I am not an ancient house, but I seem so among the other cottages around me that have been newly built or so massively renovated that I no longer recognize them. I have been battered by the wind and water and salt, have had my foundations float in water and fill with liquid, but I still stand. I won’t last forever, but I will be good for a while.
When I was being birthed almost sixty years ago, I thought that my name was Geesus, because that was what the Man always said when something went wrong while he was building me with his father-in-law. The Old Gentleman hardly said anything. He was good at holding his tongue – then and always.
The worst of it was the roof framing. Part of the reason that they had so much trouble with the rafters is they tried to save money by buying cheap wood. The wood was not rotten; it was mostly pine from Maine and came from good stock, but it had not been allowed to age long enough. It has held though, so it was “good enough,” and the Man must have known what he was doing. Or maybe the Man was, although he would never admit it, so unsure of himself he hammered pounds of extra nails in. Buckets of nails. In any case, I have stood through sixty years and fifteen hurricanes, but only one while there were people in the house.
The pine was new, but many of my parts are old. My windows were used, bought after they were taken off other houses. They were different sizes and gave my exterior a haphazard air that I liked. The sinks, the tub, and the metal shower stall were used too. All the old parts used to talk to me about their former homes, but they soon forgot and are now just part of me. I am partly underground; I stand on a full basement and have a septic system that has been dug up a few times – once when the tank collapsed. It is really only a cesspool. And the Man dug dry wells, to take pressure off the septic tank, on both sides of my south corner – one for the washing machine, which has been here since the beginning, and one for the dishwasher that was added ten years ago.
So, about my name. I figured out soon that the Man was not to be trusted on naming things – he often called his wife and children many different names, including Geesus, so I still was not sure about what I was called. I decided after a couple of years that my name was Back. “Isn’t it nice to be Back at the beach?” the Old Lady would ask the Old Gentleman while they were cleaning up the house in the spring. The Old Folks were the parents of the Woman. “So glad to be Back!” the Parents would sigh as they had a stiff drink to relax after their long drive with three Kids and the Dog. “We’re Back,” the Kids would sing out as they whizzed around checking out all my corners when they arrived at the end of May. “We’ll be Back in the spring!” the Family would all say to the neighbors in the fall. They sounded happy when they arrived, but that did not last. And they kept coming Back, even though it was clear to me that no one was particularly enjoying it, except perhaps the Man. That was the mystery. Of course the Old Folks stopped eventually. One summer the Old Lady wasn’t there and the next year the Old Gentleman died right under my roof. He was glad to go.
This Family is the only one that I have ever held, but it is more accurate to say that there were really two families. The Old Folks lived in a room with a kitchenette and bath at the back of the house. They arrived earlier than the younger family and cleaned out the mice and the cobwebs, put clean sheets on the beds, and mowed the lawn. After they stopped coming, my windows were never really clean again, the lawn became a meadow most of the time, and the house never smelled the same. The Old Folks had worked hard.
It took me a while to understand why the Kids were so unhappy. They seemed excited about returning to the beach and their built-in bunks beds, but I could often hear the young ones crying in their niches on a day after the Man had had one of his tantrums. It took me a long time to learn their language, but it took even longer to understand their signs. They almost never talked about the Man, but they had a series of signals to warn each other about the prevailing mood. Palms pushing away, meant head for the beach and stay out of the way. Palms face up and waving back and forth meant things seemed OK – but be careful, always be careful. And a shrug meant they had no idea which way the wind was blowing. It was not as good an indicator as the flag that flew next to the road was as to the weather, but it seemed to help.
But, still, there were explosions which could not be predicted. Days that started calmly with pancakes and syrup ended up completely broken. There were a lot of broken days. I am not sure why the Man built the house and brought the Family to an island where it was difficult to get away from each other. Even when one of the Kids tried to break loose a little to hang with the fishermen’s kids at the pier or just hide and read, the Man went looking for them and insisted that the summer was Family Time. All I could do was be a solid presence for them. They numbered the days on the walls above their pillows. Days until they could go home, the Man could return to work, and life would have structure. Later, when they were gone, the Man painted their rooms and obliterated their cross hatchings, but they are still there under the green paint. I can see them from the inside.
The Old Folks were afraid of the Man too. I think the Woman must have been their only child as they were very dedicated to her. They were the only ones that called her “Pet.” There must have been other relations, but I rarely saw them or even heard about them. Once, the Old Lady’s widowed brother came to visit, but he got in trouble with the Man about where he parked his car, and I never saw him again. Of course, he was old and maybe he was unable to come.
So, there was weeping. There were a few slaps, when one of the Kids tried to talk back, but no real violence, except once in a while to the Dog who had a way of going for a swim and waiting until he got home to shake the water off – which usually warranted being physically evicted with the help of the Man’s foot. Still the Kids wept, quietly. All I could do was hold them in the three plasterboard walls that enclosed their bunks. And be there.
It looked completely wholesome to people who were not responsible for the Family. Each day, the Man would organize activities for everyone. They sounded like fun and the kids knew enough to pretend they would be fun, but they never were. If they went clamming, someone was in trouble for accidentally dumping the bucket or for leaving a rake behind. If they went waterskiing, there was always a problem with the line or the Kids weren’t trying hard enough. If they just went to the beach, they had to do it on foot (it was a long, hot hike) and no complaining allowed. And everyone had to go in the ocean, and refrain from complaining that there were no drinks or snacks before the hike Back. Additionally, if the Man found anything of interest on the beach, they had to help him haul it home. The yard was cluttered with driftwood, dilapidated lobster traps, containers of various kinds, and piles of rope. The scavenged wood sometimes murmured, but it was too old and worn to tell me much about where it came from.
I am always glad when the Family comes, but glad when they leave too. At first there is the ticking from the wind-up clock in the bedroom, but once that runs out, I settle in and the only rattles come from the weather. There are borders of chrysanthemums around the house, planted in the first year by the Old Lady, but no one is ever there to see them bloom at the end of September. I am very proud of my yellow and orange flowers though. Mice are here soon, but they raise their families and we live companionably through the winter months. I wish I could keep them warmer, but I also wish they didn’t gnaw on my wallboard. Once we were breached by one of the water rats that hang around under the bridge, but I don’t think he could get out again, and died leaving a smell the Old Folks worked hard to get out of the house in the spring.
I was never afraid when I was alone. The Man used to make me afraid when the family was here because he was always warning everyone about fire. “Who the hell left the stove on?” he would bellow. “You’re going to kill us all, Merry.” Merry was the Woman. Or, “Who has been using the soldering gun on the table? It’ll catch fire and we’ll all die, Freddie!” Poor Freddie. He probably is still afraid to use a soldering gun. So I had some fear of fire and my inhabitants when they were there, but in the winter I had no fear. I was lonely after a while, but soon enough they would come Back.
I thought it would go on forever. I doubted it could get worse, but then it did. When the Old Folks were no longer there, my inside got filthier and more unpredictable. The whole place seemed to be unanchored, adrift. The Old Folks had made a difference. There was dirt, garbage, mold under the bunks and under the sinks. Cracks in the windows were not repaired; gutters fell off the house. The children were older and the Man was testier with them. One summer, after being swiped him on the side of the head for some real or imagined infraction, the oldest boy took a swing at the aging Man. Frankie, it was. Frankie lit out for the bridge and the beach, and he did not come Back. The Woman cried sometimes, but mostly no one ever mentioned Frankie.
I was glad. I did not think any of them would escape without dying like the Old Folks did. And over the next few years, the children all disappeared. Peggy, the middle child, came one more summer and then did not come Back when they returned. That summer when the youngest, Freddie, was left alone with the Man and the Woman, was the worst yet. There was no pleasing the Man and he took it out on his youngest son. Poor Freddie lasted that summer, but neither he nor the Dog came Back the next year. When the Man and the Woman came Back, they were Old.
Things deteriorated. The west deck started to be unsafe, so the Man tore it off and just built steps down from the rear door. All the shades and curtains rotted and broke, so my windows had no cover; anyone could look into the house. There was little to see. One summer, the Man didn’t put any boats in the water other than a small sailboat that he sometimes disappeared for a day in. I thought this was the end; the aging Man and Woman would die or stop coming and sell the house. I wondered about the Kids, but was sure they were better off.
And then a strange thing happened. The Kids started coming Back to see the Man and Woman, bringing their children. Peggy came Back first, coming to stay a week with her husband and toddler. Freddie started coming down on summer weekends from the City, bringing his fiancée. They were actually married on the beach down the road and had a huge tent party in the backyard. The septic system did not survive the festivities, however, and was an embarrassment to me.
Finally, Frankie came Back with his two boys. He even let his father take the children out in the little sailboat. Truly, the Man was very old now and not as loud as he was, but he was surely just as moody. I was glad to see them all, but I really did not understand.
But it went on. Of all the Kids, it turned out that Frankie ended up spending the most time under my roof. The Man died a few years ago, and Frankie came regularly in the summer to help the Woman move Back for the season and host her other Kids and grandchildren. But this year, the Woman did not return, and the three Kids were Back yesterday arguing about what to do with the house. Frankie says that if they sell me, the buyer will tear me down and build something new. I am not afraid, but Frankie and Peggie seem to find that hard to cope with. Freddie is having business troubles and says he needs the money. Unless Frankie and Peggie can buy him out, it seems my time may be over. I guess I am glad that they are attached to me, but I always knew I was just a house. When they helped the Man bring piles of old wood home from the beach, I knew that wood used to be houses and boats. And trees. Whatever happens, it will be fine with me.