Diving into Cheever Country

Diving into Cheever Country:When the Westchester home of the great American novelist John Cheever was put up for sale recently, I knew I needed to make a pilgrimage to see it.

Published August 25, 2014 2:42 PM
7 min read

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swimmer-thDiving into Cheever Country:
When the Westchester home of the great American novelist John Cheever was put up for sale recently, I knew I needed to make a pilgrimage to see it.

 

By Margot Clark-Junkins

 

swimmer 0303When the Westchester home of the great American novelist John Cheever was put up for sale recently, I knew I needed to make a pilgrimage to see it.

 

I have long admired Cheever’s ability to limn the emptiness and angst of suburban life, as well as its beauty. His descriptions of sleepy hamlets 30 miles from New York City capture the essence of Westchester, much in the way that Robert Frost’s stanzas about snowy woods, dark and deep, capture the essence of New England.

 

My friend Kate Emanuel is a realtor and she agreed to take me to Ossining to see the house. Cheever and his wife Mary bought their home on Cedar Lane in 1961. At first glance, it is charming, perched on a slope above a brook and surrounded by five acres of overgrown woodlands and sloping lawns. There is a two-story porch, a pair of quirky oval windows, an impressive stone chimney and several flagstone terraces. It was built in 1795, added on to many times, and jazzed up by a famous architect in the 1920s. The price tag of $525,000 is relatively low for Westchester.

 

I love a good fixer-upper, but the house is in need of a total overhaul. Inside, it is difficult to see past the personal belongings in every room. There are notes scrawled by the kitchen phone, books and personal letters, jewelry and paintings, bath mats and medications, even old Kodak photos on a closet floor. I wondered why the three Cheever children — Susan, Ben, and Federico — had not cleared away, or claimed, these things. Was it a happy home, I wondered?

 

Cheever was fascinated by the paradox of suburban life, the silent struggles concealed behind an idyllic backdrop. According to his daughter Susan’s critically acclaimed memoir, “Home Before Dark,” Cheever hid his struggles with bisexuality and alcoholism most of his adult life. His widely read fiction (he was on the cover of Time magazine in March 1964 and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979) contained some hurtful characterizations of their lives and there were periods when John and Mary simply did not speak to each other. In 1975, Cheever gave up alcohol for good; he lived in the house until his death from cancer in 1982. Mary continued to live there until her death in April at the age of 95, a testament, perhaps, to her somewhat inexplicable determination to weather a difficult marriage.

 

To round out my Cheever pilgrimage, I decided to re-enact his classic short story, “The Swimmer,” which was published in The New Yorker in July 1964. The main character, Neddy, is lounging by his friend’s pool one sunny afternoon when he decides to swim home by traveling from pool to pool. “In his mind he saw, with a cartographer’s eye, a string of swimming pools, a quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county.”

 

I made my decision at a book club meeting, after watching the hostess’s children splash happily in their backyard pool. It was at that moment that I decided to swim home, across Rye, starting with this very pool.

 

Following the story’s timeline, I set forth on a Sunday at noon, wearing my bathing suit under some comfortable walking clothes. I had already lined up permission to swim in four pools, the fifth was pending approval due to a family emergency, and the sixth was a public pool requiring just $6. Neddy swims in many more pools (in one, he skinny-dips to please the owners), imbibing steadily along the way; by the time he arrives home (spoiler alert), his wife and children are long gone, his house is empty, and time has moved on mysteriously without him…he is now a bum, shunned by his peers. Naturally, I planned to take the high road: no alcohol, no nudity, no bums (so to speak).

 

I rang the doorbell at Pool #1 but no one was at home. I opened the back gate, kicked off my sneakers and slipped into the water. It was blissfuly cool. I swam the length of the pool, enjoying the quiet. I was utterly content, much like Neddy: “He felt tired, clean, and pleased at that moment to be alone.”

 

I knew I must adhere to a tight schedule otherwise it would take forever to get home. I exited the pool and toweled off. I pulled on my clothes over my wet suit and shoved my towel into my backpack, which also contained $6, a camera, a water bottle, a cap, sunscreen, my I-phone, and my driver’s license (in case I met with any trouble).

 

At the end of the street, I spotted a “Dead End” sign juxtaposed against a picture-perfect white clapboard house; I felt certain Cheever would have appreciated the irony. Crossing Boston Post Road, I noticed some golfers on the green at my next stop, Pool #2 at Rye Golf Club. At the entrance booth, I exchanged some cheerful words with Amy, who had seen Burt Lancaster in the 1964 movie version of “The Swimmer.” Pool Director Steve Newman gave me special dispensation to swim from the shallow end to the diving boards. I swam the length of the enormous turquoise pool and, like Ned, I felt that “…being embraced and sustained by the light-green water seemed not as much a pleasure as the resumption of a natural condition.”

 

Continuing north along Route 1 to Soundview Avenue, I turned downhill toward Long Island Sound. Using Google Maps (satellite view) on my iPhone to guide me, I selected the narrowest point along Rye Golf Club’s fairway and trotted across the clipped grass, keeping an eye out for anything airborne. I could see the Rye Boat Basin in the distance as I clambered up on to a path leading to Hix Avenue.

 

On Oakland Beach Avenue, I stopped on the bridge to admire Blind Brook. Marveling at the wealth of watery vistas I had encountered so far, and excited for what might lie ahead, I began to feel that Ned and I were somehow, in that moment, connected: “The day was lovely, and that he lived in a world so generously supplied with water seemed like a clemency, a beneficence. His heart was high, and he ran across the grass. Making his way home by an uncommon route gave him the feeling that he was a pilgrim, an explorer, a man with a destiny.”

 

No one was home at Pool #3 and I had neglected to get permission for this one, so I moved on, feeling a lot like Ned when he came upon an empty pool: “This breach in his chain of water disappointed him absurdly, and he felt like an explorer who is seeking a torrential headwater and finds a dead stream.”

 

I moved quickly from Stuyvesant to Green, then Forest. I greeted a gardener pulling up some weeds and arrived at my friend’s doorstep and Pool #4. When I had finished swimming, we sat for a few minutes, speaking of sirens and mermaids. Back out on Forest, I saw a crushed beer can and thought of Cheever’s terrible alcoholism and how it almost crushed him.

 

I cut diagonally across Rye Town Park, arriving eventually at Playland and Pool #5. I paid the $6 — now rather soggy thanks to my wet towel — and was sternly informed that I must enter through the Ladies Locker Room, change in the locker room, wear my swimsuit up the stairs to the pool, show my receipt to the attendant at the turnstile, and open my backpack to be checked. I did as I was told and ascended into sunlight. A lifeguard’s whistle was busily engaged even though there were no more than ten people in the large pool. I set my backpack down, furtively snapped a single photo, and stepped into the water. It was cool and clean with several floating leaves from nearby shade trees. I was informed that lap lanes were for laps and that the deep end was absolutely “closed.” I swam as far as was permitted and then floated on my back to admire the historic towers standing sentry on either side of the pool. I went back down the stairs, through the dreary locker room, and out onto the Boardwalk. I felt a bit exhausted, thinking this had certainly been similar to Ned’s experience at the public pool:

 

“The sounds here were louder, harsher, and more shrill, and as soon as he entered the crowded enclosure he was confronted with regimentation…a pair of lifeguards in a pair of towers blew police whistles at what seemed to be regular intervals, and abused the swimmers through a public-address system.”

 

My cash reserve now depleted, I was beginning to wonder why I had not packed a snack. I had asked my husband to guide me through Edith Read Sanctuary. Behind the visitor’s center, we located a path that meandered through sun-dappled woods and along scenic inlets. We saw marsh grasses, birches, a raised bog walk, even a life-size fiberglass rhinoceros. My pace was definitely slowing and, like Ned, I was beginning to wonder at my folly: “At what point had this prank, this joke, this piece of horseplay become serious? He could not go back…in the space of an hour, more or less, he had covered a distance that made his return impossible.”

 

At Pool #6 on Manursing Way, I encountered eight young men who looked slightly alarmed when I told them I would be joining them. I swam to the end of the pool and back, navigating around a pair of legs dangling from an inner tube. I took courage knowing that Ned “dove in and swam close to the side, to avoid colliding with Rusty’s raft. He climbed out at the far end of the pool, bypassed the Tomlinsons with a broad smile, and jogged up the garden path. The gravel cut his feet, but this was the only unpleasantness.”

 

Moving uphill to Forest Avenue, I was tired and a little loopy. Cheever wrote, “He had done what he wanted — he had swum the county — but he was so stupefied with exhaustion that his triumph seemed vague.”

 

Nearing Midland Avenue, I ran into two friends and their children, smiling happily in the late afternoon sun. If they thought my mission was at all strange, they kindly gave no indication of it. Just minutes from home now, I felt soothed by the “white noise” of cicadas and a distant lawn mower. Only one pool remained before me: a hot bath. And perhaps a well-earned drink, in honor of Cheever.

 

 

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