Alison Shaw


One Last Thing: When a Shack is More Like a Château

It took a baffled outsider, my then new (now ex) husband, to open the family’s eyes to what we’d forever ignored: the rusted window locks, the soft spot on the porch deck, the pancake turner with the handle broken off, and so on. To his credit, he wasn’t one to point a finger at an issue and not do something constructive about it. Yet had he kept silent, so what? Blind and blissful, we would have wrestled the window locks, stepped around the sagging floorboard, and risked frying our fingers while flipping food till the end of our days.

Such is the Vineyard summer house – old-school style. It was never built, furnished, fussed over, or meant to be lived in like a fine home. That goes for a simple lean-to with a deck on the north shore. It goes for a grand “shack-teau” on the Chop, East or West. It goes for the gingerbread cottage in the Camp Ground. The old-school summer house is a manifestation of the old-school summer vacation – a getaway from not only the real world but also the real-world house, with its children-sit-still-and-keep-your-mouths-shut ambience and anal standards of upkeep.

Pine floors milled from sturdy old forests are all the more homey for the generations of sandy shoes, dog claws, and furniture pockmarks that have aged their complexions. The cocoa patina of the wood paneling may seem anti-summer and dreary, but it doesn’t tattle on roughhousing boys. Cottage dressers appear confetti-strewn with chips and scratches that hint at jobs gone by. The still life of roses, painted on a scrap of wood by a summer person of yore, now rates as folk art.

Through the decades, these stalwart occupants are inevitably joined by a cacophony of newcomers – perhaps a maple dining room set from the twenties, a TV stand from the fifties, that ubiquitous “brick” linoleum of the seventies, a butcher-block kitchen island added just last year. Gleaming, white Pier 1 Imports wicker might share the porch with the wobbly wicker of old. The mismatched dishes, likely hand-me-downs from the real-world house, are still washed and dried by humans, after dinner and before Scrabble. The Scrabble set has been missing an O since goodness knows when.

The old-school house is but a glorified tent, harking back to an era when more American vacationers were bent on roughing it. Some claim the tradition is a Yankee thing – more narrowly, a Boston Brahmin thing – born of a Puritan pride in living simply even if one doesn’t have to. This theory is limited: Had my own forebears been Bostonians, they probably would have cooked and cleaned for Brahmins. Over time, my family has scaled up to comfortable lives and well-appointed real-world homes. Yet nowhere does my mother, in particular, seem more content than within the thin walls of our Oak Bluffs cottage. I imagine it conjures the make-do spirit that buoyed her Michigan childhood through the Depression.

Every old-school summer neighborhood suffers one annoying home that swarms with touch-up elves who tinker, spackle, paint, and prune the property to Martha Stewart perfection every spring. More seriously dismaying is the house that hasn’t been spruced up in memory. Old-school deferred maintenance is one thing; dereliction is quite another.

The forsaken home may eventually be adopted, and the adoptive parents are likely of a new school of vacationers. The little ding in the living room ceiling is no longer the amusing spot where Daddy once bumped the canoe oar. The ding is now a ding, period. It has to go. In fact – shudder – maybe the whole house will go.

Whether it’s a rebuild, a renovation, or a grass-roots build where no man has built before, the new-school summer house is a place where real-world comforts are de rigueur: insulation and climate controls, double-glazed windows, walk-in closets, coordinated furnishings, plasma TV hookups. If the purse is willing, the kitchen will gleam in granite, stainless steel, and sub-zero splendor. Radiant heat rises from bathroom floors of custom marble. The landscaping is designed by professionals and irrigated by systems. The infinity pool may be just steps away from the infinite “pool” that surrounds the Island. And never does a displeasing condition surprise the returning homeowner in spring; the caretaker has seen to everything.

At an ultra-new-school house party, it’s easy to spot the old-school homeowner among the guests. She’s the one whose jaw has dropped to the inlaid ash floors. Back home later that night, she crawls into her squeaky bed and grows drowsy to the gentle bumpity bump of the window sashes in the breeze. She’s thinking: Now this is what summer living is supposed to be. And while she slumbers, she dreams of a heated bathroom floor under her bare feet on a cool late-summer’s eve.