Summer People

By BETH BOYLE MACHLAN

Most of our old family photos are from the beach, and most of them are of my father. In them, he is always grinning, gleaming from the Hawaiian Tropic suntan oil that scented the denim shirt he wore every summer. My mother loved the beach, too, but did not like to be photographed. In all those years, Dad caught Mom on camera only once, on a boogie board riding a wave, still wearing the sunglasses that stayed on her head all summer, even after dark. She preferred to float, read, and take pictures of my brothers and me. Blindingly pale or perilously pink, like “before” ads for skin cancer, we’re inevitably chewing or punching or blinking, ruining the picture. My father, however, always looks perfect, natural, exactly where he’s supposed to be. His hands are on his hips, superhero-style, as if he’s won some high-stakes game and the beach now belongs to him.

Dad with dog on the beach
 
For a while, it did. He was born in a Quonset hut in Queens, New York, after World War II. Three years later, my grandparents moved to the railroad apartment in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where they would live for the next half-century. When my parents married in June of 1968, he was headed to City College for a PhD in philosophy, but left grad school after I was born to work in a bank, where he learned quickly but bored easily. We moved from Brooklyn to an apartment in Westchester, then to a Victorian farmhouse with a wraparound porch and a yard in a small, shady village with excellent schools. My father shifted to international finance, and his salary and ambition ran wild. By the age of 35 he had started his own company, International Capital Resources. None of those words made sense to me, but when I asked him to explain what exactly he did, he simply smiled and said, “I make money.” And then, in 1982, he bought the summer house in Chatham.
 
For five years, we were summer people. We arrived with the season and left when it ended, like migratory birds. Terns and egrets didn’t vacation; they just went where they had always gone, where they were supposed to be. I think that’s when I began my habit of imagining myself living wherever I was, projecting myself into someone else’s space—not to try it on, to accept or reject, but to adapt. Most of our Chatham neighbors had owned their cottages for years, even generations. For them, returning to the shore every summer was as ordinary and inevitable as the movement of the moon. I wanted so badly to see that house, those dunes, the cold, deep water as our natural habitat instead of what I always kind of knew it was: a brief, bright accident of place and time and money, one that left me imprinted for life on a species to which I didn’t belong.
 

***


Phoenicia, New York, November 2009:
None of us lived anywhere big enough to host eleven people—parents, children, grandchildren, and one dog—so my family spent Thanksgiving in an Airbnb. The site was still somewhat new then, and my brothers and I sent several links back and forth, oohing and ahhing at charming houses with multiple bedrooms, outdoor space, and big kitchens where all ages could pitch in to prepare the perfect meal. We selected an eighteenth-century saltbox in the woods, the architectural epitome of an America that our Irish ancestors had missed by about 150 years, an idyllic backdrop for the memories we planned to make.

Not much else felt idyllic to me that year. Having dumped my husband during a prolonged manic episode, I was the only one of my siblings who was single, and my bottom-rung academic job didn’t pay enough to chip in for the cost of the rental. I volunteered to cook instead, looking forward to the ample space I never had in the dingy apartment I shared with my young daughters. However, what the listing had described as a “fully-equipped chef’s kitchen” turned out to offer just two pots and one small, ornery oven, and I ended up serving a literally half-baked approximation of the elegant dinner I had planned. My mother had urged me to invite my ex, so he wouldn’t spend the holiday alone. The kids were happy to see him, but he was uncomfortable, I was drunk, and, when he accidentally knocked our best bottle of wine across someone else’s linen tablecloth, that Thanksgiving became just another day I didn’t want to remember.

None of those mishaps are visible in the pictures we posted online, perfect shots of flaming maples and a stone hearth surrounded by a gently firelit family. Ignore the un-idyllic actualities beyond the frame, and we are simply happy people in a beautiful house. That’s the magic of staying in an Airbnb: how it looks like it was after the fact is ultimately all that matters.

My father appears in very few of these pictures. He had never been a peripheral person, especially on family vacations: more like a force, exerting a planet’s massive, unignorable pull. But we were not at the beach—we hadn’t been, for years—and while my mother was thrilled to spend a holiday sponsored by her children, my father seemed sidelined, unsure of his place in a structure he has not chosen or paid for, as if his inability to contribute financially left him unable to contribute emotionally, either, even though our far-flung family now convened only once a year.

My father loved houses: finding them, buying them, refinancing them, and, ultimately, losing them. His obsession began long before Zillow and HGTV made it easy, and lasted long after his company went under due to tax problems and poor choices. In his experience, real estate required listing sheets and phone calls and notes scribbled on legal pads; ordering a house on the internet simply didn’t make sense to him. But an Airbnb is not really a house; it’s a stage set, a dollhouse in which you are the doll. Choose your backdrop, and, for a fee, you get to live in that world for a while. Then, at the end of the weekend or week or month, you walk out of the frame and return to wherever and whoever you actually are, making sure to leave it clean and ready for the next dolls to arrive. An Airbnb is, like the internet, a place where you can briefly live your best and least real life.

It didn’t start out like that. In 2010, the New York Times described Airbnb’s original business plan as “a way for budget-conscious travelers to find affordable accommodations” and “entrepreneurial homeowners … to rent out their spare bedrooms.” However, what began as a site to sidestep capitalism quickly became a search engine to support it. One year later, again in the Times, Farhad Manjoo argued that “sites like Airbnb have turned second homes into cash machines.” Spare bedrooms became spare houses, and accommodation became automated—and immensely lucrative. Within fifteen years, the very people the site was designed to help would be priced out of their own homes by investors intent on acquiring the world’s most valuable real estate: the house that no one really lives in.

For apartment dwellers like me, just being in a house was a kind of vacation, time away from tiny kitchens, shower stalls, noise and bugs and worse. I’ve now stayed in more Airbnbs than I can count—not that I need to count, because they’re all there, in the app, under “Trips.” Before the pandemic turned vacation houses into prophylactics, my New York friends used Airbnb for long weekends in the Catskills; my writing group, to find houses with enough workspace—screened porches, “farm tables”—for a dozen people, as well as big kitchens and swimmable lakes and fire pits for eating and drinking and reading aloud after the laptops clapped shut. I was with the writing group when I first noticed the binders.

Every Airbnb has a binder. The binder is usually on the island in the kitchen (every Airbnb also has an island in the kitchen), like a map to treasure you’ve already found, because there you are, in the house, reading the binder. Inside the binders, there are lists: what you can do, what you must do, what you should do, what you should never do.

You can play all the board games, but please keep track of the pieces so that future guests can enjoy them, too!

All recyclables must be placed in the appropriate bins.

The outside lights should be kept on at all times.

Never leave candles burning after you go to bed!

The tones of the binders range from whimsical (“Welcome to Casa de Pollo! Bok bok!”) to businesslike (“House Policies”)—to, in rare cases, threatening (“FAILURE TO ABIDE BY THE FOLLOWING RULES WILL RESULT IN FORFEITURE OF YOUR DEPOSIT AND ADDITIONAL FINES.”) They are, essentially, instruction manuals for other people’s houses, and, by extension, other people’s lives—assuming anyone actually lives in these houses, which may or may not be the case. Unoccupied Airbnbs are sometimes called “ghost houses,” which makes sense; they are blandly uncanny, so generically welcoming that it is impossible to imagine anyone actually feeling at home.
  

***


Surrey Lane, 1980:
The first vacation house my family rented was in Chatham, Massachusetts, the elbow of the flexed arm of Cape Cod. My parents found the comfortably shabby red ranch through friends of friends and rented it for the end of July and beginning of August. I later learned that these were considered the best weeks of the summer, for the highest price.

During the year, at home in New York, my father was largely absent: he left the house early each morning, came back late, and, in either case, refused to converse until he’d poured himself either coffee or scotch. On vacation, however, he was not merely around, he was ubiquitous: captain, ringmaster, drill sergeant. Every morning, he wanted us out of the house and in the car with towels and coolers and chairs and balls, and once we were on the beach he—and we—could not relax until everyone had gotten wet, gotten dry, played at least one strenuous game, eaten a sandwich, gone for a walk, then swum again to cool off, because this was the beach and the beach was why we’re here, as if failure to fully appreciate paradise left us at risk of expulsion.

Vintage photo of a dad with kids on the beach

What I remember most about that first rental house was how quickly we established a routine that gave shape to the rest of our summers. After the beach, showered and changed, we were allowed to read or watch reruns on Channel 56 until six o’clock rolled around, when we were expected on the patio for what my dad described as “snacks” but I understand now was cocktails. If this sounds Cheeveresque, it probably was, in that my father, the son of an Irish milkman, probably got the idea by reading John Cheever. At age ten, I had not yet read the books to teach me how to live that way, such as The Preppy Handbook, published that same year, which included Chatham on its list of acceptable suburbs. A binder would have been helpful.

If you keep moving and track the tide chart, you can hit three or four beaches a day, whether you want to or not.

When all these trips to all these beaches give you swimmer’s ear, you must flush it with peroxide, even though the whoosh of wetness will make you faint, every time.

You should walk to ballgames at Veteran’s Field a few blocks away. On the nights you don’t, the voice of the announcer will roll in through the windows on the wind, as if God himself is broadcasting summer league baseball from on high.

You should never listen to your parents fight after you go to bed. There’s nothing you can do, and what little you learn will just make you anxious about everything you don’t know.

At least there, every morning brought a temporary, rented peace.

 
***
 

Stage Harbor Road, 1981: My father’s finance company thrived, opening branches in Hong Kong and oil-rich Oklahoma, so three weeks turned into two full months in Chatham the following summer. Through a local realtor, he rented a larger house with a bigger yard within walking distance to Main Street and a small public beach. Now there were peaceful weekdays with my mother before my father blew in, literally, on the tiny planes of what was then called Air New England, and yanked us back into his frenzied form of relaxation.

Childhood photo of the author and her brother on the beach
 
When he wasn’t there, the rest of us drifted gently through our days. We went to the beach, still, but just one beach, and just for a few hours. When it rained, we visited the gorgeous Victorian library downtown, with its wrought-iron spiral staircases and deep dark leather chairs. Sometimes, I walked down Stage Harbor Road to the Old Atwood House, a 1752 homestead turned museum, where I admired the tiny leaded windows, the huge fireplaces, and the strangely short, curtained beds, compulsively fingering everything without a rope around it. What would it be like, I wondered, to stay in one house for so long, to own a place so absolutely that it kept your name after you were gone?

You can browse the dog-eared summerhouse fiction on the living room shelves, where you will find, be stunned by, and from which you will eventually steal Fanny Hill.

You must leave crackers out on the patio for the raccoons, a mother and her black-eyed fluffball babies. If you forget, they will knock on the back door to remind you. Their father, like yours, must be somewhere else.

You should wear thick white sunblock, but you prefer the feel and smell of your half-Slav father’s Hawaiian Tropic oil, so you basically baste your pasty flesh like a roasted chicken.

You should never think about the raccoons after summer ends, or you will cry at night, imagining those tiny bandit faces knocking, but nobody answers.

  
***
 

Shore Road, 1982-1987: That February, the same realtor who’d found us the rental showed us houses for sale. If my instinct was to tuck and roll, a hermit crab accommodating myself to all accommodations, my father saw no reason why he shouldn’t have everything he wanted. For starters, the “cottage” he chose was bigger than our actual house. It had been built for a large family, Irish Catholics like us, who had moved to a mansion closer to the hospital where the father, a surgeon, worked. (“Eight kids, and every one of them always had a clean towel,” another mother marveled to mine.) The house was part of a private beach association, Mattaquason Point, named for the shingle-style hotel razed after World War II to make room for cottages like ours. The hotel had taken its name from the Wampanoag sachem who sold the land it was built on to British colonists.

Postcard of a hotel

In June, the day after school let out for the summer, we drove northeast up I-95 in two cars filled with garbage bags of clothes and toys, our bikes manacled to the back of my mother’s station wagon. By the 4th of July, our new house was furnished, flag flying, flowerboxes full. We sat on our front lawn to watch the town’s annual parade, literally looking down on the tourists lining the street, fanning their faces. When the parade ended, the tourists trudged back to their hot cars, while we walked, barefoot, down the path to our private beach.

My father also purchased two stone seagulls, painted to look like the real thing, and placed them on our deck, looking out toward the ocean. He named them George and Ira, after the Gershwins. From then on, he declared, the emergence of George and Ira would announce our arrival at the cottage; when we left in September, they’d migrate to the living room for the winter. (I’m not sure anybody ever noticed.) He then bought a twenty-foot boat with a 150-horsepower engine. It came with a little plaque that read: “BOAT: A hole in the water into which you pour money,” which he hung in the downstairs bathroom. When we moored it incorrectly, which was often, the boat floated away and we had to call the harbormaster. We called him more than once, because even the boat knew that our family had no business owning a boat. I agreed; the more we bought, I thought, the more we had to lose.

That year, I learned what it meant to be summer people. Summer people owned their houses, hired locals to maintain them, and came back every year, generation after generation. Renters might return every summer, even to the same house, but they didn’t really put down roots—or pay taxes. Below the renters in this seasonal taxonomy were the tourists, the weekenders, gulls who gawked and squawked and clogged the streets and left litter on the beaches. Summer people and townies alike resented them, though the ecosystem required the cash that came from their care and feeding.

I also learned that it was possible—preferable, even—to walk to the beach with nothing but a towel and a book, to swim when I was ready and go home when I was hungry or tired. Privilege, I began to understand, was about ease, not excess, skimming over the surface instead of hurling yourself into the depths. Summer people didn’t need to rush to the beach, because the beach would always be there. My father, meanwhile, continued to pack for the shore as if he expected to be lost at sea; it was like summering with Ernest Shackleton. He seemed determined to drain every possible delight from every day, as if our time there was a coupon soon to expire. Our neighbors looked on, bemused, as he herded us onto the boat every weekend morning, then into the car in the late afternoon to get what he believed were the “very best waves” at yet another beach up north.

You can watch the lighthouse beams—one bright, one gentler—sweep across your bedroom window until you fall asleep.

You must now avoid the Friday night band concerts in the park downtown that you loved as a child; apparently, those are for tourists.

You should let your townie friends take you to the secret beaches accessible only by boat, beaches that rise briefly from the current and the tide, where you can dive from the dunes into the perfect water and feel like the luckiest person in the world.

You should never listen to your parents arguing about money on the phone. You can only hear your mother’s side of the conversation, and things simply cannot be that bad. Can they?

   
***
  

Shore Road, 1988-1991: Before Airbnb—before the internet, even—people advertised their summer houses privately, through word of mouth. The very existence of the offer suggested that something was wrong, because if you had a summer house, you spent the summer in it, unless of course you were going to Europe—or you suddenly needed money. In that case, you let it be known that “the cottage” was available at the end of July and the beginning of August. The best weeks, for the highest price.

Back then, none of the houses we vacationed in had binders. Ours didn’t, either. My parents rented our house to friends the summer before I started college—probably to pay my tuition, I realize now, embarrassingly after the fact—and people we knew didn’t need instructions for how to live our lives. My mom simply scribbled the phone numbers of a pediatrician and a plumber on a piece of stationery covered with sailboats and stuck it to the refrigerator with a magnet—oh, and maybe the harbormaster, too, in case the boat wandered off again. I, however, could have used some help figuring out how to say goodbye.

You can show up at your shitty summer bakery job every morning still drunk; nobody will care. The only time they send you home is when you forget your shoes.

You must give $100 of your paycheck to your mother every week, because she is short of cash. Your father, she says, will pay you back.

You should stay out all night, as often as possible. This serves two purposes: it gets you out of the house, and it makes your parents madder at you than they are at each other.

You should never have let yourself love this place this much. You should have known all along that you would have to leave.

We spent just a few more weeks in that house, brief trips scheduled around the people who paid to stay there. Long before it actually sold, I was told to clear my room of everything that made it mine: posters, ticket stubs, framed photos of friends, the Nantucket rope bracelets I bought every June and cut off at the end of August. I thought again of the Atwoods, whose eighteenth-century crap sat, still, in the historic Atwood House, on their bureaus and tables, accompanied by tiny placards telling guests whose silver hairbrush this had been, whose elegantly yellowed glove. If they magically returned, their house would be waiting, while we erased ourselves, piece by piece, until our cottage was as blank and empty as the day we arrived. My father, it seems, had been right to rush, drive, drain every day; our stint as summer people had ended. 

Aerial view of Nantucket

  
Fairfield Beach, 2002:
After a decade of increasingly unsuccessful business ventures, my father must have suddenly found or stolen (I’m not quite kidding) a pile of money somewhere, because he rented a house on the beach in Fairfield, Connecticut for the entire month of August. I didn’t ask or care, because I had my own problems. I was married, soon to be divorced, finishing my PhD, losing my mind.

At that point, no one in my family was living anywhere they planned to stay. My then-husband and I had an option to buy the house we were renting in a shabby suburb south of Princeton, New Jersey, but I already sensed that it would not happen. My parents were in the second-to-last of a series of places that had gotten successively smaller as their financial situation deteriorated, ranging from a five-bedroom Victorian to a condominium development called The Hamlet that, before she had to live there, my mother had unkindly referred to as “The Omelet,” to a prewar apartment in New Rochelle, the same struggling little city where they’d started their suburban lives. My brothers were not yet married to the girlfriends who became their wives. The Fairfield house became, briefly, the rented sun to a solar system of temporary planets.

In the pictures it looks barn-like, designed to accommodate a lot of people who wanted to spend all their time in each other’s presence, most of it outside. It would have been fine; it should have been fine. But I was not fine, and neither was my father, who had clearly made it his mission to recreate the cottage we’d sold ten years before. He raided our storage unit for Cape Cod watercolors to hang on Connecticut walls, scattered our family photographs on end tables, bought slipcovers to make the furniture we didn’t own match the art that didn’t belong there. He even brought George and Ira out of hibernation, he told me gleefully, “so that people know we’re here!”

“What people?” I wondered. “Where is here?” But none of that mattered, really. He was the temporary lord of a rented manor, and we had been summoned to inhabit this ersatz summer with him. Still, staying in a half-assed recreation of my childhood—The Old Boyle House—felt normal in comparison to the rest of my life right then.

You can walk around the open-plan first floor, gazing at the pictures your father has hung everywhere: The Museum of Better Summers.

You must sleep on an inflatable bed that feels comfortable at first but then heats up and deflates until you can’t get out of it. (The bed, like the boat, is a metaphor.)

You should rescue your two-year-old from your father, who is chasing her across the sand, attempting to replicate a picture he took of you in Chatham thirty years ago.

You should never have snapped at him to calm down and just let her enjoy the motherfucking beach.

That fall, my father covered the walls of my parents’ apartment with all the pictures he’d taken, as if those fifteen missing summers had been just frames waiting to be filled. (How it looks like it was after the fact really was all that mattered.) That Christmas, he gave me matching portraits of me and my child taken thirty years apart, both of us small, sliced by shadow and sun, bent over the gleaming seam of sand and sea. The pictures were beautiful; they also seemed to prove that, for my family, at least, summer was always and only in the past.

The worst part of staying in an Airbnb is packing to go home. Even if professional cleaners handle the heavy stuff, you need to leave the house looking nice, or risk a bad rating that might affect future rentals. So you follow the instructions in the binder, trying to be the perfect guests for the hosts you’ve never met.

You can leave used linens on the floor of the laundry room.

You must put the key in the lockbox on your way out. Jumble the numbers!

You should take or discard all opened food.

You should never leave the garbage out or the raccoons will get it!

I guess there are always raccoons.

I have not been back to Chatham for over thirty years now, but sometimes, late at night, I look for our cottage online. According to Trulia, the family who bought it from us owns it still. Over the last twenty-five years they’ve renovated and expanded, transforming a homely 1960s gambrel into an elegant Colonial Revival. They even added a photogenic widow’s walk, one of those old-fashioned balconies in the middle of the roof where women supposedly waited for their husbands to return from whaling. (Did they want their men back, really? Or did they, like my mother, prefer the peaceful weeks alone, breathe more easily without them?) I know it’s fake; no widow ever walked up there, staring at the sea. Still, to the tourists who still line that street every July for the parade, it’s as real as the Old Atwood House, whose Instagram feed now features well-heeled guests drinking wine, admiring the exhibits, and giving the Atwoods (or their house) still more money. Like the pictures of my family’s half-baked Thanksgiving—of all Thanksgivings, really—these images leave out un-idyllic actualities, like how the English secured this land by cheating Mattaquason, giving him what a white historian, Frederick Freedman, described as “some trifling presents.” (The Old Atwood House website now advertises a “traditional Wampanoag dwelling” built “on our grounds.” So much for land acknowledgments, I guess.)

I don’t expect or deserve sympathy for losing a summer house. We always had somewhere to live, and though that seemed like meager consolation on my suburban scale of things at the time, it matters, and I’m grateful. My parents moved frequently for the next thirty years, ending up in separate eldercare facilities where they died alone during the pandemic. It was an unforeseeably impossible time, but I wish every day that all of it could have been different, and that they could have passed away in a place and with people they loved. For me, the real appeal of summer people wasn’t their wealth; it was their certainty. I envied their conviction that the world would hold its shape, that they could return to a place year after year and find it welcoming, unchanged. That we call this confidence “privilege” reveals so much about the system we have created, one in which real homes have become so rare that we visit them like museums or rent them just for weekends, sample-sizes of security ordered from algorithms online.

Many municipalities now regard Airbnbs as invasive species. Bought as investments and maintained by management companies, short-term rentals make housing scarce and expensive for people who need it, “turn[ing] permanent housing into de facto hotel rooms,” according to the New York Times. Massachusetts State Senator Julian Cyr argues that towns like Chatham “have effectively priced out most year-round [workers] from being able to afford housing in the region.” For many, the absence of public transportation and low-income housing are part of the charm of resort communities, but if no one can live where the rich people are, then no one can work for them, either; many restaurants and other business targeted at wealthy vacationers have closed or cut back their hours due to lack of staff. People who have lived in these communities for years have been displaced by the opportunistic greed of property owners, few of whom ever stay in the houses they rent online.

The thing is, for me, the best part of summer had nothing to do with the house. It was the moment at the beach when I got used to the water, crossed the line from bitterly cold to never wanting to leave. Even today, that is when I get a sense of rightness so overwhelming it feels almost like a threat, the appreciation of all I have and everything I could lose. I fling myself, wet, back on the blanket, drip peacefully, dry slowly, feel the sand shift under me until it cups me like a kind hand.

That’s what I try to think about, now that my parents are gone. Not the houses, not the moving or the money or the constant apprehension, but the certainty in the deep green water they loved and taught me to love, too. I see my mother floating, letting walls of waves raise and drop her gently. I see my father showing me how to dive from a dock, and feel the perfect arc my body forms, even after forty years. The stone seagulls, George and Ira, sit on my porch. They’re too scarred and faded now to be mistaken for real birds, but they’re still here, announcing that we’ve arrived.

 

Beth Boyle Machlan teaches at New York University and lives in Brooklyn and Rockland, Maine. Her writing has appeared in Catapult, River Teeth, Guernica, Avidly, The Rumpus, and the New York Times, and she is at work on a researched essay collection about houses, moving, and memory.

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