Set remarks always came fast in the course of the eight-hour summer trip from Connecticut's Fairfield County up to New Hampshire's White Mountains. That trip, crunched up in a fold-down back seat while locked in a pre-war Plymouth convertible with Mother and Dad and Peter...
The village green and bandstand at Avon, Connecticut are pointed out with the same words always spoken while going through Avon. Too quaint and too cute, Dad says, although Dad is in publishing and specializes in books celebrating big happy families in places where quaint and cute are compliments.
And what a silly name Agawam is, Mother and Dad and Peter all say, as they always say each time we go through it – and Thetford is even sillier – and how ridiculous, that concrete dinosaur outside Holyoke – and there's something really strange about a mosque dome on an office building in Hartford.
Dinner always at an inn with nearly no air nor light in Northampton – acidy tomato juice – called toe-mah-toe juice – mushy, bitter vegetables, tough lamb chops wearing paper socks, Mother and Dad eating raw oysters and arguing over whether this is one of the months oysters can kill you.
Then on, and many places not to stop – miniature golf, animal and reptile places, the place of 10,000 baskets. Mother and Dad call these places "tourist gags." And how about that sign for Sturbridge Village? How silly recreating an old New England village here in New England where nothing has ever changed.
These are not things someone says once or twice that could be remembered as being said on a certain specific occasion. These remarks are like stories repeated over and over but always as if they're being told for the first time.
When these set remarks are brought to speech there is no time context – it is always the same time.
As we ride along, my parents – not glamorous themselves – are constantly pointing out homely girls.
Vermont, and New Hampshire too, they say – meaning the people who live there always, not we summer people – Vermont and New Hampshire breed homely girls, they say – homely girls in homely towns –
Local homely girls, year-round homely girls, not girls who just come for the summer –
Look how homely that girl is, as we go through Bellows Falls (what a silly name) – look at that homely girl there at the Brattleboro bridge –
But there – I see from the cramped back seat – there is a very pretty girl we're passing this time in Bellows Falls. She's in shorts, not Bermuda shorts, just shorts, tight, very short, and I know without knowing how I know that this girl who arouses me is a girl who lives here in this year-round town all the time – lives in the midst of these beautiful places we pass through, these sweeping fields, these cows, these signs that say "Fresh Corn 4 sale", these old gray silos and old spotted cows and tractors and horse-drawn wagons.
Just before the covered bridge town of Bath a permanent sign warns "Bump." How New England, they say. Not change things by smoothing out Route 10 – just the blunt "Bump" sign.
Oh these year-round people, they say.
And they still see homely girls. But when we stop for gas at Bath (stop because the tank's only half full and you can't be too careful) I peer out from our car's tiny back seat, and there is another startling girl my age. She is on the porch of a small store behind the hand-cranked gas pumps. And she's in a bright yellow two-piece bathing suit, bright yellow holding actual breasts, and she's very tan and she's licking an ice cream cone!
Then through a lumber mill town, called, laughably, Lisbon – then past the Sugar Hill railway station (how quaint they say, that pretentious old station master putting out flower boxes, as he always does).
We continue up and through the little village of Sugar Hill with its picket fences, general store/post office and wooden sidewalk – just like it always was, everyone says – and another turn at St. Matthew's, the simple, understated little Episcopalian summer church where Mother and Dad were married and where our paternal grandmother Nana, our alert white-haired grandmother we call Nana (but not the way other children call grandmothers Nana, for our is a grande dame who is always in charge wherever she might be – which is often in major cities of the world).
After passing Nana's church, down a dense dirt road through miles of deep, dark, deserted woods that include white birches –
No houses, no houses, on and on, till our caretaker's cottage and barn appear. Then, next, our four big summer houses, all with names.
Up high, there is our dark, round, turreted House on the Hill. Then, below the hill and right on the dirt road, our very old 20-room Farm House. Then, set back, our long, rambling summer "cottage," White Wings –
Finally a turn down across from the Farm House to White Pines, the biggest, newest (though old) big house, built with stone on an iron-boulder bluff Nana and Gaga own, looking out over blueberry and thorn fields to woods they own – stretching all the way to the high peaks of the Franconia Range that they might as well own –
White Pines, reached by this mile-long twisting driveway through pine woods, planted by Nana and Gaga when they built this latest house but so tall I cannot believe these woods have not been here forever. Going through them now on this long driveway that is too narrow at all points for cars to pass.
Mother says something sarcastic about what she calls "Dad's humble origins." It seems to make her mad that this place is so rich and complete.
Dad leans on the horn. He is angrier than Mother. Much of his growing up took place here, and Mother has told me that sometimes at Christmas his parents opened White Pines and left him in it with a governess while they went to Rome and Venice.
He leans on the horn again.
Dad's angry, though anyone going down this driveway leans on the horn – blows the horn in case someone who does not appreciate the danger tries to come the other way –
But it seems like no one, at least no one who thinks other than we do, ever will. For this driveway leads to a house in which no change is allowed. A protected place. A place that, I think many years later, cannot survive if other versions of reality are let in.
In White Pines, the past filled every bit of space. So many rooms, and this main room so long and wide and high – every bit of space used, whether anyone was there or not – used by people of the past.
The Steinway was never just a stand for the Nefertiti head, for everyone knew that in the past there had been private concerts given here. Music once – but probably not now –
I could not look at the fireplace without remembered accounts of that long ago night, long before I was born, before airplanes and swimming pools, when a ball of lightning came down the chimney, scooted across the living room area, went between a brocade chaise longue, two brocade sofas, past tables with tasseled lamps and drawers for coasters, drawers for Chinese Checkers and Parcheesi. The ball of lighting going through the spots where Frances Perkins and Cornelia Otis Skinner and Herbert Hoover had sat and stood.
The lightning ball had gone past Nana's high fold-out desk with Wintergreen mints in a cubbyhole – brown Chinese screens, a standup wood radio with a glowing orange dial and a green light that winked if the reception was not clear –
Past the trash basket where Nana had found Gaga's crumpled up Pulitzer certificate (almost thrown away, he was so modest, Nana said) –
On past the Steinway with the head of Nefertiti, the ball of lightning shooting past dim stand-up lamps, a pendulum wall clock that showed phases of the moon, more dim tasseled lamps coming out from the walls with orange bulbs shaped like flames,
Past the bay-window, mountain-view alcove where tipsy Great Uncle John had put on a witch-burning skit with his old Yale friends Cole Porter and Monty Woolley.
Then the ball of lightning going on underneath the 14-foot long polished dining table, where finger bowls were always used,
Going below the twenty-foot horizontal paned glass windows that perfectly framed the only permitted mountains,
All the way from the fireplace where it came down to the fireplace at the other end of the room 100 feet away, where the ball of lightning had then gone up this other chimney –
Something, like everything else that counted here – like Venice before the First World War, like Gaga before the writing stopped – something that would never happen again.
Never again, it sometimes seemed at White Pines, would there be new stories. In the generation that followed Gaga and Nana's, people told White Pines stories to each other more than they told their own stories. And each time a story was repeated it became further reinforcement to barricades that were holding back new writing and new writers. In the old stories, the past was always a better place. The dwellings grander. The sensibilities more refined.
A new story always contains the unexpected, which can be as disturbing to families as it is to bystander literary critics and orthodox academic writing teachers. White Pines was a house and way of life founded by a writer but not a place for new writing.