I often get asked if I am related to the family in “The Big House” which is a memoir of life on Cape Cod written by George Colt. The short answer is yes. Mary Forbes Atkinson Colt was my grandmother, and George is my first cousin. The central tension of the wonderful book is what will happen to the house, and (spoiler alert!) the great news is that it remained in my family, purchased from my grandmother’s estate by one of my first cousins.
The house was is a state of advanced disrepair when that transition happened, more than ten years ago now. My cousin Forbes and her husband David totally renovated the place. There are many parallels to their process and my purchase of the Woods Hole Inn, not the least of which is the vast amount of work that was needed to bring the structure up to modern building code. Packed with family and friends all summer, I’m sure they sometimes feel like they are running a B&B.
The house is sited in the most wonderful spot on Wings Neck with incredible views of Buzzards Bay. The porch looks over Bassett’s Island; my grandmother called it the verandah. She also pronounced Miami “Mee-ahhmee” and made mayonnaise three syllables (“my-on-aisse”) in a vaguely french manner with a dramatic sss at the end. She and my grandfather dressed in black tie every night for dinner, although by the time I came along this garb from another era was rather tattered, and I had a childish hunch that they were actors in a play I didn’t quite understand. Think Arthur Miller and you have insights that you will learn more about in George’s excellent memoir.
One of the best things about moving to Cape Cod last year was that my father’s older sister Ellen was living at the Big House. I would drive out on Sundays to visit her, and she would fill me with stories about her parents, her life, her childhood on Wings Neck. She remembered my father as a toddler, all blonde curls and little boy giggles, lolling like a puppy in her mother’s bed.
Aunt Ellen was more bookish, she told me, and sometimes felt as if she did not fit in with the other four athletic siblings. She loved playing the harp, and came of age as a teenager in the middle of World War II. Her nineteen-year-old brother Harry was missing in action for over six weeks, during which time they all thought he was dead, but he miraculously returned from the war unscathed. I can only imagine her life as a young person in such tumultuous times.
Ellen battled cancer for 20+ years, and the rumors of her demise had been unfounded for so long, I came to feel she would be with me forever. Even her wonderful nurses seemed prepared to be with her out on the Neck for the rest of time.
Sadly, my Aunt Ellen died in the spring of 2011. How lucky I decided to come to the Cape when I did! I was so blessed to get a winter’s worth of visits before she wandered up to join my Dad. At her service, the most poignant moment was her son’s description of the nurses bathing her in ocean water so she could fall asleep with the tight feeling of salt on her skin as she had done in childhood.
So that is the short answer, and in classic Colt fashion, it’s a decent story but it’s not very short:) If you want more about the Big House, you can see my previous post on this subject here.
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Author George Colt (“The Big House”) will be speaking in Falmouth on March 1st. He is staying at the Woods Hole Inn that night and has offered to breakfast with guests and sign copies of his wonderful Cape Cod memoir over our gourmet coffee and chef Sara’s sweet delights.
George is my first cousin and the characters who inhabit his book are my family. The now-famous “big house” out on Wings Neck belonged to my grandmother Mary Forbes Atkinson. And it is my father who (along with George’s father) once dominated the tennis scene there, my Aunt Mary who taught the young Colt boys to fish, my Aunt Sandy who died so young of cancer that she left a baby boy who grew up as my defacto brother. See, it’s close stuff.
Having a memoir-ist in the family is a scary proposition — will we like how we are described? — but George supplies such insight, affection and humor that I found his book touching, revealing and a wonderful page-turner (and I know the ending!). I look forward to my boys being old enough to read it. They will laugh and cry along with the countless others who have enjoyed the book, all the while learning more about than I can possibly remember to tell them about our eccentric family.
So consider coming by the Woods Hole Inn on a cold day in March. I like to think of the Inn as a new kind of “Big House” where book lovers can wake from a restful sleep and then congregate over the kind of gourmet breakfast that my grandfather used to make (without his habit of using every pot and pan in the kitchen). We keep spares of George’s book around so if you can’t come in March, feel free to come later and extend your stay to finish it. It really is a great read.
George Colt lecture and reading at 7 pm March 1, 2010 at Falmouth Academy. Breakfast with George on Tuesday March 2nd at the Inn approx 8 – 9 am. Interested locals also welcome for coffee and a bite, just call us so we will have enough pound cake for you:)
POST SCRIPT – This post is so popular! Many people have asked me what the Big House looks like now. I visit it regularly to pay respects to my Aunts Ellen and Mary who are often there. So here is a glimpse of the renovated house, saved from the wrecking ball by my lovely first cousin and her husband. Still the steep roof and the commanding views of the Bay, with all the charm of my grandparents and less eel grass insulation and mice:)