For as long as most people can remember, the Washington Post has boasted extremely good writers. And for a nice long stretch, 1970 to 2009, it had Henry Allen, whose talents rise to a whole other level. As a Style section essayist, Henry made readers not only understand commuter congestion but care about its mechanics. For the French Bicentennial in 1989, he wrote about the French Revolution, “because I realized I didn’t know much about it.” He even wrote about that carnival barker of a New Jersey casino owner, Donald Trump. In his new book, Where We Lived: Essays on Places, published this week by Mandel Vilar Press/Dryad Press, the Pulitzer Prize winner examines a more intimate subject (his own starchy New England family and the houses they spent their lives in) and thereby produces a universal result (a stunning portrait that somehow sheds light on all of our families’ habits and traditions). The excerpt here considers the great American dream, the summer house, rented or owned, often moldy with memory.
THERE ARE ALL the summer houses in America—a Jersey Shore Victorian with porches where wicker creaks and ice cubes chime, a board-and-batten camp in Minnesota with a stuffed and wall-mounted muskellunge that frightens the grandchildren, a Maine cottage with bare-stud walls and a cold, sharp smell from the fireplace, a Colorado cabin whose trophy antlers bristle in the firelight.
Even though you spend as little as two weeks a year in them, they’re where you become the Real You, where the universe seems to acknowledge your existence with oddly personal weather—thrilling thunderstorms, clouds that at any moment will “burn off” to resurrect the bright glory of surf and its musical boom. Constellations puncture the firmament on country-black nights. Up at the lake. Down at the shore.
My family had them too, both random rentals and family houses. In New Hampshire, Sheep Rock smelled of Uncle Fulton’s Bond Street pipe tobacco and the sweet resin of the Pine Room where the children slept on army bunks. My mother had spent her girlhood summers with Fult and Aunt Fan and she seemed happier there than anywhere else, which might have made me happier there than anywhere else.
I remember her sitting in an Adirondack chair under a maple tree at cocktail hour while hired hands drove cows past the house after milking. Day was done. If anyone commented on the good weather, she’d wave her cigarette away from her mouth and say: “It is a beauteous evening, calm and free. The holy time is quiet as a nun, breathless with adoration.” That was Wordsworth, whom she seemed to regard as a bit of wet smack. I wrote my own poem, too.
THE COCKTAIL HOUR
Under the spreading maple tree,
cocktails at last. A buoyancy
in peeling Adirondack chairs
redeems old failings, shopworn cares.
A splash? A dividend? One more?
A dollop for you, Commodore?
Life’s dinginess dissolves like fog.
Aunt Ag slips Triscuits to the dog.
Clearness returns, as in a pool
where color trembles, deep and cool,
beneath Narcissus’ earnest face.
This is the time, this is the place
that mended lives once more are whole,
despairs replaced with newfound soul
while down the road the Chickerings’ cows
go back to pasture. Here, we browse
through ancient stories once more true,
the same old laughter once more new.
Sweet hooch averts life’s eyeless stare,
as twilight soothes the day’s long glare.
The cigarettes begin to glow
as shadows of the twilight grow.
Things seem to have a point again.
Somebody says: “Remember when . . .”
All do. Ice rattles in a glass
One doesn’t ask for more – it’s crass.
Instead this tocsin sound will do.
Another round? For you? And you?
The children watch the grownups drink.
They sense a happiness and think
it will be theirs too when they’re grown –
not knowing that it’s drink alone.
On my father’s side of the family there was Snow’s Pond amid the cranberry bogs and piney woods near Cape Cod. From the porch, seen through the trees, the pond had the quality of something levitating. My
mother’s sister Cissie owned an old house on Chebeague Island, in Casco Bay, Maine. She had five children. We found our own rental house with a water view through the birch trees, and a lobsterman for a neighbor.
These houses were centers of extended cousinhood, family seats we shared with aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, in-laws. Snapshots accumulated, stories were told over and over. But this is true of so many summer houses. Essentially, they were no different than anyone else’s.
Let us generalize, then, and say, as an example, that you pull up to whatever summer house it might be after driving all day Saturday in the heat.
You look around. None of the neighbors are back from swimming yet and the front-walk petunias look neglected in the glare—there’s a festive but deserted quality to things. You open the door. The house is hot. The cleaning woman, who lives in the village, closed all the windows that morning in case there was a thunderstorm.
“Open some windows!” everybody says.
The heat is full of the smell of blankets, sand, mildew, a freshly swept fireplace and damp couch cushions. There is a buckled map hanging on the wall. There is a pile of the last tenant’s newspapers next to the fireplace. There is a sense of possibilities. You turn on a light, and turn it off again. You turn on the cold water, which runs hot. Then you carry your suitcase upstairs.
Your bedroom is very hot.
You open the suitcase. You packed it only last night, but it looks like an ungainly time capsule from another life. You wonder why you brought those dress shoes. You sense that once again, you won’t finish that copy of Anna Karenina. You don’t care. You like not caring because it means you are starting to be On Vacation. All happy summer houses are alike—you never wear your dress shoes or finish Anna Karenina in any of them.
You pull out a bureau drawer. You smell the parched wood and the old shelf paper thumbtacked to it, a smell that is ancient and utterly personal, like the smell of the double-ended wooden spoons you once used to eat ice cream from Dixie Cups.
This smell lasts till you open the window.
The wind fills the room instantly, like a cool noise. You look at the excellent sky over the treetops. You hear a flag rolling and snapping, with the hollowness that sound has near water. You breathe deeply. You take off your clothes. You put on your bathing suit. You have every intention of going swimming before dinner. Just for a moment, though, you lie down on the unmade bed. You close your eyes. You make a mental note to water those petunias. You are in your summer house. You are asleep.
Back in the unreal city, everything is rules. At a summer house, everything feels like tradition instead: drinks you will never drink anywhere else (brandy shrubs, Pimm’s Cups), Mom always going first in the outdoor shower so she gets the sun-warmed water, playing Parcheesi on rainy days, using jelly jars for drinking glasses.
Everything is permitted (as long as you hang up your bathing suit and don’t track sand in the house) and everything is real. Your parents won’t let you take a bus at home, but here you can take the boat all the way across the lake to town where you ask for a weather prediction from a cashier.
“Off and on,” she says.
You feel like a kid in a Disney movie, orphaned and entitled at the same time, wanting nothing more than the blond hair and the impossible tans of the summer carpenters, who have great trucks and beach parties (which, as it turns out, are not quite as great as you’d thought they’d be).
Summer houses are tiny cottages on motorboat lakes, jostling with all the other cottages in a kind of laundry-flapping, lotion-sticky, barbecue proximity that verges on the sexual. They are mammoth old brown-shingled dowagers groaning in the wind off the ocean. They are Adirondack camps with rusting screens that stick out like beer bellies, and Michigan fishing camps that have no locks on the doors. They are the gloomy dinosaurs of Mantoloking, N.J., asleep amid the hydrangeas.
They are cabins, camps, lodges, farmhouses, A-frames, ex-barns, not so much built as moored on the edge of dunes, lakes, valleys, cliffs, harbors and national parks. They are more Northern than Southern, more Eastern than Western, not so much architecture as an opportunity for metaphysical multiplication of porches, decks and outdoor staircases. They are cottages with locks that are stiff from the salt air, and very old cars cooking inside closed garages. They are group houses where you bridge the psychic gap between fraternity parties and the vacations you will someday take your children on. They are rental houses with the mysterious owner’s closet, which is locked until you find the key and open it one rainy afternoon to find only some canned tomatoes, a butterfly collection and a bottle of Old Mr. Boston sloe gin.
They have pasts, instant history: the crayonned j’accuse you find under a porch cushion—“Susan is a lier”—or the old man at the boatyard showing you a walrus skull he pulled up in a fishing net. Who was Susan, when was the walrus?
There are the Indians, animals and primeval cataclysms that left their names on these places: Chincoteague, Seal Cove, Mackinaw Island, Crater Lake, Thunder Mountain. You return to a tribal comity. Instead of asking for my binoculars, you ask for the binoculars. Not my air mattress but the air mattress. Everyone’s. The tribe’s. You all pick blueberries. You all shoot the .22.
“Your mother is the shot in this family,” you tell the kids, putting the tin cans on the fence posts.
“It’s not true,” she says. “You say that every year.”
“It’s true!” the children shout.
With an air of bewildered and dutiful modesty she knocks down each can with one shot, even the little cat food can. Everyone cheers.
“You’re all such fools about this,” she says. “Every year.”
They are houses on islands in Maine where a north wind brings down light so intense it seems on the verge of fragmenting into chunks the size of ping-pong balls, a light that also creates shadows with a pleasantly alarming coolness. In September, these houses are shut for the winter, sometimes in a ritual known as an “Augusta closing,” in which you turn the mirrors to the walls, put a stone in the toilet, put newspaper up the chimney and cover the lampshades, although nobody is quite sure why anymore, any more than they know why it’s called an “Augusta closing.”
They are where: You would find a faded 48-star flag in a drawer and raise it every morning. You eat corn on the cob and taste the mosquito repellent on your hands. You fall in love on purpose. You save your dog from drowning. You sit out on the porch on a starry night, the whole family singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
They are houses you rent one after another, a new one every summer until all the rusty hibachis, thundering shower stalls and landlady-needlepoint samplers become the same.
They are houses you go back to year after year.
“It never changes,” your father says as you drive through town, past the five-and-dime with its beach chairs and umbrellas out front, past the Dairy Queen where you always buy a cone for the dog too.
“They painted the windmill at the miniature golf course,” your mother says.
“Well, dammit, it needed painting,” says your father, who is irritable in the manner of sentimental men.
“But they didn’t even have a windmill last year,” your brother says, thus beginning a debate about which miniature golf course you’re talking about, and is miniature golf the same as Putt-Putt, and if so what is pitch ‘n’ putt? This debate will become a sly running joke through the whole stay at the house, where, fortunately, nothing has changed (as your father notes in a voice that invites no contradiction) except for some new planks in the porch.
They are where you fall deepest into the ur-illusion of America, which is that you can endlessly invent and reinvent yourself. You bring along your old brushes and paints from college, and the denim skirt you used to paint in, and suddenly the colors don’t turn to mud and the trees and houses don’t look like they’re floating. Is it possible that you’re really an artist after all?
You make the mistake of asking your husband.
“Remember those pictures we saw at the art gallery?” you ask. “Isn’t this every bit as good as they are? Really. I want to know. Tell me why it isn’t.”
“Beats me,” he says.
They are a sort of duty-free zone for drinkers, a place where the back-brain demon-philosopher of alcoholism lets them have all they want.
“Sun’s over the yardarm,” they say at noon. Or they tear open the beers as soon as the tennis game ends. Or they wait all day for cocktail hour.
After a while there arises the tocsin of ice rattling in empty glasses.
“Freshen that up for you?”
The children watch their parents drink. They don’t understand the chemical smugness their parents feel, and sense a sudden happiness in them instead, something attained and enshrined out there in the adirondack chairs. They believe this happiness will be theirs too, when they grow up.
Summer houses are the last WASP outposts of johnnycake breakfasts and cold-water plunges; houses that were built as desperate 19th-century attempts to hold onto strengths and virtues that only remain now in the attic as ghosts hovering over old oars, a broken banjo and albums of sepia photographs glued to black paper with “corners”—pictures of men standing on a long-lost yawl, puffing out their chests; of a beefy cook and the feebleminded daughter she always claimed was her niece.
The no-longer-so-rich families try to keep them going out of a mysterious sense of noblesse oblige—but oblige to what or whom? As years go by, the winters come to be full of phone calls debating a new roof, and is there any sense in trying to fix the sailboat? And what with the taxes and the burglary last winter, wouldn’t it be easier to sell the place? The anguish! Whole childhoods will vanish, along with the ultimate promise of a summer house—that it will always be there to redeem the gray dwindlings of modern life. But ultimately, it goes on the market. And no one in the whole family has the money to buy it.
What happened to their strength, their virtue and, oh, their money?
Summer houses are where: You see a copperhead behind the springhouse and feel the whole world go hard, wise and dark on you as you back away from it. You lie awake listening to the weather-vane goose spin its wings in the dark. You vow that this time you will not turn back into a ghost of yourself when you get back to the city, even though you know you have vowed this before. You compete to see who can imitate the local accent best. You roll up a straw rug to sweep, and you see perfect little rows of sand. You will remember the feel of the lawn – bristly, because you always walked on it barefoot. You will remember the smell of the house—a combination of mothballs, caramel, pine trees, citronella and the faint vegetable breath of that slow sink drain with its brass screen.
You go to the inn for dinner.
“We eat here every summer,” your sister says to the waitress. “And I always have a milkshake.”
“That’s nice, hon,” the waitress says. “What flavor you want this year?”
Ah, the locals. Kind as they may be, there is a tightening in their eyes when they see you have taken the romance of the summer house so far that you believe you belong to this place, that you spend 11 months of the year somewhere else, but you live here.
You say: “Someday, I want to winter over here. It must be beautiful.”
They say: “Maybe so. I spend as much of it as I can in Florida.”
The locals keep breaking the faith—building condominiums or putting a neon sign on the store. Even if you own property, you can’t stop them because the town meetings are held over the winter when you aren’t there. Sometimes their children go off to college and end up living in the Unreal City, and in a voice carefully modulated to avoid condescension, you congratulate them. But you are sick at heart. Don’t they understand?
As it happens, they ask the same question about you.
There is often an offspring of a rich family, usually a boy, who flounders for a while in the city and then asks to try living in the summer house year-round, and be a carpenter, a fisherman, a potter. This is very romantic. It is also a symptom of the disease known in the Northeast as “WASP Rot.” If he sticks it out, the whole winter, with the pipes freezing, the wires down in the blizzard, the chainsaw broken, the locals will look at him come spring with grudging acceptance and think: “His family must be disappointed in him.”
Summer houses are where you believe you are who you are and the world is what it is, but you have to leave.
The last morning comes. It is always the same. Breakfast is no good. The dog runs away. Down at the store there is a goodbye said to a lifeguard, a goodbye accompanied by lifted eyebrows and a request for communication—by letter, e-mail, text, tweet. It doesn’t matter because it won’t happen anyway.
You stack the newspapers by the fireplace. You count your film canisters, knowing that the pictures will puzzle you yet again with their pallid failure to limn the sunset after the thunderstorm, or the potato race at Old Home Day. You note with regret that you never watered the front-walk petunias—this omission somehow shows you don’t have as much claim on this place as you’d hoped. Did you pack your dress shoes? Your copy of Anna Karenina?
The dog is found. The woman from the village arrives to clean.
“We hate to leave,” you say.
“You’ve had nice weather,” she says. “Right up till today.”
“Oh, we have. But this morning the radio said thunderstorms.”
“I’ll close all the windows,” she says.
Excerpted from Where We Lived: Essays on Places by Henry Allen. Copyright © 2017 by Henry Allen. Published by Mandel Vilar Press and Dryad Press.