Every Independence Day, after the beach salt is washed off, after the dash to the unreasonably chilled market, after the grilling and the wine, the most sentimental among us — usually my brother — reminds us that the fireworks are beginning soon, and that it is time for a family photo under our American flag. The dazzling flash through the crepuscular sky marks summer’s grand opening.
The cottage on Cape Cod was purchased in 1973 by my grandparents. Their stated hope was prosaic: that their youngest son — the only unmarried of their five children — would meet a nice girl in town, then bubbling with beachside dance halls and young Boston singles. They, too, wanted to be among the noise and life, choosing an East Falmouth cape over a quiet bungalow in leafier West Falmouth. From her favorite seat, my grandmother would watch the cars and motorcycles whiz by. “I like the movement,” she would say.
My uncle met his Brazilian wife nearly 30 years later, in Malta. But the house was for more than matchmaking: it would hold backyard cookouts and side -yard wiffle ball, late night whist and mid-morning cantaloupe, downstairs Mad Libs and upstairs ghost stories, absurd cousin plays and serious adult discussion. It would carry debates small and large: Dinner at the Landfall or Flying Bridge? Repaint or replace the windows? Universal or employer health care? An agreement even stronger — the Cape is magical — would, in its languid air, forge bonds among even politically and dietetically opposed cousins and uncles and aunts and new spouses and newer babies.
As I drove away this fall, the prematurely darkening sky against the house’s facade reminded me that, like the camera’s flash, the summer season, the autumn season, every season, is blinding, and then gone.
The house would also bear summers and moments more dramatic:
The summer of 1986, when my father — a physicist first educated in a two-room, upstate New York schoolhouse who loved Cape Cod like he had been born to it — had his first seizure in the upstairs bedroom. It was a brain tumor. He would not live to see another summer.
The summer of 1991, when my mother’s then-boyfriend sat next to me and my siblings on the front stoop and told us that he had asked my mother to marry him on Chapoquoit Beach. “I would love to be your second dad,” he said.
The summer of 1996, when my grandmother slept unusually late and well. “Never get old,” she said through the passenger window, laughing, waving. This would be her last Falmouth farewell.
Someday, the season may be over for us, too, and for the house. There will too many owners or not enough interest, or financing. The realtor will perceive a too-small kitchen and a bathroom desperately in need of a spa tub. She may not see in the worn floors or hear in the clap of the warped screen door the features embedded in our summer home, in every summer home: the happy arrivals and untimely departures, the repetition and the metamorphosis, the humor and fun that carries us and defies its own end. She may miss in all of this the relentless and oxymoronic American spirit: the drive to look forward, always, to doggedly advance change while building traditions and connections to defy it. She may not know why this is so important.
As I drove away this fall, the prematurely darkening sky against the house’s facade reminded me that, like the camera’s flash, the summer season, the autumn season, every season, is blinding, and then gone. But I turned up the heat against the earthy, chilling air and focused on the forward view—on fall’s new pencils and pumpkin coffee, tweed and leather, apples and spices, wooly dark nights. I am my grandmother’s daughter. I like the movement.