As the reds and yellows of fall begin to replace another summer, I am reminded of a piece which appeared in the Charlestown Patriot during the summer of 1983.
The story was influenced by the feelings that I hold for a small New Hampshire cottage that became part of my family’s life some forty years ago.
The old man’s rocker moved with rhythmic familiarity over the loosened, wooden boards of the small cottage’s porch floor. The resulting squeaks were the products of the years of his own doing, and because they had become a natural part of each summer evening’s ritual, he did not hear them.
From the porch he could sit and bathe in the beauty of his summer surroundings. For nearly sixty years of July and August evenings, he had breathed the country air from his very favorite place on earth. Each breath brought with it an inexplicable resurgence of love for life into his tired old body.
As the chair rocked back and forth in its quiet symphony of near musical sounds, he could recall parts of each summer past as though they were no older than the closest yesterday.
“Marco!” one would shout.
“Polo!” another would answer, and with that, each would dive beneath the lake’s cool surface.
His children had played that game during their first summer at the lake, and it was still played in the cool, shallow water by the children of those who came to the lake today. He did not fully understand the object of the game then, nor did he now.
From the porch he had seen his daughters move, all too quickly, from the innocence of childhood into the complex world of adulthood. It was here, he was certain, that his Maker had arranged a stage upon which each new act in his life could be played out in proper fashion. It was from this place that he would shape memories which would blanket four generations of his own family.
His grandchildren were the most recent stars in his lengthy scenario, but even they had reached the threshold of adulthood, and now their visits that had once stretched summer long had been shortened to infrequent Sunday afternoon stopovers. One, though, a grandson twelve years of age and full of life, remained a full time summer guest.
The old man had seen the boy come to his second daughter long after her other children had reached their teen years, and although she and her husband loved him dearly, they had long before adopted a lifestyle which rarely included their young son.
Because of this, the boy had come to spend his summers with his grandfather at the lakeside cottage, a matter of convenience for his parents, and a matter of joy for the old man. As the youngster truly shared his grandfather’s feelings for the summer retreat, the move was enthusiastically endorsed by all concerned.
The old man’s near sixty years at the cottage had taken him beyond his eightieth birthday, and he had come to treat each new July and August as though they may be his last. The boy’s presence over the past few years had added greatly to his seasonal pleasures.
The chair continued to rock as the old man reached even more deeply into the enormity of his memories. It had become a nightly ritual now, this rocking back and forth, and each rock turned another page of a book that had but one unhappy chapter.
His wife had loved the place as much as he did, and when that winter of fifteen years ago turned to spring leaving her behind, he thought that he would never again return to the lake. She had become part of its beauty, part of its allure, and without her, it would not be the same.
Soon, though, as the grass once again regained its green and new leaves leaped from barren branches, she came to him in a dream.
“I’ll be moving out to the cottage soon,” she told him, “and things will be pretty lonely out there without you.”
Knowing that she would be at the lake, he never again entertained thoughts of not being there.
“I love this place Grandpa, and I love you for letting me stay here with you.”
The boy had made it a habit to climb upon the old man’s lap while the journey through old memories was taking place. Now, as the youngster grew steadily toward his teen years and the old man grew even older, this habit began to create a sort of hurt, but it was a comfortable hurt, one that the old man happily endured.
“Same goes for me son, same goes for me.”
“Then why is my mother going to sell the cottage, Grandpa?”
The impact of the boy’s question slammed painfully against the old man’s heart. For a long time, he could not speak.
“She told Dad that you were getting too old to stay here alone and that she no longer had the time to spend her summers here looking after you. She said that she was offered a nice price, and that she would be foolish not to sell. They thought that I was sleeping when they were talking, Grandpa, but I wasn’t.”
The old man sat silently, the porch’s floor boards quieting as the rocking chair’s journey had been halted by the boy’s words.
“I’ll tell my mother that I will take care of you Grandpa.”
The old man’s thoughts began to race recklessly through his confused mind.
“I’m old,” he thought to himself, “but, dammit, I’m not too old to fry an egg in the morning or to make up my own bed. And I am still young enough to walk to the store each morning to pick up the newspaper.”
He looked to the boy. In spite of his youthfulness, he was the only one who truly understood the old man’s love for the cottage and the lake.
“We’ll talk about it tomorrow, son, when your mother comes by.”
Throughout the night, the old man’s eyes burned from the sting of his own tears and sleep escaped him.
The next evening, the years seeming to play more heavily upon the old man’s heart than ever before, he sat on his porch and rocked, his mind still racing in utter confusion. He knew that his daughter meant well, that she was sure that she was doing what was best for him, but, strangely, she did not seem to possess the wisdom of her twelve year old son. She simply did not understand. He had no words that could convey to her the beautiful message of his memories. His emotions could not easily be expressed, but surely they could be felt.
She was there now, explaining it all to him as the old man sat quietly on still and silent rocker.
“…….and so I have made arrangements to sell the cottage. I’ll go to the attorney’s office in the morning,” she concluded.
The old man’s chin rested on his chest, his eyes closed tightly to stop the tears. He did not know that the boy was there. He did not know that he was being watched.
A tiny drop built upon his eyelid and fell to the plaid blanket that draped his aged lap. He had not spoken since his daughter’s arrival. She came back to the porch now, prepared to leave.
“Ma?”, the boy asked.
“Yes?” She seemed surprised by his voice.
“When you get to be old like Grandpa……?” he hesitated, tears filling his youthful eyes, ”……..will I have to make you cry too?”
The daughter looked to the old man. For the first time she could see in his face the words that his lips were unable to speak. She had spent a lifetime of summers at the cottage without ever having understood its true meaning to him, her father. In that brief moment, while looking at his old, and now saddened face, she began to realize for the first time that the walls of this tiny cottage were filled with sixty years of memories, some bitter, most sweet. She realized, too, that she had helped to create many of those memories. To remove the cottage from his life now would be to take those treasured remembrances from him.
The last log on the fire flickered in its final flame as the daughter fed the legal papers into the red-orange glow.
The old man dried his eyes and smiled. Pressing his foot against porch’s loosened floorboards, he once again set the rocker in motion.
His journey would continue.