My husband was raised in Saudi Arabia, and I am a product of the great Northwest. We met in college in Connecticut. But by the time we settled into the Philadelphia duplex on a busy Roslindale street that was our home together, we were in no way New Englanders. I dragged him to church that Sunday in mid August. The attendance that morning was sparse for a bright bride with a shiningly obvious and unscratched ring on her left finger. At some point during the coffee hours that followed, I learned that maybe thirty years ago the church had shut down for the summer. Then they started doing a round-robin with other community churches. Vestigial remnants of this arrangement still remain, as we swap combine with our UCC brethren once a year.
I was boggled. The attendance of Mineral Presbyterian Church was practically unwavering, unless the roads were tricky. But this much larger church just plain shut down over the summer, as though it was a school? That was a head-scratcher for me, filed away with other cultural oddities like why everyone seems to like Italian desserts (ugh!) and how any reasonable human being could prefer Dunkin’ Donuts to Starbucks.
Fast forward a decade and change, and here I am, on a sacred Sunday morning, not in church. In an extremely unusual move for my family, I’m going to fail to be at my home church for four consecutive weekends (I did attend worship at my brother’s church, so please don’t start the paperwork to excommunicate me.) And now I understand.
You can tell your New England friends of a particular vintage by whether or not they have – or had – a summer house. During the post war boom, as far as I can tell, most of the middle class of New England had enough spare cash to engage in a universally sought after accomplishment – the summer cottage. (Please note: I have done no research on this other than my own observations.) For a few months salary, an aspiring worker could get a place to spend weekends with his family. The richer folks had high-gabled houses on Cape Code. Medium income folks chose short houses – deceptively bigger on the inside than the outside – on other stretches of water, or Lake Winnepasaukee. Lowest on the totem pole were remoter houses, blocks away from any lakefront.
I have a few friends of sufficient age to have bought their summer cottage themselves. Most of my friends with summer homes, though, are of modest means themselves and inherited the houses – or are part of large families with shared ownership. One of the true old New Englanders I know is bitter because one side of the family (his mom’s) sold their summer family home, which he preferred to his dad’s side of the family.
In that quintessential youth of America, the children of New England were taken to the water to tiny cottages by their parents. Perhaps their father left them there with there mother all summer, returning on weekends once freed from work. The cities and towns of New England were depopulated during the hot months of summer.
As I have come to make friends with Old New Englanders, I’ve personally met more than a handful of these cottages. I am right now writing from West Island, just off the mainland from Buzzards Bay. It’s my third summer weekend here, and my third cottage. (Long story – we come with good friend.) I’ve seen the classic small cape house, decorated with field stone, natural wood and a nautical theme. (Have you ever wondered at the preponderance of sailboat themed decorations? It’s because an entire region has a second home decorated in nothing else!) The kitchens bear a striking resemblance to a ship’s galley in size and compact storage. The two lake houses I’ve seen have been grander, and both are now occupied near full time. I’ve visited a lovely little cabin on York Beach in Maine. Friends I know travel all the way to Nova Scotia for their lake house.
The economy of these houses has greatly changed in the last twenty years. The boom of the middle class second house ended abruptly in the 80s when real estate prices soared. They have not returned. Those still in possession of ancestral cape houses use them differently. No longer do they leave for the summer. Instead, the extended family may carefully parcel out the schedule of summer weekends in return for maintenance costs. Unclaimed weekends are sold to outsiders like me at a cost per day that exceeds New York hotel rooms. Often, they are only let in blocks of a week so that the houses do not stand vacant. Come Columbus Day, or earlier, the hurricane shutters are drawn and the linens are stored and the house stands cold and silent through the long New England winter – snow falling unseen from overlooking windows into the choppy gray waters.
To bring it back full circle, of course, this is why there was no service in my church during the summers. Literally everyone in the mildly affluent community was gone – to summer houses, beach houses, capes, lake houses, summer camps. There was no one left in the steepled town to worship.