We stayed up talking until one in the morning; three generations spread out across three houses. My mother and my children were asleep in one house. My husband was watching TV with my cousin Annemarie and her husband Norm in another. Inside the cottage five children slept and Isabel packed lunches to bring to the beach the next day.
I sat on the deck of the cottage with my father, my uncle Jimmy, my cousin Paul and his wife Stacia. The citronella candles did a poor job of discouraging the mosquitoes. The wine was gone. My father, the oldest family member, was telling a story about the first cottage, the one that burned down. We were just five people sitting in the dark that night, but we represented something enormous to me.
Just as the stars are more visible in the sky at the Cape than they are at home, my place in the Universe is more obvious when I am there. At home, I am just me: imperfect, sometimes happy, sometimes sad. At the Cape, I am part of something big; something that can’t be broken. At the Cape, I am part of a large family. We are fun. We are kind. We are together.
I am one of twenty-five cousins who spent summers in that cottage. Every year our parents divided the summer into eight two-week intervals and each family took a vacation. Often two families would overlap and cram nine kids and four adults into the tiny, two bedroom house.
Those two weeks always felt like two months. We would pack up our station wagons and drive an hour and a half door-to-door but it always felt like we were entering a whole different world.
There was no telephone at the cottage. If we needed to make a call, we used the pay phone at the Carleton Circle Motel three quarters of a mile down the road. We had no dishwasher and no washing machine. The midway point of most vacations was usually marked by a visit to the laundromat, conveniently located next to the Dairy Queen.
Each family played out its own private story during their two weeks. Maybe someone yelled too loud or drank too much. But if there were any problems, they were self-contained within each two week vacation. We didn’t share them in the group.
What we talked and laughed about were the common rituals that wove our lives together. None of the cousins were allowed to bathe at the cottage. The pipes were unreliable so showers were reserved for adults only. Children washed in the lake with a bar of Ivory soap. There was a television, a 10 inch black and white, but it only received three channels. The summer I turned six it rained almost every day of our vacation. We watched the Watergate Hearings all week.
On nice days we played in the lot next door. The chimney from the original cottage was still standing so we turned it into a fort. And there was the crib. The youngest child in every family slept in that crib until they were five, sometimes six years old, because there was no other place to lie down.
In recent years Jimmy had knocked down the chimney and built on the lot to the left of the cottage. My parents had built a house to the right. And several of my uncles and aunts had graduated to beautiful oceanfront property across town. Now as adults, my cousins and I brought our children to the Cape every weekend. There were almost enough beds for all of us. Two weeks no longer felt like two months. Instead the few precious weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day always went too fast. If there were any bad memories they had been erased; we only recalled the benign things like the wild parties at the house by the beach and the woman across the street who called the cops if we played kick-the-can after eight o’clock at night.
On the Cape, I can feel my grandparents’ presence. Our parents tell us Nana wanted the summer cottage to be a place where her family would get together. Many times when I am sitting on that deck I whisper silently to her and thank her for creating this world for us. And I thank my generation for adding the deck. To me the deck is more than extra living space for a cramped house. Nana and Grandpa built the house. Our parents, aunts and uncles kept the house. And it was the cousins who extended and improved the house. It was our generation that made the house more functional, that started a new tradition and erected a new gathering spot. To me the deck represents hope that our family will stay together. As our parents age and someday die, as our children grow and our lives evolve, we will return to the Cape each summer to be together. We will step into the roles vacated by our parents and we will be okay.
Off the Cape we come from eight related but separate families. We experience birth, love, success, cancer, addiction, divorce and death. On the Cape, we are a group; and we create something powerful and unconditional. We don’t speak of problems because we don’t make any room for them. We don’t want, because whatever we might lack can be found in the group. We don’t hurt, because we are together. Love, laughter (and food) are the only currencies in which we deal.
I was aware that night on the deck that something special was happening.
“This is a moment,” I said when my father stopped to take a breath. “We are having a moment.”
Stacia, always positive, smiled and nodded in agreement. My father, my uncle and Paul said nothing. Like most families, ours has an unwritten code of conduct. We will be kind and loving and we will be together. But we will not mention it. A few minutes after I spoke, the group broke up and everyone went to bed, a subtle reminder of the rules.