverty is demoralizing and some are better than others at distancing their children from the consequences that being demoralized often produces. I grew up with stories about people who lived in poverty that successfully provided for their children’s needs and this included their educational needs. Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry comes most immediately to mind. Having educated parents is a real advantage for a child’s education. But having nurturing parents is at least as great an advantage.

Our Town
Paul Newman

Thornton Wilder in his play Our Town captures not only small town American life, but the essence of home and family, at least how it is imagined to have been, in small town America. Grover’s Corners is a nurturing place, a village that raises its children. But this monologue from the play suggests that not much of importance happens in life and family on this side of the grave; that there is a race to forget this side of the grave. There are good people and good families in the play and children that are raised to be happy and successful. The families of George and Emily are supportive and give their children the skills living well require, though there are also many missed opportunities and sacrifices made which produces a kind of quiet unhappiness in some.

In many ways the world of Our Town suggests the world of the film It’s a Wonderful Life which also focuses on family and the obligations that come with being a member of a family and a community. In both Grover’s Corners and Bedford Falls place is important and the people that make each place what it is are important. The lives these characters lived has an appeal, there is much that is desirable about the lives, memories, relationships, and families these people have. There are also many significant sacrifices and perhaps it is true that for a life to have value choices must be made and some things given up so that other more important things can be achieved. This is especially true with education. It is costly but the failure to educate has long run consequences for the community and the country.

I look back fondly on the music of The Beach Boys, the bright blue California sun and the bright blue waves of the Pacific, perhaps bluer in memory than in life. My parents made sacrifices for me and the parents of the children I grew up with were largely committed to seeing to it that their children had at least as a good a life but hopefully a better life than the one they were enjoying. And perhaps the key word is “enjoying”. It is easier to sacrifice if at the end of the day there is enough to make the day enjoyable. It was a neighborhood of fisherman and engineers, carpenters and doctors. It had a nice mix, though a rather homogenous one in certain respects; this was the 1960’s after all. I think over all we are judged as a culture by what we are willing to give up for our children more than by the things that we accumulate or the things we accomplish. And all children deserve a good family, a good education, and a community in harmony with itself where all children can say “I Love . . . .

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13 thoughts on “A Roof and Someone at Your Side

  1. I agree that a home is represented by many things. It’s not what your house looks like, but the people you grew up with, the relationships you formed, the memories you share, and the things you have experienced, that shapes who you are.
    It makes sense that children who come from good backgrounds and environments, and who grew up with successful parents, would lead to the student becoming motivated and successful. What they are exposed to as children can determine the academic success of that child. But is important to consider that things are not always as they seem. A family seen through the eyes of the world may be completely different than the home and family that person grew up in.

  2. A house is only a home because of the things you build within its walls. Relationships are what make a persons home a good place or a bad place. These relationships help mold a person into who they will be for the rest of their lives. I honestly believe the will to learn comes from the determination within a person and some help from their environment. “The Little Street” to me looks like realisic living standards before our time in cartoon form. People deserve equal opportunity to prove themselves. Why do private schools think its ok to choose which skills of a person they can train? If there uis no room to fail then how could anyone feel accomplished if everyone was perfect? There would be no room for improvement. Poor families may not be able to afford to provide their children with as many opportunities but it doesnt mean they love their children any less than a rich family loves their children. The best families are ones who love eachother no matter what. Personally my mother sacrifices everything to make sure my brother, sister, and I have a good life without her i dont know what’d I do.

  3. I believe that family support does make a difference in the ‘outcome of a student’ but I don’t neccessarily believe that the success of a student is based on how rich or poor the family that they came from is/was. Positive influences that encourage you are what can help you be successful. I do believe that (especially since we live in America) money is valuable, and more opportunities, so to speak, become available to you. Yet this does not neccesarily mean anything. For instance, Holden from ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ came from a wealthy family, went to a prestigous school, and was unhappy. Even though he had all those things no one took the time to invest in his interests to see what he wanted or give him the attention he craved.
    Just recently on television there was a movie on called “Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story”. It seemed as though I should have known who Ben Carson was (I didn’t) but after watching the movie I figure he is a very well known brain surgeon. Anyways, Ben Carson came from a dysfunctional family, but his mother was the stronghold of the family. Ben had an older brother, and his father did not live with them nor did he ever see his father (I assume even though I did miss a few of the first minutes of the movie). His mother always encouraged her two boys to be the best they could be. She could not read, and hadn’t made it past the 3rd grade. She enforced that her boys read instead of watch tv, and learn their times table without complaint. Of course they did complain, but in the end they learned from it and went on to lead succesful lives.

  4. I strongly agree with the belief that the relationships and people are what build a home, not the bricks and walls. I grew up in Maryland and have many fond memories of my years there. When I look back I do not think of the houses I lived in as home, but the friends I had and the closeness of my family. I felt more at home in Maryland then I did in Massachusetts for the first few years I have lived here. I did not cultivate many close relationships and my family was not as close as we were in Maryland. After 7 years of building friendships I am at hope in Massachusetts.
    I also strongly agree with the belief that family life affects education. I was home schooled my first few years of school and I believe that the enthusiasm my mother had for education changed the way I look at it. My mother put a lot of time and effort into teaching four children, I now attempt to put the same amount of time and effort into my high school education. My mom built the foundation of my education, she created a love of reading at an early age. I do not think that money has a great influence on education, as long as you put in the effort and are passionate about learning, you can receive any level of education that you want.

  5. A house is a person’s dwellings, where they live and grow. However, it is the situation and experience which separates a house from a home. To put it simple, “home is where the heart is”. A house is just a structure taking up space, with no personality and no unique aspects. A home is built upon memories, though they could be good or bad, they still have significance. A home is established after the house is made to express a families individuality and to accomodate to their specific needs. A home is a place to call your own.
    The activity in the home affects everyone. I agree that an individual will learn to lead a life similar to their life when growing up. For example, it has been known that victims of domestic violence as children will become involved in more violent relationships when they get older. Personal relationships within a household impacts the lives of the people within it

  6. I feel that a house and a home are completely different. A house is simply the name that one gives to their shelter. On the other hand a home is the place where one grows and experiences. A home is the place where various memories are shared and intricate relationships are formed.
    I feel that it is only logical to connect ones life at home to their ability to excel. I feel that the situations that one must deal with at home shapes who they are and determines much of what their future will be like. For example someone who comes from a family who is constantly struggling compared to someone who lives comfortably will have diverging values and objectives. Their ideas of life are likely to be completely opposite. I feel that ones life at home is a driving factor in whether they are successful both in and out of school.

  7. This Providence

    “I’ve been jumping from the tops of buildings.
    For the thrill of the fall.
    Ignoring sound advice.
    And any thought of consequence.
    My bones are shattered.
    My pride is shattered.
    And in the midst of this self-inflicted pain.
    I can see my beautiful rescue”

    But i loved the picture of the pool and the house and the water splash.

  8. I believe that a house is not only where you live, it is your home. A home is the one place that no matter what happens you want to return to one day and remember happy times. A home isn’t made by what you fill it with, furniture and possessions don’t make a home more fulfilling, it is the people within the home and the feeling of love in the air that make your home an accepting place. Sometimes when a house is not a home, when the people do not like being within their own walls, they either escape by constantly visiting friends or by even such drastic actions as running away or leaving their house never to return. It is very sad to see a home as it empties of its residents. I used to have a full home with 4 people, now it is just my father and I but it is still my home.

  9. I agree with the author that we see places were we life different as places we just visit and don’t now good. The place we call home seems to be familiar to us, it means more to us as the reality really shows. I also wouldn’t reduce this statement to L.A., it describes the relationship between every human on earth and the place they call home. That brings me to the other statement of the author, that the word “home” describes more than just the house in where you live. This is an other statement I have to agree with, the word “home” is so much more than a synonym for the word “house”. It is the family, friends, the community, the surrounding, the activities and memories you connect with a place, that make the place important for you. Therefore I believe that you can have more than one “home”, because the world is big and there is more than one place with a nice family, friend, community, landscape, good activities and memories.

  10. I like this. I enjoy the feeling of free fall, I always have. Last week I slipped on the ice and my body went parallel to the ground and it was kind of fun falling back to earth. I was not hurt of course and I do not know if I would have felt differently if there were shattered bones, but the moment of free fall feels sort of like flight.

    J. D. Wilson, Jr.

  11. “Home” is a construct of your mind that may not even exist still as you read this. My spin on Tom Wolfe, I suppose. Never forget that even though the concept of “home” is ethereal, the root of that word is “real”…

    Early one morning in late summer, Jim Streeter eased his large frame into his small car and backed down the long driveway onto the short main street of the village. It was nearly light, and he could make out the familiar old Hilltown landmarks that dotted Main Street in the pre-dawn dews and damps on his way out to the state road.

    He was headed to Cape Cod for the Statewide Lions Club meeting. He wasn’t particularly thrilled to be going – Jim was a stay at home kind of guy. He could count his trips down into the Pioneer Valley in the past years on one hand, but he couldn’t weasel out of it any longer. He had managed to get to the men’s room every year when the District Y-Region 1-Zone 2 – Hilltown Lions representative was tapped, but Red Thayer, who was also the town Constable handcuffed him to the banquet table just as the vote was coming up. In previous years, Jim had volunteered to run the raffle at the Pig Roast, been the Eyeglass Drive Chair, organized the Snowmobile Races, and coordinated the Game Supper. He had even dressed up as Santa Claus and rung the bell out on the state road for seven years running for the big Christmas Tree sale, but this year, his luck had run out.

    Registration was set to start down at the Best Western Conference Center at 4PM., So, to Jim, that meant leaving at 4:30 A.M. just to beat the traffic. Jim was a belt and suspenders kind of guy. Normally, the drive time from the Hilltown to the outer Cape takes 4 hours, but today was Friday, and Jim wasn’t taking any chances with bridge traffic. Ron Morey had gone down Cape a couple of summers ago to see his grandkids and he said that he had been tied up at that Sagamore Bridge for almost three and a half hours! Well even if that was coming home, Jim wasn’t going to sit in traffic like that and be late for Registration- so quarter to five Friday morning found him gliding down the state road in the salmon glow of the Hilltown sunrise.

    Jim had calculated that this would be changeover weekend on the Cape, which, he reckoned, was pretty bad planning on the part of the Lions Club State Committee. Nobody told him that people hadn’t taken two week Cape vacations in over 25 years. Once in the valley, Jim stopped in to the Crystal Springs Restaurant for a coffee to go. It had been there a long time. Even when he was a boy, the folks would stop there on their way home from summer trips for a soft serve on a hot day. The game went like this: the kids could never ask for ice cream, because if they did, their Dad would drive on by out of spite, so they would just hold their collective breath in the back seat of the Studebaker as Mom slid over into the middle and whispered into Dad’s ear “Ice cream”. None of the kids had any idea of the power of a woman sliding all that way to put her lips to her man’s ear – but it always resulted in ice cream. The kids all had to be on their best behavior the last half hour or so before Crystal Springs swung into view.

    Jim came back outside and spotted the two mammoth fiberglass cow heads that loomed on the roof – smiling and winking salaciously to passers by, offering them real cream if they’d just pull in…Jim thought back to the car trips of bygone summers.

    The Streeters vacationed on the Cape every year – which really kind of set them apart from many other Hilltowners. Jim’s Dad was not a farmer, but instead, worked for the County Extension Service, and so had a four week vacation every summer. As long as he could remember, Jim and his siblings would cram into the ’49 Studebaker Champion for the trip to the Cape. Jim used to ride backwards because he loved looking out that big wrap-around rear window – until his Dad would reach back and whack him one and tell him to “sit down before you crack your skull!” – which he would have just done for him. For five hours, the Streeter children were forced to touch each other at the elbow and knee, and breathe each others’ air until at long last, they could spring from the car, joining their cousins, aunt, uncle and grandparents at the Captain Crowell Car Court and Cabins just a stone’s throw from Preacher Pond. Jim’s dad used to say Captain Crowell must’ve mastered a slave ship the way they charged an arm and a leg each year, but they stayed at that same place for four weeks every year – 11 years running.

    Four weeks when you are a boy is like four months – and eleven years – from the time Jim was 5 until his 16th birthday – that was a virtual lifetime to run through the pitch pine and the scrub oak chasing down pirates and bootleggers, losing your sister in the woods, learning to skip rocks, fishing for hornpout, and developing an appreciation for girls. Jim Streeter played his first ever game of “Show Me Yours and I’ll Show You Mine” right there on the shores of Preacher Pond – with one of the local girls who probably grew up and became a librarian or an English teacher or something.

    Jim rolled right up to the bridge just after 8AM, and saw that there wasn’t a car in sight, and he sailed right on over and looked right – through the guard rail at the railroad bridge and the still blue water of the Cape Cod Canal, and it was like he was in the back seat of the Studebaker all over again – filled with the excitement of familiar scenes coming back into view – sights that would signify his reentry into four weeks of being carefree, four weeks of sun, four weeks of play, four weeks of bliss.

    That’s a powerful remembrance for a man in his middle 60’s. For the next half hour or so, Jim’s mind was crowded with so many memories – memories which had steadfastly refused to come from the back of his mind until coaxed loose by the shining sea and salty air.

    He saw the clam shacks along the road and remembered the time Grampa Pop had eaten a bad clam and was sick for days, and resolved never to eat a clam again for the rest of his life – which he didn’t. He remembered going to the grandparents’ cabin which was named “Mainsail” on Wednesday nights to play Contract Bridge – because it was his turn. His grandmother would always fall asleep just before it was her turn to bid, and Grampa Pop would nudge her with his foot – that always started something. Afterward, he would return to his own cabin “Compass Rose”, which Dad always called “Busted Rudder”. He remembered laying in bed after lights out, and hearing the sound of the surf in the pitch dark.

    Mornings the kids were sent out with tin buckets to scour the low bushes for blueberries – just ripe. His brother and sister would fill their buckets first, and Jim invariably would trip on a root and spill his, on the way back. His mother would take those berries and make fresh Blueberry Cake – which they would have for lunch – still warm with sugar on top.

    He remembered going early in the morning – just the guys – to the ocean beach and watching his Dad surf cast for Blues. “Don’t you stick your finger near them there in the bucket, they’ll take it right off!” And then he’d fold his finger up to look like it was half gone.

    He remembered the cottages all painted white with green trim and trellises all around with wild beach roses growing up – and they had orange rose hips as big as a baby’s fist. Grandma used to pick ‘em and put them in her tea – “best source of vitamin C in New England,” she said.

    On the weekends, they’d go and get fried food at Thompson’s and they’d sit in the car to eat. Dad would take his fries and flip them out the window so they’d land on the hood, and the seagulls would fly in and dance around, grabbing the fries. Then Dad would put one on the dashboard and the kids’d scream with delight as one seagull whacked his head repeatedly against the windshield trying to get it. They all laughed – except for Mom. It was like a Marlon Perkins floor show – just for the Streeters.

    Jim turned off of the Mid-Cape and pulled into the Best Western around 9AM – seven hours early for his meeting. There weren’t any cars in the lot, and he had a little time to kill, so he decided to take a cruise around and perhaps see if he could remember how to get to Preacher Pond. Maybe look up Captain Crowell – although he probably had passed on by now, Jim thought. And so, Jim turned his car toward that sandy spit and commenced rediscovering what he had left behind fifty years since – and yet it seemed like it was only 44 weeks ago.

    He took a wrong turn and the road ended at the beach, so he walked the boardwalk for a bit. Later, he had an ice cream cone and drove around marveling at the plastic toy and discount tee shirt joints. He got lost in neighborhoods that he didn’t recognize. He found himself driving over and over streets named for Sea Captains, streets named for fruit bushes, streets named for trees that didn’t even grow on the Cape. He stopped and asked some children for directions back to the main road – but they didn’t speak English. Sometime around 3, he drove through a pothole and now he heard a clinky, clunky noise coming from his wheel. It was hot, and he was sweaty. He was way past having a decent lunch and his tummy was a grumbling and he had a headache. He was beginning to worry about gasoline. He passed art galleries and antique book stores and scores of condominiums – but no gas stations. Finally, around 5 o’clock, he saw a sign for Preacher Pond Rd.

    At last, things began to look right. “The road should curve sharp here,” – and it did. “There is a slight rise, and then the Motor Court will be on the right.” And as Jim finally guided his weary mount over the crest of the hill – he craned his neck for the old familiar split rail fence and his beloved “Compass Rose” – and he saw a parking lot, with a plaza with an upscale organic grocer and a Starbucks.

    He wandered slowly from the car to the building. This was the place. He could hear the surf in the distance. He could smell the salt in the air. He could see the gleam of the pond out back. Jim opened the door, and stepped half inside – holding the door open – half in, half out – he just stopped. He stood with one hand on the door and one hand on the jamb – awash in bunk beds and wicker luggage and the ’49 Studebaker and contract bridge and swimming lessons and rope swings and sitting on the little front steps all sweaty after playing hard until dusk and blueberry cake and his Mum & Dad . . .
    . . . and all that a carefree boy can do in 44 weeks.

    A teenage girl looked at him from behind the counter – irritated that the conditioned air was escaping the shop. “Can I help you, sir?” she asked.
    . . . “No, I don’t think so,” he said.

  12. It does not matter what material things lay within the walls of your house. You can fill a house with as many things as you want, but at the end of the day if you dont have love then you can not call that structure a home. I believe a home is alot different than a house. Homes are filled with love and acceptance. A home is where there is family and memories. Grabted some of these memories aren’t going to be happy or joyful but they help to make the family grow. A home is where you are able to see character and personality shine. If you cant be your true self at home then where can you go. It is a place where you are abe to watch one another grow and develop and leanr from one another’s mistakes and truimphs. In the end it is not the wood and nails you can come home to but the warmth of the people inside. The people and family are what make the home at the end of a long day.

  13. The age old statement “home is where the heart is” to me is a perfect description. The home is not where you live, but where your love is. I agree, to a point, with the article on the fact that a good home environment can create a better student. But I connect these two thoughts together. It takes a good home to make a student, and a good home is a place where you love and are loved, so thus a person who has people that give them love has a higher chance of success. This obviously is not always true, but in most cases provides a huge positive influence on a child’s success. And for a quick aside, I liked the picture by Monet. He is probably my favorite artist.

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