Saturday, October 13, 2007

Bill and Virginia Youngren's house

Skimming a book this morning, with the television on for "warmth," I glanced up at This Old House to see a house that was instantly recognizable. The color, dark green, looked right. The size and shape looked right. The driveway was in its proper place. Seeing the kitchen's windows and cabinets and wallpaper confirmed my intuition: this old house was a house I once knew.

The house is in West Newton, Massachusetts, and once belonged to William and Virginia Youngren. Bill was a professor of mine when I was a graduate student at Boston College in the early 1980s. ("It's Bill!" he once wrote, replying to a deferential note I had addressed to "Dr. Youngren.") Like every professor I've ever admired, Bill negotiated university life on his own terms, refusing to limit his horizons, intellectual or social, to "the department." He was as knowledgeable about music (classical and early jazz) as he was about 18th-century literature and aesthetics. And he seemed to know, or have known, everyone, not as a collector and dropper of names, but as one who pursued his interests with such dedication that they inevitably led him to the appropriate people.

I spent many hours at Bill and Virginia's house when I was a graduate student. My visits would begin on a practical note — picking up a paper from a previous semester (Bill never graded work in a timely manner), dropping off a chunk of my dissertation. But conversation always took over, sometimes on the house's enormous porch, sometimes in the kitchen or a front sitting room. There would be Earl Grey tea (Twinings, loose) and ice cream (Breyers, vanilla). And often there'd be music, on reel-to-reel transfers of 78s. I remember sitting and listening to "After You've Gone" (James P. Johnson's Blue Note Jazzmen, 1944) and realizing that when you owned a house, you could play records as loudly as you wanted. Who would stop you?

Bill died in 2006, of an undiagnosed neurological disease, and with children grown, Virginia must have decided to sell the house. So here it is on television, a ceiling pulled down, a floor pulled up, a wall — in front of which the kitchen table once stood — knocked out. The difficulties of later life can be read in a detail on the screen: a handrail along the length of the front walk, which must have made it easier for Bill to get around. "It does nothing for the house," the landscaper is saying.

Newton Shingle-Style House Project (This Old House)

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comments: 2

Anonymous said...

I loved this entry. The serendipity is amazing (just having the TV on in the background and happening to look up), and that last line is a killer (the juxtaposition of "design people" with "real people"). I think this would be great expanded into an essay.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, Diana. It's very strange to find the past returning completely by chance — I never even watch This Old House!