Growing up, I was never really interested in taking photographs with Mickey Mouse or riding the Log Flume on the Wildwood boardwalk. For me, the word “vacation” was synonymous with the thrill of returning to explore a familiar rocky coast, the salty smell of the ocean that lingered in chilly morning air, and falling asleep to the soft, muted lullaby of a foghorn through an open window.
My father’s family has been vacationing in southern Maine since the late 1960s. For the entire month of July, my grandparents would rent an old house named "High Water" (Hi-Watah to the locals) on Ocean Point, an idyllic peninsular seaside community populated with turn of the century cottages. My father, along with his sisters and brother, would spend the month fishing, boating, and exploring the craggy beaches and Pine forests, while my grandparents would play host to an array of guests: second cousins and their lovers, neighbors, in-laws. Even as time went by and their children grew up and started families of their own, my grandparents held fast to their traditional summers in Maine. For better or for worse, my big (and often dysfunctional) family would voyage over ten hours worth of highway and cram into the old cottage.
It couldn’t have been more than a few months before she passed away that I found myself sitting in my grandmother’s living room drinking tea and having a conversation over the books we were reading. She had just begun To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf; she told me about a very brief passage in the book in which Woolf describes a summerhouse. She said the experience of reading the short sentences was one of those rare instances where she could not only relate to the text, but felt, almost eerily, involved.
Nearly three years later, I have stumbled upon the same passage, and finally understand the connection that the matriarch of my family must have felt with Mrs. Ramsay:
“She…saw the room, saw the chairs, thought them fearfully shabby. Their entrails, as Andrew said the other day, were all over the floor; but then what was the point, she asked, of buying good chairs to let them spoil up here all through the winter when the house, with only one old woman to see it, positively dripped with wet? Never mind, the rent was precisely twopence halfpenny; the children loved it; it did her husband good to be three thousand, or if she must be accurate, three hundred miles from his libraries and his lectures and his disciples; and there was room for visitors. Mats, camp beds, crazy ghosts of chairs and tables whose London life of service was done- they did well enough here; and a photograph or two, and books…Things got shabbier and got shabbier summer after summer. The mat was fading; the wall-paper was flapping. You couldn’t tell any more that those were roses on it.” (26-7).
For Mrs. Ramsay, her family’s seasonal seaside home lacks glamour; it does not age gracefully and is outfitted with retired pieces of furniture. “Shabby” as it is, with its faded walls and furniture in need of a good upholsterer, the house serves to unify the Ramsays. She believes the eight diverse Ramsay children love the home. It comforts her to see her husband away from the immediate and visible stresses of academia. The home itself is populated by memories- aged chairs and tables which have undoubtedly seen many of her happiest days. Mrs. Ramsay considers the Scotland house both a happy tomb for bygone days and a symbol for the closeness she wishes for her family in the future.
Our summer house, though we were only its lowly summer renters, unified, and continues to unify, my family. Though all twenty of us lead radically different lives, we share memories of creaky wooden floors, paper-thin walls, antique beds, mismatched consignment sofas, and dusty watercolors of torrid seas. No matter what change the winter months usher into our individual lives, the house stands as a concrete symbol for what it means to be related to one another. For us, as for Mrs. Ramsay, the house transcends its condition.
I have only been back to Maine once since my grandmother died, and it was only with my parents and my brother. We rented a different house. The whole time I couldn’t fight the haunting feeling that we were intruding upon another family’s memories.