Whale’s Way
Nantucket Essays

Gifts We Give, Gifts We Leave Behind

by Robert P. Barsanti

Changeover day lurks in the middle of the summer. One set of guests leaves and their presence must be eliminated before the next set of guests arrives. Sometimes they leave ghosts behind.

We were asked to help clean a brand new house in Tom Nevers after a week’s rental. A crew of landscapers had come by, fluffed up the hydrangeas and the roses, then buzzed the incandescent grass into a military haircut. The pool people came out, ran a robot over the bottom of the pool, scooped out whatever was floating, then hosed down the deck.

Our job was inside. Inside, the warm, ammoniac odor of dying seafood oozed out of the walls. In the white master bedroom, amid the throw pillows, sham, covers, 300 count cotton sheets, the guests had eaten and left two lobsters, drank a bottle and a half of champagne, and splashed the flutes against the glass frame on a Sankaty Light print. Then they left the windows closed and the air conditioning off.

I took the required pictures.

Then I started to clean. The visitors haunted the house, spotting the sofa, grinding the sand into the floor, and infecting the air. The rotting lobster rose up into the rafters and circulated with the fans. We consulted with witches and priests, then boiled a pot of lemon water and left a bowl of vinegar out. Exorcism on a stove.

You never know why people do what they do. In this case, I assume there is a TikTok or a YouTube video that shows the couple celebrating with the sharp and horny shell of a maritime bug. To the Crustacean Lovers, the house is a hotel room, no more. Five figures of rent gives them rights and privileges to stain, soil, and haunt.

While we are on this side of the waves, we need to decide whether we will be ghosts or ancestors. A ghost rattles alone, scares some folks, and calls out a lonely “Boo.” An ancestor stands with the others, above the shadows, with a hand on the shoulder of the living.

When we build houses as investment vehicles and asset instruments, we create little anonymous boxes with Sub Zero refrigerators and Samsung wide screen TVs. The house of the Dead Lobster has the spiritual gifts of ten shares of Exxon stock. You only get rent, tenants, and their ghosts, infused with anger, greed, and spite. The only privilege it offers is financial, not spiritual. No matter how much the building is worth or how much it earns, it creates no generational wealth.

Generational wealth requires time, people, and clutter. You pass down the photos, the boogie boards, and the fishing rods, the old shoes, the blankets, and the towels. Then, covered in sun, sand, and salt you take a picture and line it up with all of the others and hang it in a guest bedroom. You have to follow the “Whale’s Way.”

The “Whales Way” is a cottage on Brant Point that has budded into two more rooms on the bottom floor and a second floor of bedrooms. Nobody had “changedover” in this house. Nobody had rented this house; year to year, decade to decade, generation to generation, it opened its door to familiar visitors. This summer, the second generation was welcoming the third and fourth generation into the mildew, sand, and cobwebs that created a Nantucket summer.

We do minimal work here. The water needed to be turned on. Then, the house needed a walk through. Mice shifted and hesitated, dropping their commas. Fellow trespassers, the mice knew when to make themselves scarce.

The house was a thing of trophies. Along the beams in the main room, twelve fishing rods collected spider webs and stories. Several fish had been mounted onto the wall, but the pictures did the fisherman more justice. A series of middle aged men, in different clothing, held up striped bass, albacore, and tuna. In all of the rest of the pictures, squads of children climbed on dunes, splashed in the water, or tumbled into south shore waves. Upstairs, in places of pride, Great Gramma Emily had painted a series of watercolors of Nantucket scenes. Years of creeping through the house like a gypsy in the palace had taught me that there were ten thousand other watercolors wedged into a cardboard box in a cabinet in the garage.

Everyone who had come to the house had left something: books, t-shirts, flip-flops, and quahog shells. The clutter from the ancestors built a castle for the living.

At this point, as the next generation took over the maintenance of the property, the gifts pushed at the seams. The books in the living room bookcase had swollen with mildew so that they couldn’t be removed without removing a shelf. The towels and blankets had, at one point, the names of the children embroidered on them. Then, after the appropriate interval, new initials were embroidered onto new towels. But the divorced and the dumped kept their towels in the closet, as did the dead.

Should the house ever be sold, it would be knocked down just after the check cleared. As an investment vehicle, it had little worth. The floor boards sloped to the ocean, the doors wouldn’t shut in summer, and blooms of mildew appeared every July in the peaks. Gramma, on her last visit, swore that the spiderwebs kept it up. Her ancestral self resided amid the paintbrushes, the rag rugs, and the highball glasses. Right now, as I cleaned up mouse turds, she was curious what I was still doing in the house. I nodded to Gramma Betty, left a handle of Seagram’s on the counter and a pint of half-and-half in the fridge, then backed out of the house.

“Whale’s Way” seated the ancestors in its musty ceiling. They brought the children, they brought the books, they brought the fishing rods then left them for the future. They showed a path forward, locked into the Brant Point sand. To own “Whale’s Way” took privilege, but to keep it conferred privilege. There are the gifts we are given, then there are the gifts we leave behind. To the new masters of Whale’s Way, their ancestors have left behind a path forward, littered as it might be with books, fishing lures, and sand. You were never just a guest: you were among the fishermen, the painters, and the beach bums.

My vagrant gypsy life has had too many changeovers and too few ancestors. I have spent many years emptying the trash, cleaning the toilets, and moving on. In a world that spins madly, fast feet and a light heart have been my best gifts. Yet, in all of that speed, I cast a warm eye on the one spot that remains fixed. In a world where everything changes, the constant remind us who we were and who we could have been.

Articles by Date from 2012