Can a Summer House Be a Home?

Driving over the Bourne Bridge on our trips to my parents’ place, it’s tradition for me to cue up the Patti Page classic, “Old Cape Cod,” much to the delight of my daughter and wife, who chuckle to Patti’s over-enunciation and almost Canadian pronunciation of “kih-ape kee-odd,” as well as my Weird Al-inspired variations on the lyrics. To my son, now almost seven, however, this is straight-up torture, and he finds no humor in it whatsoever. Indeed, it has brought him close to tears as I blast that jam approaching the Bourne Rotary.

It’s only about 15 more minutes to my parents’ place, which is in a neighborhood called Ballymeade off of Route 151 between Pocasset, West Falmouth, and Mashpee. They built a big, shingle-style house here in 2000, envisioning a good number of our large family staying together for vacations. At times, there are holiday gatherings, and the kids play bocce with their cousins. But it’s rare when a few immediate families stay overnight at the same time.

Yes, we’re extremely fortunate, and I love coming here and visiting my parents. But at first, it didn’t fit with that summer house fantasy I have — that we all have. Make no mistake; I’m not complaining. But when my parents were tossing around ideas of where to settle on a place to live for the summer (they retired to Florida), and they mentioned Martha’s Vineyard and the Cape, I pictured the sort of house that is the heart of the book I’m currently enjoying, George Howe Colt’s The Big House. It’s about generations of a family of old-money Boston Brahmins gathering over the course of a century in a rambling old shingle style house on Wing’s Neck, in Pocasset/Bourne.

At one point, Colt pauses to reflect back on a book he read as a child, called The Big World and the Little House. “‘Home’ is a way that people feel about a house,'” Colt quotes from the children’s book. He continues:

Looking back, I can see that my interest in the book owed much to my own feelings of home. By the time I turned 12, we had moved four times, following my father’s job promotions, and never had lived in a winter house long enough to feel we truly belonged there. Summer houses are the emotional center of many Boston WASP families, and in the unstable Colt geography this was doubly true. We felt about the Big House the way the family in the book felt about the little house: it was the one place that always seems familiar when we returned.

I grew up on the North Shore of Long Island, where some of the summer places were Gatsby-esque mansions from the Gilded Era. While I have never aspired to the true WASP experience, who doesn’t fall for this sort fantasy? Alas, it is hard to sustain such a tradition in today’s day and age. Though I am not finished with The Big House, it starts and finishes with the reality that the old place is about to be sold out of the family.

Driving back from the beach in West Falmouth today, I mused aloud, “wouldn’t it be nice to have a house down here near the beach, on the water?” My eminently practical 12-year-old daughter countered, “But why? We don’t need one. We have Mimi and Pa’s house to come to.”

It seems we have our own Big House after all.