In New England, Fading Summer, Solemn Ghosts

Here I am at Truro down near the tip of Cape Cod. The ocean waves are smaller than the ones we are accustomed to. But the dunes are far higher and suggest the endlessly reaching, not-so-friendly nature of the sea. The little girls in their tropical-bird, orange-and-lime-colored bathing suits dash to and from the water’s edge like sandpipers. They, at least, are exactly like their peers at the Indian Wells beach in Amagansett. But the scrub is different. The slope of the dry grass along the bay is different. The style of the people seems more Boston, more contained, more affected by the simple church steeple, the gray picket fence, the solemn ghosts of whalers and farmers and fishermen and Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Thoreau, and bears little resemblance to our Hampton home. There is a taciturn simplicity here. It’s in the not-so-landscaped-in-every-corner gardens, in the threadworn couches of our rental house, it’s in the books on the shelves. It’s in the events at the library or at the Castle Hill arts center where Saul Bellow recently came and worked his old black magic. This is a town in which, should the need arise, you would scream softly, erode from within, not wear your heart on your sleeve or your income on your car fender. The soil here must be sandier than the terra firma of Long Island. The farmers grow produce-corn, tomatoes, lettuce-less dense, less bright, than the juicy greens, the plum reds along Sag Main, more like the simple stones in the cemetery, utilitarian and unpretentious.

Fifteen minutes away by car, more by bike, is Provincetown, where the ship captains once lived and the women walked on the roof terraces scanning the sea (heart thumping, white-knuckled) for the return of their men. That was then. Now a man calls my mate “darling” in the A.&P. and offers to share his turkey burger with him. Now the narrow main street swells with young men holding hands with each other or with young women, arms and bodies shining in the oneness of their sexual glow. There are people of unknown gender in dress that may or may not be cross. There are also tourists licking ice cream cones, gawking. There are children, hot and unnerved. Along the bay are hotels with decks on which guests are lounging in chairs packed like sardines one next to another. You can get your ears pierced or a T-shirt that might shock your grandmother. You can buy a rip-off Native American dreamcatcher with glittery stones pasted into the woven web. You can get information on AIDS care or prevention. You can buy a plastic pail and shovel or a leather thong. You can get a lobster if you have the patience to wait for a table. Here the old New England has transformed itself, erupted into the gay theme-park world with a nautical hum, a faint resonance of Moby Dick , the quest reduced now to the hunt for a low-calorie ice cream or for the perfect partner of the night.

I am here writing at my kitchen table in a house with a substantial collection of shot glasses and only two water glasses and not enough wine glasses to serve dinner to my family. This alone gives us culture shock. The house has a deck from which one can see the river and watch the tides change and the moored boats in the harbor sink down into the mud and rise with the incoming currents. At night, over the ridge of our front lawn, the sun turns into a red ball and shoots pink up into the clouds until everything turns gray and the small lights over the bay begin to pulse like stationary fireflies. From this view of the winding waters and the lighthouse in Provincetown and the hills on the far side, I feel a perfect comfort. Perhaps it’s just what we put into the shot glasses, Bloody Marys with a floating oyster, which works like anesthetic on the open wounds of the soul. The tumbling stock market, the President’s grand jury testimony, the dangerous takeover of Arab housing in Jerusalem seem like thunder from a receding storm; one that passed by and left us untouched, no muddy patches in the grass, no limbs of a tree dangling, everything just as it was meant to be. That’s what vacations are for: to fool you.

On the way here we stopped in Concord, Mass., and visited Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house and were treated to a lecture on his life and favorite possessions. We saw the dress his unmarried daughter wore on her trip to Egypt with him and we saw the portrait of Thomas Carlyle he brought back from London. We saw his favorite chair and the portrait of his mother. There was, haunting this house an air of embarrassment, a sense of both invasion and falseness. Those who had inhabited the house, who belonged to another century, who believed in the righteousness of God and the order of things had gone, their time gone with them. It was awkward, perhaps indecent to be in their bedroom. It wasn’t that I began to imagine the sex between Ralph Waldo and his wife, Lydia. I thought instead about death. You couldn’t avoid it.

The 19th century in America, the Boston 19th century in particular, stops the heart with its rectangular, puritan, spare, upright simplicity. From Emerson’s house, one could see the home of Louisa May Alcott and on one wall there was a painting of a wilting, faded yellow flower against a black background, a gift from Amy Alcott. My Amy, my Jo, my Laurie, that family gave my childhood a peculiar hope, a backbone it might otherwise not have had. But here in the Emerson house there are only relics, sanctified bones. History curdles when it becomes a house tour, vaporized by time into a tourist’s way to pass the afternoon. We paid a few dollars to disturb our own memories. We should not make of writers’ homes a shrine for visitors. There is in this a trespass against the way of the world. Let Saul Bellow speak while he still can. The writing remains. History sweeps everything else away. Let it go with the tide.

Here on the Cape, right next to electric Provincetown, I feel the death of things beloved most keenly. I regret that there are no more shores to arrive at with God’s dialogue binding me head to toe. I regret the American experiment is now more museum than experiment. I regret that democracy has come down to a stained dress, one that might end up at the Smithsonian, and while I can still look at Emerson’s walking stick given him by Thoreau, I can no longer converse with him. I regret that Emerson’s oldest son died at age 5 of scarlet fever. Here, without the dash and splash of the Hamptons, I feel erasure like the fog closing in.