Thursday, June 10, 1999
Nina, from Salinas, has a mother—a mother I knew. And a grandmother I’d also met. And sometime before Nina and I were born, her grandparents built a summer home on what’s now the National Seashore of Cape Cod—meaning it’s federally protected from the rest of us.
Specifically, the house is in Truro, though built years before that quiet village became a punch line to New York psychiatrist jokes. Nina’s grandparents first bought the land, then hauled a two-room fishing shack onto it, where they lived while the main house was constructed.
That shanty is now their guest cottage. But even expanded with a small porch and a closet bedroom, I don’t know how four people—two of them teenaged girls—ever lived there. Still, there were bigger family adventures before that: in the mid-1920’s Nina’s granddad fled Germany to save his life. First, he went to South America, where he worked as a government advisor. He was so successful there, that when asked what he most wanted, he got, “A visa to the U.S.”
Nina’s grandmother joined him in New York, leaving Germany just in time to save her own life. They founded a nursery, which eventually sent their daughters to college, and them into comfortable retirement. When Nina’s grandmother died—at ninety-four, after long-outliving her husband—the house went to Nina’s mom and her aunt. But Anne quickly bought out her West coast sister.
Nina visits every August, though she isn’t even a psychologist. And I’ve often been told, “Just stop by, whenever you’re in the area.” A pretty safe invitation since I live three-thousand miles away.
But I like the Cape—in off-season. Though I nearly had my car towed in Provincetown one December. Another time, I was almost ticketed for somehow forgetting to wear my bathing suit.
We were on the sand dunes where Eugene O’Neill once romped. A motorized beach cop, tricycle-riding and clearly descended from Salem witch hunters, felt I was being immodest. To whom? Nina, topless, was doing a crossword puzzle, I was in water up to my chest, and we were easily a mile from any other topless, half-submerged, crossword-working couple.
So when Tom and I reached Massachusetts, I called Nina’s mom, told her I was nearby with a friend and a dog, and asked if I could take her and Nina’s step-dad out to dinner. And, oh, yeah, could we stay the night?
“Sure,” Anne agreed, no more surprised than her daughter at one of my abrupt appearances—my friends’ parents have always liked me. Well, except for my high school girlfriend’s mother, always positive I was trying to drag us all onto a talk show. Of course, that girlfriend’s now a psychologist, too. But—best I know—she’s never summered on the Cape.
As soon as we parked the truck, Tom and I were greeted with drinks and snacks. Then we got a tour of Nina’s grandfather’s reconstructed garden.
Which I’d only seen in ruins, Nina’s granddad having died around when I’d met her in college. And while Nina’s grandmother was also a gardener, her husband had been the botanist, and she mainly the bookkeeper. Still, she made the investments, which yielded the cash, that put up the house in Truro.
Nina’s step-dad Howard was also a botanist, fairly well-known. Among other things, he’d been head of the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, and published a textbook that’s standard in its field. His restored gardens were amazing, especially compared to the overgrown bogs I’d been used to seeing. Hand-laid brick walks now led to vegetables and flowers. Homemade arbors supported circling vines. And the view, which previously ended at the deck, seemed to stretch a half-mile. Even the basement storage room I used to sleep in had been returned to its original use, as a potting shed.
While we toured, the dog had been safely locked on the guest cottage porch. I wasn’t sure that was necessary, but Tom, always cautious, wanted to protect the plants. Still, as Howard finished showing off his prunings, the pooch suddenly appeared.
“Anne must’ve let her out,” we guessed. But, no—Houdini-dog had done it again. She’d thrown herself though the screen door, desperately convinced the two goofballs had once again slipped into trouble, and she was needed to save the day.
“I’ll pay for it,” was the first thing Tom said.
“No, I will,” I insisted. Tom didn’t even know these people.
“It’s nothing,” Howard assured us. “I’ll fix it in a minute.”
He did, and after carefully locking the dog up again, this time behind secure windows, we all went to dinner.
Which was the first really good food we’d had since San Francisco. Tom ordered lobster, which it turned out he’d been wanting even longer than Howard Johnson’s clams. I picked steak, not just to be perverse in the land of seafood, but because it’s something they don’t seem to cook well in L.A. Anne and Howard had seasonal spawn.
Of course, when we got back, the dog had clawed through another screen, and nearly battered out a jalousie window. But the hinges held.
“I’ll pay for that, too,” Tom immediately reprised, and I didn’t protest having just paid for dinner.
“Don’t worry,” we were told again. And we all smiled, knowing I’d never be invited back. Afterward, privately, Tom playfully asked his mutt, “What are we going to do with you?” Naturally, he didn’t expect an answer. Though I was thinking the ocean.