The House Last Summer

This summer, the last summer I could spend at the house where my grandmother had lived in Massachusetts, I knew that I was moving soon to San Francisco, where maybe the mist would be similar but the water couldn’t be the same. I tried to remember everything that had been in Beverly because I knew that I was moving to build something all mine. I thought it might be something like a future and that I would want some company from the past.

Time at the house has been part past, part present, part future for some time now, at least since Nonna died. There is history in the house itself, which my grandfather rolled on logs from the woods to its position on a rocky point, and there is history on the bookshelves, in Nonna’s scrapbooks and signed first editions, and there is history in the floorboards, which creak with the weight of people who have visited and stayed but don’t live there anymore. The sea off the point is so changing that it demands your presence just to watch. And after swims in that water, we sit around the pockmarked wooden table where my grandfather wrote his thesis and spin out plans for the future.  

This summer, I paid attention to the living room, which is the heart and lungs of the house. I tried to memorize its lines and its objects and its space. Its two walls are mostly windows, floor to ceiling panes that cross over the blue of the sea right outside. What little there remains of actual walls radiates warm gray, the color of the sea on a cloudy day.

In the evening, after her bath, Nonna would close the heavy canvas drapes across those windows – to keep out the bad guys, she’d say – and in the morning, in her nightgown, she would pad across the worn wooden floor to open them. The sea and sky filled so much of the frame, and the sun’s radiation around 7 am was so golden, that it was easy to believe that each day really was a new day, something moving and open for me to hop into.

The low pegged walnut coffee table in the living room used to be covered with small Venetian glass ashtrays and Japanese lacquer coasters, a purse-sized sterling silver perfume vial, and a few engraved cigarette lighters whose fluid had long ago been lit. It was the neatly arranged detritus of interesting friends and late night conversations. On Sundays, we would cover that table with sections of the newspaper, until Nonna had finished the crossword; on Christmas, we would litter it with wrapping paper, blue and green Venini glasses of eggnog, and platters of cheese and crackers and taramasalata, which Nonna would eat with gusto even if some stayed on her upper lip for a few minutes before anyone told her.

There used to be a small wooden sailor’s trunk in the living room, too, a middle eastern spice chest with sharp corners, covered in sharp brass shapes. Everyone walked into it by accident, and that’s how we learned that the grownups cursed. Ellie and I used to build Lego there, count shells and seaglass there, leave piles of books there after Christmas when we’d read in the sun on the blue and white striped couch. The oriental carpet underneath was worn but its colors matched the blue and red silk pillows on the white canvas sofas.

Behind the fireplace, the walls are pickled wood, their color like a picnic table left out to weather. A sign still hangs above the grate in Nonna’s spidery handwriting, which looks to me like school in Venice, like War and Peace, like carefully balanced checkbooks. FLUE IS CLOSED. Open it before lighting.

Next to the fireplace, one wall behind the bookshelf is painted a red that matches the faded sofa cushions. It holds books that came home from Houghton Mifflin with my great-grandmother, an editor – Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy, a Julia Child first edition, a memoir called Mrs. Marco Polo with an enclosed typewritten letter from the author. We rearranged the shelves a bit after Nonna died and we sold some things. A bust of the my great-grandfather, a poet, watches over a clear hexagonal Venetian glass with a red rim, a conch shell that used to be in the kitchen, and the sense that we have tried to reincarnate this house as it used to be for the few more months that we have it.

On my last night in Beverly this summer, my brother and I walk to the beach to light a fire. I pass through the empty living room. So much is gone already, but there had been so much there to begin with that when I pass through the room I feel its warmth – the sun through sailcloth curtains, the evenings by the fireplace, the library full of Europe and art and the sea. I feel the weight of its loss double.

We walk across the cool grass of the lawn, avoiding the edges of the gravel driveway, and I’m not trying to remember more, but all of a sudden everything is there: every time my sister and I went to the rocks in the morning or twirled on the grass with our neighbors at dusk, every newspaper Dad bought and episode of Jeopardy that Nonna watched in the study with a sweating glass of Scotch; every time we arrived at night to the breeze or I Ieft for Gloucester in the morning to stillness; how we all read here, played cards here, swam here, relished in the breeze and rocks and sunsets; how many identical pictures we took of the sunset from the kitchen.

I want to remember everything right there so I won’t lose it when I can’t come back next summer, and so I go to write it down. One memory unlocks another, then, and I realize that the memories are infinite, that I can leave them tonight and find them for sustenance later.