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Lost & Found: Jeanne McCulloch on George Howe Colt
Today’s Lost & Found from Jeanne McCulloch goes out to all ye land-lubbin’ city folk dreaming of sea breezes and porch swings on this fine Memorial Day. Here’s McCulloch on George Howe Colt’s The Big House, an elegy for one summer house’s end that also manages the feat of eliciting sympathy for those supposed “loafers in loafers,” New England’s WASPs.
When I was young, probably about eight or nine years old, I confused being “home sick” with the term “homesick.” This was around the same time that I was first being invited to spend the night at the houses of friends. At nearly every sleepover, my mother would send me off with her favorite admonishment in houseguest politesse—don’t use too many of their towels—and I was off. Yet deep into the night, it would hit me that the bed I was in was not my bed; the sliver of light through the window did not take on the familiar slant across the floor, and the very smell of the sheets, the almost spookily static sounds of someone else’s family sleeping in the dark, was so different than my own that a strange sensation would well up inside and I’d believe that I was sick and neede to go home. After my tearful phone call, my father would come to get me, coat thrown over his pajamas, cuffs hastily tucked into his galoshes, hair uncombed, and bring me home. We were silent, but for our quiet yawns, during the cab ride through the streets of Manhattan in the early Sunday morning before dawn. I believed homesickness was an ailment, for which the only cure was the comfort of my own bed. But perhaps really the cure was getting a little older, when leaving home was an adventure and “home” was—to borrow an Elvis Costello line—not where it used to be, but anywhere to hang your head—in other words, in the comfort you take with you; that emotional, psychological region we call—for lack of a better term—true homeland security.
George Howe Colt’s 2003 memoir, The Big House, has a subtitle A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home. In essence, it is one man’s account of a love affair with a house. It is also a multi-textured inquiry into the questions: How does a house become a home? And what, exactly, is a home?
Over the years, I’ve asked many people to tell me the first thing they imagine when they think of home. A man who grew up on army bases told me it was the image of a pie on the table, the pie being the only constant in a childhood on the road. For another it’s the smell of a linen closet, or a nursery song, or in one case the sound of a car siren screeching down Madison Avenue in the night. In Colt’s case, the home in question is an early-twentieth-century shingled “cottage,” so called because of the style of architecture, not the size, which in many cases was considerable—the Colt house being a sixtenn-bedroom example. Colt’s family home was built in 1902 on Buzzards Bay, in Cape Cod, by his ancestor Ned Atkinson; it became the one common gathering area for five generations of Atkinsons (the “Ats,” as they were known) and Colts—all of whose voices echo, like benevolent ghosts, through the pages of his book.
As Colt’s Aunt Ellen says of trifle, the family dessert, The Big House has many layers. On one layer, it is a history of the seaside summer home through the ages, long before the word “summer” was used as a verb. But The Big House is also, and primarily, a paean to the timeless ways of the WASP.
Colt, along with his wife, the writer Anne Fadiman, and two children, is spending a final summer in the house before it is sold. This is a world where houses have names (the “Big House” was originally the “Rooftree”); the rooms have names too: “Grandma’s Dressing Room” remains the room originally occupied by Grandma, even if she’s long dead. Volumes of leatherbound guest books are lovingly placed and replenished in the hallway throughout generations. In the milieu of the Brahmin WASp, Colt writes, the only thing more vulgar than talking about money is spending it, and tennis balls are recycled as often as names; both are believed to be in short supply (though one assumes balls are not replaces with the same WASP iconic flair—Dunlap Jr., Dunlap the Third, Uncle Dunny, Little Dun-Dun, etc.). Family tennis itself is less a game than a reenactment of politesse and revenge, better taken place over the slightly more courteous proceedings of the court than in the barbs subtly and obliquely exchanged—because WASPs are never overt—over many cocktails at sundown.
These things would be easy to parody, but, distinctively, The Big House is a brave celebration of family. I want to say brave, because, speaking as one myself, it’s hard not to sound clichéd and satirical about that particular brand of American, the Northeast WASP. Though as a breed they’ve had their day in the literary sun, at the hands of such masters as John Cheever and Robert Lowell (who famously coined the term “Mayflower screwballs” in one of his poems), their struggles often appear as those of loafers in loafers, a repressed gang of lock-jawed yacht-clubbers with drinking problems and names like Buffy. It is hard to do what Volt does, which is to somehow speak of people like Aunt Buffy (yes, he has one) without irony, and to give an honest, respectful portrayal of their struggles with issues of health and wealth, and in so doing imbue the house, or, more accurately, the “home,” –that basic yet elusive concept—with its double-edged reality: it is both an anchor and a constriction, which, as Colt perceives it, ties us to the past, but also ties us down.
Having loved and lost a family seaside home myself, I was relieved—as I hope Colt was—that for reasons of economics it was impossible for his family to hang onto their beloved house. In the long run, the resonance is in something Colt’s mother told him: “It isn’t how much money you have, it’s how much love you have.” It’s the love that is the home, not the house.
When I first came upon The Big House, I remember underlining one passage: “How long does it take to say good-bye to a room?” On the surface, it’s a strange question, but when the house is the family home, the answer is that, ideally, one never has to. “I have always thought of it as home,” Colt writes, “if home is the one place that will be in your bones forever.” It is in his good-bye to the house that the true beauty of his prose becomes almost buoyant. The house, like an old family member, is laid to rest in an elegiac passage about the wind:
When the wind races up Buzzards Bay, as it does almost every afternoon, it plays the Big House like a flute…By now the house is so worn that even the gentlest breeze can produce a sigh… ‘Oh, if only these walls could talk,’ guests in the Big House often say. I’ve always felt the walls do talk, and the sound they make is sometimes a wail, sometimes a sigh, and sometimes a joyous hullabaloo. The wind seems to come not from outside but from inside. To me it’s the house’s song, a blend of the voices of all the people who have lived here over the last hundred years. Now that we are selling the house, the voices sound more urgent than ever, trying to make themselves heard. And as I lie here, Anne sleeping beside me, Susannah in Grandma’s Dressing Room, Henry in the Little Nursery, I wonder: When the house is sold, what will happen to the wind?
In my garden in New York City, there is a forty-year-old tortoise who has lived there much longer than the recent residents. In the winter, she (we have not idea who decided she was a she, mess less who named her Sister Martha) hibernates somewhere underground. In the spring she reappears, miraculously, it seems to us, to soak up the sun until Thanksgiving, when she quietly disappears again. Sister Martha has always seemed to me a testimony of the value of learning to carry your home with you—in her case on her back, for us ideally in our heads, or as Colt would have it, in our bones. But golden summers, like golden families, often shine most brightly in our memories—or, in the case of The Big House, in a fine, elegiac memoir—of the place we all long to return to, if only in concept, and if only because, in concept, they have to take us in.
Jeannie McCulloch was a senior editor at Tin House and founding editorial director of Tin House Books, from 1998 to 2006. Her work has appeared in the The Paris Review, Vogue, O magazine, the New York TimesBook Review, and Tin House, among other publications.