It Isn’t “the There”

There are not many left. Certainly, not many left on an acre of oceanfront in Squam.

It isn’t much. It had been a shack for fishermen to spend the weekend, then it became something you could bring the wife and kids to, then it became a place for the grandchildren to visit until it finally became a gift of time.

It remains as it was left. A Pollywog swimming ribbon had fallen behind the refrigerator; a strip of yellow poked out from the side. A glass martini pitcher (with levels) remained on a top shelf, out of the range of little hands. Jacqueline Suzanne, Erica Jong, and Tom Clancy swelled and warped on the shelves next to a stack of quahog shells, a cribbage board missing a peg, and a stack of Civil War themed jigsaw puzzles. Ten small and crude oil paintings dotted the walls of all of the rooms; each of them a different view from the house. Six fishing rods were lined up like pool cues against the far wall, strung with spider web.

It had not been a home; it had been the summer place. Poppy and Gram had lived there, with all of the weight a word like “live” can mean. Their sad mysteries were revealed to be commonplace and the commonplace became sad mysteries. Today, everyone knew why Poppy woke up coughing in the night and no one knew why there was a set of silver “fish knives” for twenty. Each had a bedroom. They filled their medicine cabinets, liquor shelves, and check registers with secrets. Their marriage was a foreign country, marked by inscrutable customs and common practice.

It had not been a home because they only stayed in August. They had talked of winterizing the place almost as often as they had talked of selling it. They had uses for the money it would bring, but they never called the realtor. Even when the new people came from across the street with a ridiculous offer, an offer that was written on a yellow post-it that they stuck to a cabinet. It remained a punch-line for years, until the new couple, divorced, sold their house, and a more remarkable number appeared in the paper.

They thought of winterizing it in October, when the frost was starting to form back home, but the weather forecast called for seventies and sun on the island. In the depths of winter, when the snow had hardened into dental cement, she pointed out the wind speed on Nantucket was a steady fifty knots out of the east. “Aren’t you glad you don’t have to look into the teeth of that?” she said. He wasn’t so sure about that. Then they went to visit grandchildren and old friends and puttered about in their mainland home.

That home had been expanded and modified. That home had welcomed children and then suffered their effect. That home stood in the background of the back to school pictures and the Christmas card. That home had seen birthday parties, New Year’s parties, after prom parties, graduation parties, engagement parties, grandchildren birthday parties, and, finally, after funeral collations. That home was the supporting actor in the home movies and photo albums. They lived in that home.

I would like to think that a home isn’t where your body lives but where your mind wanders. Everyone lives in many different places. I have lived in apartments, homes, and dorms. But in my mind, I wander off to the same spot off of the coast of Massachusetts and I hear the waves in the deep heart’s core.

I have stood on that rear deck on an August evening and watched the sky grow gold, then purple over a the slow and steady breath of the sea. In cool and clear air, the stars assembled in their places and began to wheel about; Orion would cast an arm and then a leg over the horizon. In the glittering dark, the Perseid shower streaked through the Nantucket night. Then a moon rose out of the ocean and midnight is all a-glimmer. It would be a fine home to move back to after a bleak urban day of memoranda and millstones.

On one August evening, the two of them sat in their yellow director’s chairs and drank Tanqueray and Tonics. Their caretaker (me) grilled striper on a forty year old, rusted Hibachi grill and steamed Moor’s End corn inside on the stove. They enjoyed my company as if I was a friendly, but stray dog. I could not understand their words entirely and I had little to add, but they enjoyed my company anyway.

When they left in September, I drained the pipes and fastened the shutters on the windows. In the gray hurl of a January afternoon, I would come by to insure that the ocean had not yet reached out and claimed it. Now, in the age of phones, I sent them pictures of the heaviest brown surf from their porch.

They were gone now. I did not wish them back with me. I don’t like to consider myself that selfish. Their children would be here soon enough and the house would again be full with sand, stains, and scuff marks. But it wasn’t a home. A home, the poet said, is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. As always with poets, it isn’t what he says, but what he doesn’t say. A home, in other words, isn’t the building or the location so much as it is the people. It isn’t the “there,” it’s the “they.”

Every marriage creates a new nation in a familiar country. The land we are well versed with with and the seasons are predictable, but we cannot know those inhabitants, no matter how similar and comfortable. To outsiders, the rules and customs may seem at best quaint and at worst, savage. You shake your head as you walk away from their snug home.