Summer at the Beach

For 42 summers, George Howe Colt '76 repaired to the four-story, 11-bedroom ark of a summer house his great-grandfather Ned Atkinson built on a Cape Cod peninsula in 1903. Now the members of the extended family who own the romantic, run-down place have decided they must sell it. Colt goes there with his family for one last August. The sadness of impending change—but wait, may change be tempered?—pervades his charming memoir, The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home (Scribner, $25). His evocative tale will resonate with all who have loved a summer home, of whatever dimensions, as the following passage may suggest.


How many Boston Brahmins does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Ten: one to put in the new bulb, and nine to reminisce about how great the old one was. If it used to be done this way, it ought to be done this way, and, by God, it will be done this way. We would never tolerate the Big House's inconveniences in our winter homes, but this is different: we change in the winter, but during the summer—a season in which we regress to an innocent, Edenic state by replicating the experiences we had as children—change is heresy. We bristle when guests expect, well, something a little more deluxe. Were we to stop washing the dishes by hand, it would mean losing not only the opportunity to watch the boats sail into the harbor, but a precious daily chunk of WASP bonding (which is performed far more adhesively over a mildewed dish towel than over a beer). Were we to replace the hypersensitive toilets, so aged that their porcelain handles are spiderwebbed with cracks, it would mean taking down the typewritten notes my grandmother thumbtacked in each of the seven bathrooms, whose words we can recite by heart now, like an affectionate family mantra: "Nothing but toilet paper—and not wads of this—to go in toilets. Cesspool trouble possible, though not probable, if we watch."


Like Plimoth Plantation or Colonial Williamsburg, the Big House is to be preserved intact, uncontaminated either by throwing anything out or by willingly introducing anything new. Any change is likely the result of serendipity: a book left on a bedside table, a shell on a mantelpiece, a toy car on the kitchen floor. If no one removes them immediately, they will likely be granted tenure. Several years ago, an iron bedstead in the Little Nursery lost a caster. For two summers the resulting tilt was ignored. This summer we arrived to find that a copy of Tess of the d'Urbervilles had been placed under the shortened leg. We haven't touched it. Recently, sweeping up after a weekend of houseguests, I came across a guitar pick. For the time being, I put it in the wooden dish on the front-hall shelf where the key to the Chelsea clock is kept. I know that if the house were not being sold, that guitar pick would remain there for decades, as immovable as a barnacle. My grandchildren would assume that Ned Atkinson played the guitar, and would venerate the pick as a holy relic.        

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