I’ve never thought of my great-grandfather’s old house in southern New Hampshire as a family estate, but over the years, in the most literal sense of the word, I suppose that is what it’s become. A successful Manhattan architect, he built the house a little over a century ago, in the upper reaches of the Connecticut River Valley, overlooking a mountain called Ascutney and the distant church steeples of Windsor, Vermont. It used to take him and his family at least seven hours to make the leisurely journey by train to New Haven and then up the Connecticut River, roughly twice as long as it takes the modern cavalcade of uncles, aunts, sisters-in-law, first cousins, first cousins once removed, nannies, dogs, and assorted errant guests to make the trip.
According to my own unofficial count, 65 people have access to this modest family estate, and if you show up on a summer weekend, any combination of them might be there, having traveled from places as distant as California, Washington State, and Peru. If you want a bed, you call ahead and ask for a room, of which there are nine, and where you end up is a matter of serendipity. You could find yourself in “the back,” where I always stayed as a child, with the rest of my cousins, in a warren of rooms above the kitchen. Or you might be in the North Room, so called because it faces north and gets little light, or, on very special birthday or anniversary occasions, in my great-grandfather’s master bedroom, with its beautiful etchings and paintings and views down the valley. Or you could find yourself curled up on the couch, as happened to my brother not long ago, on one of the big, crowded holiday weekends, with your knees tucked up under your nose.
It’s like being a member of a private museum and also a summer time share, only, unlike most summer time shares, there is no escape. Which is fine with me, of course. Last summer, my wife and I took the bold and unusual step of renting a house for two months all by ourselves. My family seemed to enjoy this novel experience, but after 44 years of communal summer living, I found it a little unsettling. There were no errant guests to greet, no energetic uncles barging into the room brandishing martini shakers and dusty bottles of gin. When we went to the local swimming hole from our new summer rental (the Atlantic Ocean, as it happened), we went in a quiet, decorous manner instead of in an unruly armada of cousins and baby-sitters and dogs. When it was time for dinner, we ate calmly in polite little bites instead of shouting bellicose jokes and grappling at the platters of food as they whizzed by.
So this year, the plan is to marry the best of both worlds. We’ll have a house of our own for a portion of the summer, and then, on two or three weekends, we’ll pack our station wagon with all the usual accoutrements (bathing suits, tennis rackets, baseball mitts, etc.) for the familiar drive north. We’ll arrive up in New Hampshire late at night, like we always do, and if it’s June, the air will be filled with the smell of white pine and lilacs. The next morning, at breakfast, we’ll reintroduce ourselves around to whoever has washed up from Boston or Peru, and then we’ll inspect the timeless old family estate, with its familiar forest-green shutters, its tattered, Proustian bathroom towels, its cracked volumes of Max Beerbohm in the library, circa 1922.
Later in the day, maybe, we’ll buy provisions for a raucous group dinner (ice cream and large pies are my usual contribution) and roll the old clay tennis court in a judicious, even sacred manner, even though no one seems to play the game anymore. Then, if the weather’s nice, we’ll sit out on the familiar old piazza in the evening with the rest of the extended family. Maybe I’ll pour a drink from a cheap bottle of bourbon that’s been sitting under the sink for a decade or so. Then, with my daughter on my lap, I’ll smell the wind and admire the familiar green summer views, like my father still does and his father and uncles and aunts all used to do, and their father before them. And I’ll think, like they did, how pleasant it is, for a few hours at least, to be back home.