Anchored by the solid rock behind us, we stand together in the black-and-white photograph taken outside the Dolliver’s Neck house. We look content, handsome and full of promise on the eve of my aunt Annie’s wedding in 1979. Everyone’s youth on that chilly August afternoon startles me as I clean the picture glass at home in California. I was 13 and my parents were 40 and 41. Now four of the 19 people in the photograph are dead—my grandparents and their two namesakes, my father and my aunt. Twenty-five children have been born. If Dolliver’s Neck is sold, the center will soften, loosening us. Where will we go to mark time and to see the dead?
Since the photo was taken, my generation has mostly scattered to places hours from Gloucester, Mass. by plane or car. Gone are the years of lavish Christmas parties attended by 50 family members. My children see their grandparents and first cousins once or twice a year, but will probably never know the tangle of great-aunts and second cousins I took for granted as a child. I wish for another photo, ripe with the same possibility. I hope that the family will carry on without Dolliver’s Neck to bring us home.
I know we’re there when I hear the gravel crunch under the car tires. I see the house, a giant white cube with black-framed windows. Behind it, I know there are lawns sweeping down to rocks that ring the house like a fortress. When we pull up to Dolliver’s Neck, maybe for the last time, I can hardly remember how old I am. I could be 6, 10 or 20. Voices hum to me from the walls, the rocks and the gravel. I am 41.
Getting out of the car, I half-expect to see my grandmother in a floppy hat appear from the side of the house, an arm raised in greeting, holding a trowel. “Dee-ahs!” she’d call. Thin, she walked in a slightly painful and unstable way, as if her feet were made of glass. A dog—there was always a dog—would bound out, all wiggles and poor training, leaping up onto us. This time, there are still dogs; they seem to come with the house. But there is no Granny. Dead now 14 years, her touch remains—the walls still covered with the modern art she chose, the Don Quixote sculpture made from recycled car parts in the hall. The front door is purple now, a change by my aunt Annie, who moved her family into the house after Granny died. Annie, too, is gone, lost to cancer two years ago.
My family arrives on this Christmas Eve morning to greet Annie’s five children and her husband, Mac. My cousin Sylvie swings the door open and calls, “Merry Christmas! So good to see you! Hey guys, SarahandRosie are here!” In this house, my sister’s name and mine tumble into one.
As we continue upstairs, I point out the huge gloppy abstract oil painting still hanging alongside the curved staircase.
“My aunt Helen told me she hid a piece of chewing gum here once. It took months for her parents to notice it,” I tell my children.
I can still find the faint stain. “You can see where it was right here.”
The kids want to see the spot right away.
Before we even get across the upstairs hallway and into the dining room, the air grows crowded with noisy ghosts. Figures roll across doorways; faces laugh and talk wherever I look.
My grandfather, Granda, wearing old khakis and boat shoes, serves drinks next to the grand piano—bourbon in winter, gin-and-tonics in summer; and Granny, wearing her customary purple, makes grilled cheese in her old kitchen when we spend the night. I run up the stairs on Christmas Day, breathless in patent leather, velvet and ribbons. I grip my candle at age 8, during my aunt Katharine and uncle Goody’s wedding service, then the lights go out and the minister borrows my flame to read his notes. As a teenager, I dance to steel drums in a crowd at Annie and Mac’s wedding, and then I stand with 500 people at Annie’s memorial service, in a tent on a raw, wet day during Halloween weekend.
I try to imagine never coming back here, losing my way to these visions. The family chatter says that Mac will sell the place soon. It must be heavy with ghosts for him, too. After he and Annie moved in, she slowly disappeared in front of him, dying at home in the room where she had given birth to their youngest, in the same room and on the same date as her mother had died years before.
The rooms are cavernous. As my cousin Sam said, good for lots of people, lonely for a few. I make it through the hallway and the dining room, the shadowy din quieting some as I enter the kitchen, now remodeled and painted an intense yellow, where my cousins, uncle, mother, sister and family gather. I see pieces of me in almost everyone, tiny similarities like thick, ruler-straight hair linking us.
We stay inside for a while, drinking coffee until the children can’t ignore the call of the outside anymore. We spill onto the brick patio, and down the broad stairs onto the grass. Perched on a point that juts out into Gloucester Harbor, Dolliver’s Neck is bordered by water on two sides.
Rosie and I walk with the children across the wide lawn dotted with high graceful oaks. We show the kids the hammock (surely a different one by now) where we used to swing too high and tip each other out. I point out the empty swimming pool, always dry, decorated on the edges with potted plants.
My parents were also married here, two years before I was born, in front of the hammock tree, near the pool. I’ve seen the pictures enough to imagine it—my father looks enraptured by my New Mexican guitar-playing mother, she of the long Joan Baez hair, fresh from a Quaker work camp, all otherness to him; my mother nervous at joining this alien New England family, so hard for her to decipher their criticism camouflaged in smiles and clenched teeth. My aunt Eloise told me that, lively and shining, they lit up rooms when they entered. I didn’t often see them like that. By the time I remember, my father was already ravaged by mental illness, the medication and the disease dulling his sheen, flattening his bounce.
We continue toward the trampoline, past the small bush where my aunt Helen and uncle Craig popped out before their wedding ceremony like a newborn couple, past the rock we leaned against for the family photo.
At the trampoline, images course through me as the kids jump. Rosie and I spent hours exploring these grounds, hiding behind low crumbling stone walls that lined once-manicured paths. In those days when families lived in the same area code, it seemed like we were here every weekend, for dinner, swimming off the rocks or sailing.
Rosie and I shepherd our children back to the house, up the curved steps from the lawn to the terrace, through the living room and into the kitchen. My tall cousins are young adults now, leaning their lanky frames against the counters, talking of travel and love. My own children and their first cousins appear in the doorway, panting from running up and down the spiral staircase.
“We’ve got to get going and get ready for Christmas Eve,” I tell the breathless children. “Aw, Mom, I don’t want to leave,” my daughter says, “Can we come again tomorrow? And the next day, and the next?”
I look at her smooth 7-year-old face turned up to mine.
“Sweetheart,” I say, “I don’t know when we’ll be back. Why don’t you go do one more thing before we go?”
The children race off, promising to meet us downstairs in five minutes. Back in the gravelly driveway saying our goodbyes, the clamor of 50 years makes it hard to hear. I look closely at the house and watch the windows thick with stories. After I hugged Annie right here for the last time before she died, I looked at her the same way, imprinting her face into my heart. I search for them all, Granny, Granda, my father and me. If I could, I would stay here and listen to my ghosts.
Sarah Weld is the associate editor of The Monthly and a freelance writer and editor.
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