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Essays
Volume 40 Issue 6 • June 10-16, 2010
now in our 40th season

Summer House

by Robert P.Barsanti

They came down to open the house for another year.  They came to summon the ghosts.

At its best it was a cute house.  It had been a chicken coop or a bunkhouse in its first creation in 1905.  There was a fireplace and a great square room that must have been lined with bunk beds.  On a rainy day when you were stuck inside, you could just about see the ghosts of the men in their undershirts sitting at a stove playing cards.  Since then, it had been cobbled with a kitchen and bathroom, and extra set of bedrooms and one long, glassed in porch.

Now, in June, the azalea and the forsythia surged over the walk.  The hedge hadn’t been pruned since the old man had fallen off the ladder ten years ago.  The roses had taken over the south wall, the picnic table was buried inside a blackberry bush and a thick layer of pale green moss grew on the roof.

It needed work.  Not the weekend work done with a beer in one hand and the Sox on the radio.  It needed the sort of work that brought TV crews, cranes, and porta-johns.  When they pulled up in front of it on Friday night, they saw how the roof had bowed a little bit more over the winter.  He sighed.

They should have sold it.

They knew they were too late.  They should have sold when the Sylvia’s sold.  Really, they should have sold when the Burkett’s sold their little cottage for all that money.  His mother told that story one morning in July about the Car Rental guy who offered her one and a half million for her little place.  Afterwards, they had talked.  He said he would talk to his mother.  And he had, but she didn’t sell.

And now she was gone.  And they still had the house.

All around them, the small cottages had been uprooted and tossed aside like so many old toys.  Ghostless, new houses, with decks, balconies, and French doors had taken their places.  Their trim gleamed, their shingles were still yellow, and the landscaping was meticulous.  They shone like new wives.

Inside, this house still smelled of mothballs, coffee, and mildew.  While they had buried her two years before, she walked the house still.  Her mugs lined the shelves, her baskets hung from the rafters, her seashell owls were perched on the mantel.  The walls held her seascapes and her still lifes.  They sat in her chairs, ate off her plates, and slept in her bed.

And not just his mother’s.  His grandmother’s plates were stacked in the open, doorless shelves.  She had painted all of the kitchen chairs with the lighthouses of the island.  His grandfather’s tools were in a bucket under the stairs.  He had spent the last ten years of his life compiling all of his slides and photographs in yellow Kodak boxes that were, still, piled up under the master bed.  He had built the steps, installed the plumbing, wired the bedrooms, and had completed any building project not paid for.

When the family was young, they had all come down to the grandma and grandpa’s house for that week in August.  The hot water worked, the electricity was on, and his mother cooked something fresh and new every night.  The old folks did all of the work themselves and, when they were gone, their secrets went with them.  Their children didn’t know how to light the oven in the spring, or how to drain the pipes in the fall.  In the first spring after, they couldn’t start the TV, start a fire, or clear out the septic.

You couldn’t sit in that room and not feel them all there.  They sit with coffee in their hand and a plate of coffee cake on their knees: pleasant, smiling, and judgemental.  It was time to sell.
And yet.

The boys’ lacrosse sticks were propped in the corner, with a green and brown stained ball still nestled in the pocket.  Their CD player remained one summer after their Ipods had taken over.  Its speakers were nestled among the whalebones and the shells on the back wall.  Three high school summers of surfing had pasted stickers onto the back of doors and left a longboard in the shed.
Her boys, now married and gone, left Lego pieces wedged deep under their beds and matchbox cars hidden under the bureaus.  In one of the heating ducts, she had found a long lost pacifier from forgotten days.  The furniture, the walls, and the door jams bore the scars of young men bouncing around.

Their bikes were under the porch.  When they were young, they would race each other down Cliff Road to get the Sunday New York Times at the Hub.  On gray afternoons, she would lead them all on a trip to the Rebimbases for penny candy and The Seven Seas for toys and Do You Know? books.  The orange pen was still in her pen jar.  Later, they biked to work in town and out to the beaches.  Not that any children biked on their own any more..

She had made her own marks.  Her photographs hung in the bedroom and in main room, along with the old oil paintings.  She carpeted the bedrooms and repainted the kitchen, the bathrooms, and the master bedroom. The kitchen counters were lined with her scallop shells and whelks.  When the boys were four, they had spent two weeks coming the beaches for Nautilus shells.  If she were to die tomorrow, her boys would spend the next twenty years finding old containers of sunscreen, bug spray, and Skin So Soft in the bottom of the closets.

They got the water flowing, the heater fired up, the refrigerator cleaned, and the cable on.  They vacuumed and pruned, dusted and mowed and in the cool June night, they lay on the old, bowed, king sized mattress and looked up at the ancient watermarks.

The boys would be out in a month.  They would leave their careers and bring their bright, strong women who looked her in the eye.  Sometime soon, there would be a wedding or two.  Then there would be grandchildren and it would continue.

It was a rubbish heap.  Each generation leaves its own garbage on top and hands it off to their children. Awed by ghosts and memories, the children won’t move it an inch.

It was, all in all, a great thing to leave.

 

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