New York: Scribners, 2003.

Heartfelt memoir of a Cape Cod summer home

It’s no surprise this book was nominated for the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2003 – it’s a gem of a well-told and heartfelt story. George Colt’s nostalgic memoir of his family’s Cape Cod summer home is as much a portrayal of family and summers as of a house. Like the structure, the people are quirky, not always as functional as one might wish, colorful but of questionable reliability, and more than a little stuck in the past. Colt describes it as having “raffish ambience and antiquated traditions.” The house was built by Colt’s great-great-grandfather at the beginning of the last century on Wings Neck; that purchase and subdivision of land began its development as a summer colony overlooking Buzzards Bay. Tellingly, we are provided a written family tree as guide to its inhabitants, but no map to pinpoint it, and no photographs to document it. All we have is the author’s say-so that this place actually exists. And that quality is some of what makes the book so endearing. On faith, we trust Colt: everything he says must be the way he says it is. If we think about it, it is a compilation of family stories, history and mythology. How much of that, we can ask, is ever completely factual? Reading this book is also passport to a place rapidly disappearing – the family estate with much sentimental value, a focal point for family gatherings, and still a respite and refuge, but also under siege from the decline of family fortunes, the dissolution of family as a priority, and the near-impossibility of maintenance of these aging edifices with archaic needs.

The story begins with the “discovery” of Cape Cod by New England bluebloods in the late 1800s. It is Colt’s family history too, of Boston Brahmins with Puritan ethics who simplified life each summer by escaping to seaside “cottages” where they still lived well, with the help of “the help” supporting the various familial undertakings. It was a privileged lifestyle and Colt doesn’t dispute that or apologize. He is, in fact, as cognizant a reporter as one could ask for. Factor in that more recently his parents and siblings, as adults, undertook family therapy to identify some ghosts and patterns worth dealing with. Colt isn’t shy about acknowledging the legacy of elitism, its plusses and minuses. At times the book reminds one of the wealthy Mount Desert Island-enclave described by Jim Sterba in his book, Frankie’s Place: A Love Story (2003). There are the humorous anecdotes about the foibles of the rich and their downsized, more Spartan lifestyle adopted every New England summer. Whether it’s because of or despite the fact that Colt was born to the manor and Sterba married into it, Colt is more hard-eyed in his summation. The heartbreak and emotional havoc of alcoholism, depression, institutionalizations, divorce, business failures, and family disappointments are included as part of the story and not minimized or romanticized.

The impetus to write this book seems to have come from realizing that what once was – a summer place as defining and influential as anything else in the family sphere – was to be no more. In 1992, the family accepted defeat at its demands and decided to put it on the market. But before reaching that denouement, we are treated to many bright moments through time, including Colt’s own children becoming the fifth generation to discover and experience its magic. He describes their exciting encounters with muck-loving critters like crabs and meandering walks to the beach on overgrown trails. For Colt, some of his own most vivid memories are of tennis and sailing contests and games like Capture the Flag, and Sardines, “that form of hide-and-seek in which one person hides and each of the other players tries to find him – without letting anyone else know – and hide with him. The hiding place gradually fills, becoming as crowded as a tin of sardines, until only one person is left searching. Sardines requires a large house, the larger (and the more rambling and convoluted) the better. With its eaves, alcoves, crawl spaces and passageways, the Big House was an ideal site, and games at the Colts’ were legendary among Wings Neck children…”

The story begs the question: who could unsentimentally walk away from a place that rich with pleasures? The idea of abandoning the homestead is as wrenching to the reader as to the author. We suffer with Colt when terms like “handyman special” and “white elephant” describe the advertised property. The author is psychological enough about status to understand that today’s wealthy are like his own ancestors – egotistical with their monetary success, and their houses serve as testimony. Today’s McMansions are the result; hence the likelihood that places like the Big House will be bought, torn down and replaced by something considered “state of the art” and “top of the line.” Colt compares his last visits to the Big House as he positions buckets to catch drips from a leaking roof, to aristocratic Cubans now penniless, striving to continue on in their aging, once-grand mansions in Havana. Colt doesn’t regret the loss of grandeur as much as the loss of family experience there. Leaving from a last Big House family vacation, he laments, “So many lives have been lived here, so many feelings felt that I know nothing about. After all I had learned about the house, I still have so much to learn, and no time left to learn it.” With ensuing drama, the house lingers on the market, with some harrowing prospects for sales that could have altered or obliterated it completely. But with family support, a cousin and spouse purchase and restore it. Colt concludes, “Its first century had ended, but its second was only beginning. As the ebbing tide, at some indiscernible moment, begins to turn, the house, too, had reached an ebb, and was slowly filling up again.”

Tina Cohen writes from Deerfield, MA, and Vinalhaven.