Oddly, though, within a year or two of marriage to Gloria, Dad took on this disconcerting habit of assigning all kinds of imposing chores to me, typically without any advance notice. Almost always when I was just about out the door to explore the world and to create my own life as a teenager.
Case in point. Dad and Gloria built a summer house in Shinnecock Hills in 1973. It was a prefab Lindal homemade of cedar planks looking more like a Hunter Mountain ski chalet than a tumbledown wood-shingled cottage with white shutters. No Hamptons-style lawn either; the grounds were entangled with bittersweet vines, nasty and thorny.
On one of our very first weekends there, the lot was still somewhat of a construction site. I had invited one of my friends over, Dee Dee, to celebrate the move-in by spending the night. After breakfast the next morning, as we were both getting ready to go to the beach, Dad came over to ask — I mean, insist — that we take two shovels “as strong men” and plough down a huge pile of sand left behind by the excavation of the foundation from the past Spring, when the house was built.
“Huh, what?” I said, looking at the 15 foot high pile. It was the first weekend of summer and Dee Dee and I were both anxious to go see our seasonal friends after a long school year of drudgery.
“Gloria wants you to do it!” he snapped. Of course, Gloria and Rosemary never had anything to do with such spontaneous insanity.
Did I mention that Dee Dee and I thought we were on our way to the beach?
Well, we tried. True, we worked extra fast because we had places to go and people (well, girls) to see. After maybe half an hour, Dee Dee and I wiped the sweat from our eyes to see what kind of progress we had made. Absolutely none. We had attacked the peak and sides as Eisenhower had struck at Omaha. We had dutifully dug out and spread the sand downwards as best as we could. Sand is heavy, as you know, and there is a lot of it in any pile unearthed in a construction site.
It was as if we had done nothing.
Dad was adamant. Spread the sand! But, no matter. It was clear that this was an inappropriate task that required more equipment than two early teenagers who had been handed shovels. He eventually had the house construction crew come back to take care of it properly, as Gloria presumably urged.
Sailing? Sailing with Dad was fun until one morning, around the same time in 1973, we went to the boatyard. There was Dad’s Snapdragon yacht, in dry dock. It was a first for me to see the boat suspended in the air, supported by huge straps. The bottom was encrusted with barnacles, frozen hard over the course of the preceding winter.
Dad handed me a three-inch scraper and asked me to scrape them off. All. As some of my readers who watch SpongeBob will attest, it’s important for the hull to be as sleek as a woman’s leg after a shower-shave. A sloop with a smooth hull glides through the water more gracefully and nimbly than some barnacled hag.
After about an hour, there was very little progress to be seen. Again, I was anxious to see my summer friends. Was I to be stuck scrapping barnacles for a decade? All of a sudden, I discovered within myself a talent for complaining about the unreasonable.
Dad retorted, “if you don’t scrape all the barnacles off, then there will be no more sailing for you.” He was foolish offering me a choice like that. It was a no brainer. I liked to sail because it was pleasant. Suddenly, I lost interest.
On one of my last sails. Photo by Bernard Olcott.
Then there was the chore where I was to wash all 18 windows of the Shinnecock Hills house with newspaper and vinegar. 36, actually, cuz it was both sides. Maybe this could have been rendered a plausible task if parceled out in bite sized pieces. Say like do one window a day.
These experiences were completely different than my dishwashing lessons as recounted in my story “WHEN A CHORE IS NOT A CHORE PART 1.”
Of course, what these new “chores” were really all about, was that Dad didn’t want to hire Captain Stummy and the boatyard crew to take care of the barnacles. Nor did he want to pay the construction crew to come back an extra day for the sand. I was happy to help with those household tasks I could reasonably manage to completion, and see satisfying results. Like doing the dishes, for example. Also cooking, vacuuming, car washing; I was all good.
My Mom, on the other hand, didn’t specifically assign chores to me; she led by example rather than extortion (or claiming that “someone else” wanted it done). Her home was spotless and she expected me to keep the house clean, to render myself hygienic, to do my homework, and to avoid getting arrested.
I’m there to help around the house. But not to be taken advantage of. And it became a source of tension between Dad and me, unfortunately. From the age of 13 onwards, I was always on guard against unreasonable demands to change the proverbial pacemaker battery, almost always imposed at the last moment. To an unprepped patient, no less!
What I didn’t know at the time was that I was not alone. My cousins, Edward Olcott’s children, were subject to the same kind of snap assignment of similarly overwhelming tasks devoid of all reason. Billy and Sally found an effective extrication from this unpleasantness; something that never occurred to me. When they were asked to replace a pacemaker battery with a pocket knife one time too many, they actually had themselves adopted by their new stepfather. They voted with their feet and left the Olcott family!!!
And that took care of that!
They’re not even technically my cousins anymore.
If you treat people unfairly, unpleasantly, and inappropriately, my theory is that they become scarce.