I’ve been interested in reading what has happened to the wide-flung family that George Howe Colt describes so well in his book, “The Big House.” It’s amazing what you can discover on line, particularly obituaries when the older generation begins to pass away.
For example, Aunt Ellen Singer, whose marriage might have put her parents at odds with her and her five offspring, was banished from the big Wings Neck house while she was growing up, through her adulthood and even into her sixties. Then, one of her children, Mary Forbes Singer, and her investment partner fiance, David, got married and managed to pull off the purchase of the old house with varying concessions from others (e.g., Aunt Mary, who lived in a small apartment in Montreal delayed payment of her share.) It is there now, much reduced in size, modernized into a year-round home in which Aunt Ellen drew her last breath. And you thought “Howard’s End” was ironic about houses?
In his next book, “Brothers . . .,” the George Colt writes about how he and his three brothers grew up, their personalities, their rivalries and how they turned out in life. Interspersed in separate sections, are vignettes about other famous brothers: for example, Thoreau and his brother, John Wilkes Booth and his brother, the Kennedy and Marx brothers.
While historical brothers serve as interesting biographical filler sandwiched in with his family’s story, I found the chapters about his brothers to be the most interesting. They were so full of humor, wit and insight that I began thinking about what is truly so special about the Colt family. And that is love, dear reader.
Although they each have their individual hard times during puberty and college, they grow apart and then, they start to grow together. Their parents also have their hard times with alcoholism and growing apart. But everyone stays together and then they come together. Later in life, they really love each other and show it in so many thoughtful ways. Is this a kind of loyalty that stems from the Boston Brahmin culture they come from, calling each other long distance during suspenseful Red Sox games, holding a vigil with their parents when Ned, a foreign correspondent, gets kidnapped by the Taliban?
While I was reading and noticing the connections filled with love and caring, I began to look around me to consider if there are similar examples in people that I knew. We were an immigrant family during the McCarthy and “communist scare” era, struggling from the get-go to make a life for ourselves against rampant discrimination all through school. Our Chinese parents were close-lipped about how well we did in school and grudging about how we could have done better. That they were unhappily married for as long as I knew them didn’t help.
Other friends of mine had families of hardship in one way or another: very large families (13 children!); father figures who were stern and notorious for being harsh with their wives and children. Another friend and her siblings were children of divorced parents from another country who were raised by nannies, in private schools and hardly knew each other, never mind cared much about each other. Plus, they were British–stiff upper lip and class conscious, you know.
So, back to this gregarious, successful and very humanitarian family of Colts. They had largesse as part of their upbringing. There was enough money for most of them who wanted to study at Harvard to go. They were well educated and read books all their lives–or at least had an opportunity to read them. They were sports people–they swam, sailed, played tennis and grew up with word games, charades and the like. They ate breakfasts cooked by their father, not a maid, waking up to the smell of bacon, Jones sausage and toast spread with Keiller orange marmalade. They had the good fortune to have a huge summer house to visit every year of their lives, some of the years, the house even lay empty because nobody could make it that year. They had so much quality time spent together in summers at the house on Wings Neck and growing up in Boston.
I’m not saying that wealth produces love, but in this family, they had the resources to spend a lot of quality, pleasure-ful, fun time together growing up. And they made something of themselves too. One is a foreign correspondent, one is a physician who runs a medical residential program in Maine; one toils at a school for the blind and takes care of his parents nearby. And George, the writer who almost won a National Book Award with his volume, “The Big House” is married to Anne Fadiman, (her father was Clifton Fadiman) whose book about a medical crisis between the Hmong and western medical profession in California, DID win the National Book Circle of Critics Award. Can you imagine being a part of such high achievers?
The four brothers are in their sixties now, the father has passed on and the mother still lives in an assisted living place in Easthampton. Not surprisingly, they have banded together to build a time-share house on the Cape for their four families to spend their summers, now that the big house on WIngs Neck has passed along to another branch of the family.
So what about love? Why are some siblings so close and loyal to each other. And others are closed, competitive and even mistrustful of each other? I think it’s due to the attitude of the parents themselves. If they openly favor certain siblings, there often results a conflict between pairs within families: mother/son versus father/daughter. And some are left over and out of it too, for better or worse.
And if there’s not much love in the air to be observed while you’re growing up, then, how does one get an idea of what it feels like or looks like? Conflict between parents, whether it’s open or muted, sets the tone for everyone growing up. The kids always know the lay of the land. Anyhow, if you had love in your childhood, you’re really lucky. If not, many of us look for other ways to make up for it. We just don’t know how to go about loving people ourselves very well. Sometimes, it takes years of practice.
Meanwhile, reading about these brothers is inspiring, even if all you have are sisters.