The house that my great-grandfather’s grandfather built on the
island has sixteen bedrooms. Also built were a boathouse, a barn
for the two dray horses, and a stone pier able to withstand the
whims of tides. Not to mention the servants’ lodge.
It was railroad money. I’m told my great-grandfather’s
grandfather was a good man. It’s all relative to the times, though;
I’m sure people were injured who didn’t count as human yet. Still,
I came up grateful to him, to anyone who suffered to line his
pockets.Nobody’s made money since him. Everyone became a minister
or an artist, or married one. The original sin of the ancestor
took the burden off of those who followed. Some spent lifetimes
giving it away. No need to fight, to conquer, to hustle.
My own grandma’s the one who sold the house and moved
our camp to the other end of the island, where she had a smaller
house built—just a few bedrooms, but with a porch big
enough to gather anyone you could ever want to see at once. She
did it before I was born. I only understood this smaller house as
a loss as I got older, stopped tearing around, and learned to listen.
I tell Ken that I, for one, am still enjoying our diet of lentils and
fried flatbread. I keep my eyes away from his face, which I don’t
care to look at right now.
We don’t normally fight. We also don’t normally get such a
big opportunity. But I guarantee that if the situation were reversed,
he’d have turned down the contract, too. He thinks I’m
crazy for two reasons: the money, of course, the money, and
don’t I want to see the place? When I don’t budge, he starts to
get specific: You need at least three fillings and probably a root
canal and the van’s been making that rattling noise again, plus it
shakes whenever we turn left.
My way of fighting is to just keep quiet.
What he won’t say outright is that my pride is hurting our
family. Though he’d like to, and he wouldn’t be wrong. He must
see that each day he lets me get away with it, I sleep closer to the
edge of our bed.
I think about the walls over there in the big house.
The first year the house was built, all forty-two relatives who
summered there had their silhouettes painted on the walls of the
western sitting room. My family was one of strong profiles, of
top hats, of bonnets tied at the chin. I used to peer in at them,
sun-faded, through a cobwebbed window. I used to give them
names. I never asked any of the adults to show me who was who;
I sensed this was knowledge I should have been born with. We—
my brothers and I, my cousin—were the first generation to grow
up thinking of the little house as the house.
We stayed alert. We picked things up at the dinner table, or
through the thin bedroom walls as we lay pinned underneath
heavy quilts, damp with sea air. I listened from my seat of coiled
rope in the bow of the boat—the only free space after the adults
and the suitcases all got settled in for the ride over.
We called my grandpa Rev. After Grandma sold the big
house, and when the little one was being built, Rev and a hired
man dropped a little float in off the rocks on the western side,
which was all right as long as all you had was a flat-bottomed
skiff, and a capacity for laughing at disaster; the float was trouble
at low tide. My aunt was the only one of us who was never able
to laugh at three men pushing a grocery-loaded boat through
mud. She’s the one who knew the names to all those silhouettes;
she’s the one I would never ask. the other adults showed us the
importance of living in the present, at least by day—when they
started drinking, in the evenings, we learned of what we’d lost.