"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" ~ Mary Oliver

Tag: George Howe Colt

brotherly love . . .


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.



“the big house” . . .

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Although I’ve had this book, “The Big House” (written by George Howe Colt) on my shelves since it was published a decade ago, I’ve just recently found and read it again. It is a poignant memoir about a huge weathered house on the Cape that has been in his family for almost a century.The first few times through, I was put off by the somewhat lengthy digressions that he makes about the “white WASP” Brahmin society from which he derives. Everyone goes to Harvard. Everyone, it seems, has money that they don’t have to earn. There is a degree of genteel snobbery towards others as well. And there’s plenty of marital discord, infidelity and alcoholism, not to mention mental illness to go around.

This sounds rather harsh, but perhaps it’s because I am one of those immigrants who drive by these majestic homes along the North Shore or on the Cape, where the “big house” is located on Wings Neck looking over Buzzard’s Bay and wonder to myself “who are these people” who live in these homes? Now we know, at least for this particular huge house near Woods Hole on the Cape.

DSCN1692Truth be told, my own home lies within a “big house” too. It’s a Queen Anne Victorian house built in 1899, at the turn of the century a few years earlier than the Wings Neck House, built in 1901. Colt’s family is one of those lucky ones where real estate overlooking the ocean is built by an ancestor, then handed down for almost a century for future generations to live in, rent out or to wait until such time that it is sold, the proceeds divided among the survivors.

Reading Colt’s description of what their “big house” meant to him, his wife, children and his large family of fifteen cousins over the years gives an insider’s look at their family. He describes times when an S.S. Pierce truck would pull up to the house, unloading staples like Keiller’s orange marmalade in grey pottery jars; Jones’ breakfast sausage and enough bacon to serve the hordes for breakfast every morning. Also beautifully described, because the author is a writer by profession, is his love of books, particularly his descriptions by title, depth and variety of books shelved in every room of the 13 bedroom house. When it’s his turn to pick something to keep from the house, it is the turn-of-the-century volumes of Dickens he read as a child while lolling on the chaise longue in one of the sitting rooms of the house.

There are estrangements between husbands and wives and financial constraints that hinder the family’s wish to keep the big house in the family even though taxes and repairs are a yearly burden. Yet, this large family holds itself together with a pervasively gracious consideration for each other that permeates the ending of this great house. The last quarter of the book is worth re-reading just to witness how the family interacts with each other as bids come in from developers who want to raze it to the ground and name a subdivision after their family, “Colt’s Pointe.”

I will let you read the book yourself to see what happens to the house, letting you know that it is not unlike the outcome of “Howard’s End,” that beautiful novel where a house becomes a living character in a story that has its own destiny, out of reach of what people want or don’t want to happen, no matter how fiercely they struggle with each other as tragedy unfolds.

As for living in our big house, I look around me to appreciate again the hard work and resources that have been poured into renewing this place, the quality of the woodworking and materials and most of all, that we have the good fortune to live in the spacious vaulted space with skylights that it provides us with. And on a smaller scale, books shelved everywhere.


Reading about a big house on the Cape has re-ignited my appreciation of our own house: the cherry floorboards up the original staircase with cherry bannisters, the wide board pine floors on the upper floor where we live, the cedar shake siding that clads the house, handcrafted copper gutters and downspouts, the stained glass windows on the first floor that abut the wisteria bower where a family of cardinals live.

Life is long, I am wont to say. Rather than cramming as much as we can into our day because we are fearful that “life is short,” and could be cut off at anytime, I am impressed over and over again by observing how life unfolds when we seem to have virtually nothing to do with the outcome. I don’t know why I landed here in a second marriage after a long, unhappy first one that had left me high and dry. Nor did it seem possible for G. and me to make such a fitting home for ourselves relatively late in life.

All I know is that our glass is more than half full and when we partake from it, it’s helpful to remember the effort that has gone into making it so. And to be thankful.