The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home by George Howe Colt
Nonfiction - Memoir
Quit on 7/16/09
Faced with the sale of the century-old family summer house on Cape Cod where he had spent forty-two summers, George Howe Colt returned for one last stay with his wife and children. This poignant tribute to the eleven-bedroom jumble of gables, bays, and dormers that watched over weddings, divorces, deaths, anniversaries, birthdays, breakdowns, and love affairs for five generations interweaves Colt's final visit with memories of a lifetime of summers. Run-down yet romantic, the Big House stands not only as a cherished reminder of summer's ephemeral pleasures but also as a powerful symbol of a vanishing way of life.
When I was a child, this was the moment we had been waiting for all winter. As the car slowed to a stop, my brothers and I would kick off our shoes. Then we'd spring from our seats to run barefoot from place to place, making sure the things we had dreamed of during the last nine months were still there. We'd run down to the beach to test the water with our toes, a foretaste of the hundred swims that lay before us. We'd patrol the rocky shore for sea glass, jingle shells, and the skates' egg cases that my grandmother called mermaids' purses (but that to me looked more like devils' pillows). We'd touch the dinghy from which we'd fish for scup. We'd race across the lawn to the barn, where we'd run our fingers across the winter's dust that furred the pool table's protective plastic cover. And then, like the child at supper who saves his favorite food for last, we'd turn to the house.
When I first began reading Colt's memoir (coincidentally, while traveling to our family reunion in Depoe Bay, Oregon), I was reminded of many childhood summers spent at my grandparents' beach house in Leucadia, California. The house (which everyone who knew of it referred to simply as The Beach House, and always pronounced as if it were capitalized, so I'll do so here) sat high upon a bluff, overlooking the Pacific Ocean; eighty-plus steps led down to the sand where my brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles and family friends would spend long days playing on the private beach. We would dig huge holes that would fill with sea water as the tide rushed in; build castles dripping with wet "icing" made of sand, surrounded by protective moats; bury one another with only our heads exposed, warming our chilled bodies beneath the sand; shiver under sandy towels, popping seaweed bulbs as we obeyed that dreaded parental order to wait one hour after eating before going back in the water; dig for sand crabs that we'd use for bait in the early morning hours, catching perch and the occasional stingray; ride the waves on styrofoam surfboards which rubbed our stomachs and legs red and left us with sore rashes (this was long before boogie boards); join my grandmother on long walks, stepping cautiously as we searched for shells, sand dollars and other treasures along the shore, avoiding the slimy jelly fish that would wash up on the beach, hidden amidst the piles of kelp.
My grandparents, great-grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins and brothers.
It's probably pretty obvious which one is me.
It's probably pretty obvious which one is me.
After a full day in the sun, we'd make the long climb back up to the house, wash the sand (and the annoying tar, the removal of which required a rag dipped in turpentine) from our feet in the outdoor shower, and head inside where we could continue to enjoy the beauty of the ocean from the wall of windows looking west in my grandparents' living room and dining room. Oh, such memories! As my grandfather sat in his chair, watching a golf tournament or working a crossword puzzle, we could find my grandmother in her large kitchen, making dinner preparations for the crowd. Someone was always gazing out the windows, shouting out for everyone to come see the whales passing by or dolphins and seals riding the waves closer to the shoreline, and my brothers and I always fought over who got to look through the binoculars first. And, oh, the sunsets. Beautiful beyond words.
So many memories of that incredible house on the bluff (and the creepy basement room that had a door leading to exposed crawl space, full of spiders and who knows what!) and the times spent together with other relatives who had also traveled great distances to spend a week (or two or three!) enjoying all the fun in Southern California. In addition to all the beach activities, there were trips to Disneyland, Sea World and the San Diego Zoo (although I'm fairly certain we we didn't do them all in one summer). And, it was at The Beach House that my brothers and I and our cousins all learned how to play Mah Jong. Fun times, to be sure.
And, of course, there's nothing quite like falling asleep to the sound of the waves crashing up against the bluffs. It always took me a couple of nights to get used to that rhythmic sound, just as it always took me a couple of nights to get used to the sound's absence once we'd returned to our home in Northern California.
Yes, The Beach House was a special "summer home," but as I read Colt's prologue in preparation for writing this review, I realized that my grandparents' house wasn't really a summer home. It wasn't the sort of summer home that was closed-up at the end of the season. After my grandfather retired from PanAm in 1966, they moved to the house and spent the next ten years entertaining friends and family year-round. It was their home year-round. Can you imagine?!
However, as I began to read Colt's memoir, I was flooded with another set of memories--those of my parents' cabin near Big Bear (in California's San Bernardino Mountains). Like my grandparents' beach house, The Cabin became the place for many summer (and winter) family gatherings and getaways.
The following passage from Colt's prologue particularly reminded me of many arrivals to our mountain retreat:
The doors that are always open have been closed and locked. The windows are shut tight. The shades are drawn. No water runs from the faucets. The toaster—which in the best of times works only if its handle is pinned under the weight of a second, even less functional toaster—is unplugged. The kitchen cupboards are empty except for a stack of napkins, a box of sugar cubes, and eight cans of beer. The porch furniture—six white plastic chairs, two green wooden tables—has been stacked in the dining room. The croquet set, the badminton equipment, the tennis net, and the flag are behind closet doors. The dinghy is turtled on sawhorses in the barn, the oars angled against the wall. The roasted-salt scent of August has given way to the stale smell of mothballs, ashes, mildew.
Here and there are traces of last summer: a striped beach towel tossed on the washing machine, a half-empty shampoo bottle wedged in the wooden slats of the outdoor shower, a fishing lure on the living room mantel, a half-burned log in the fireplace, a sprinkling of sand behind the kitchen door. Dead hornets litter the windowsills. A drowned mouse floats in the lower-bedroom toilet. The most recent entry in the guest book was made five months ago. The top newspaper in the kindling pile is dated September 29. The ship's clock in the front hall has stopped at 2:45, but whether that was A.M. or P.M. no one can tell.
After gorging on summer for three months, the house has gone into hibernation. They call it the off-season, as if there were a switch in the cellar, next to the circuit breakers, that one flipped to plunge the house from brimming to empty, warm to cold, noisy to silent, light to dark. Outside, too, the world has changed color, from blues, yellows, and greens to grays and browns. The tangle of honeysuckle, Rosa rugosa, and poison ivy that lapped at the porch is a skein of bare branches and vines. The lawn is hard as tundra, brown as burlap. The Benedicts' house next door, hidden from view when I was last here, is visible through the leafless trees. The woods give up their secrets: old tennis balls, an errant Frisbee, a lost tube of sunblock, a badminton birdie. Out in the bay, the water is the color of steel and spattered with whitecaps; without the presence of boats to lend perspective, the waves look ominously large. On the stony beach, the boardwalk—a set of narrow planks we use to enter the water without spraining our angles on the algae-slicked rocks—has been piled above the tide line, beyond the reach, we hope of storms.
A summer house in winter is a forlorn thing. In its proper season, every door is unlocked, every window wide open. People, too, are more open in summer, moving through the house and each other's lives as freely as the wind. Their schools and offices are distant, their guard is down, their feet are bare. Now as I walk from room to room, shivering in my parka, I have a feeling I'm trespassing, as if I've sneaked into a museum at night. Without people to fill it, the house takes on a life of its own. Family photographs seem to breathe, their subjects vivid and laughing and suspended at the most beautiful moments of their youths: my father in his army uniform, about to go off to World War II; my aunt in an evening gown, in a shot taken for a society benefit not long before her death at twenty-eight; my grandfather as a Harvard freshman, poised on the sunny lawn. I am older than all of them, even though many are now dead.
In this still house, where is the summer hiding? Perhaps in the mice whose droppings pepper the couch, the bats that brood in the attic eaves, the squirrels that nest in the stairwell walls. They are silent now, but we will hear and see them—and the offspring to which they will soon give birth—in a few months. For if the house is full of memory, it is equally full of anticipation. Dormant life lies everywhere, waiting to be picked up where it left off, like an old friendship after a long absence: that towel ready to be slung over a sweaty shoulder, that tennis ball to be thrown into the air, those chairs to be set out on the porch, that fishing lure to be cast into the bay, that guest book to be inscribed with a day in June. Even on the coldest winter morning, this house holds within it, like a voluptuous flower within a hard seed, the promise of summer.
I haven't been to The Beach House for over 30 years. My parents sold The Cabin in 1997. But the memories live on in stories shared and in photographs stored in albums and shoeboxes. This past July, we gathered in Depoe Bay, 15 of us aunts and uncles and grandpas and grandmothers and cousins and sisters and brothers, for a small family reunion. We climbed to the top of a sand dune in Pacific City, kayaked on Devil's Lake in Lincoln City, and hiked in the Silverton Falls Forest near Portland. But the most memorable moments were those spent in my parents' beautiful house in the woods -- watching my sister-in-law make homemade flour tortillas; listening to the soft murmer of early morning conversation out on the backyard deck, as my husband and stepdad enjoyed their coffee in the company of chipmunks, squirrels and hummingbirds; walking through the peaceful neighborhood and along the bluffs with my brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephews; listening to incredibly gorgeous music my niece and nephews created on the piano in the loft above the dining room; learning magic tricks from my niece and nephew; watching one of my older nephews patiently play board games and cards with his younger cousin; and, yes, teaching my nieces and nephews the joys of Mah Jong. As my sister-in-law says, we Jacksons are a competitive bunch when it comes to that game. It was most definitely a fun-filled and memorable week.
But I digress. This is a book review after all.
I know I was distracted by all the activities of the week in Oregon (and I rarely do much reading while on vacation), but I was quite certain I'd get engrossed in The Big House once we boarded our flight back to Nebraska, especially since I so enjoyed (and related to) the prologue and first chapter. I read and read and read, but I simply could not get interested in Colt's story. Perhaps it was the unfamiliar location (Cape Cod) that failed to intrigue me. Or, maybe the problem was the family history (which, to be honest, wasn't all that compelling). Whatever the reason, I finally called it quits. And yet, I'm not sorry for the time I invested in it. It stirred up a lot of great memories and made me thankful for the opportunities to enjoy so many wonderful summers at the beach and in the mountains -- and in the woods near the ocean.
And, yes. I saw whales off the coast in Oregon. Just a few hundred yards offshore from the bluff that I walked along every morning while visiting my parents in Little Whale Cove. This time I didn't have to fight over the binoculars.
Does your family have a summer home or retreat? Share a little bit about it in a comment and I'll throw your name in the hat for a chance to win my gently used copy of George Howe Colt's memoir. Entries to win this book are open to all! Cut off date is Saturday, August 22nd.