I was twelve, maybe thirteen when I went golfing with my brother, father and grandmother. We were halfway through a round near her home in Rockport when we noticed that someone had left a putter on the previous hole. Technically you weren’t supposed to drive a golf cart until you were fourteen, but I was behind the wheel with my grandmother in the passenger seat next to me. I banked the cart up and around, driving like an asshole, and fired us back towards the green where we spotted the putter. An adult would simply stop the cart, get out and pick up the club. Being an asshole kid, I decided it would be faster to simply lean out while driving by and pick it up on the fly.
You can probably see where this is going.
As I approached the putter, I tapped the brake to slow us down. Or intended to. What actually happened was that I hit the accelerator. A few seconds later, I’d been ejected onto the green and the cart had powered into a service ditch with my grandmother in it. Miraculously, she was thrown free and not crushed. Or even hurt, though she was now covered in mud and goose shit. The cart, however, was perpendicular to the ground and sinking. It was pretty obviously not coming out under human power, let alone the muscle of one man, two kids and the man’s mother. We tried anyway.
On the way home, my father was apoplectic. As my brother tells the story, he was so angry he issued the following edict: “We will never laugh about this. Ever.” When we got back to the Rockport House on Penryn Way, I disappeared up to the attic for three days, coming down only for meals.
All these years later, we still laugh about that story.
What O’Grady’s call the Rockport House, proper noun, has been in our family as best we can recall since 1905. Originally a summer home, it was purchased from siblings and winterized by my grandparents. Perched atop a rise which Google Maps tells me is 800 feet back from Pebble Beach, the front of the house looks out over the beach to the Atlantic. Milk Island’s to the right, Thacher and its twin lights left. When we were a little older than my nephews in the above photo, we used to sit on the deck and watch for large ships to pass by. Yachts, freighters, lobster boats, or, if we were really lucky, something military. We’d scan them using a pair of old German Army field glasses, brought back from the second World War by my great-grandfather.
It was our YouTube.
This is how my brother and me grew up at that house. We spent countless summer hours building sand castles with our cousins, hugely elaborate affairs architected to resist the tide. We picked through the rocks of Loblolly for beach glass. Red was the most coveted color, almost never found, blue a close second. We sailed the toy boats we bought down on Bearskin Neck in pools left behind by the tide. We played and swam off the rocks of the beach. To prove we were tough, we’d go swimming on Memorial Day with water temps in the low sixties. This left me with pneumonia twice, but I could call myself tough.
On the way back from the beach through the tall grass path, one of us kids would step on a thorn and implode into tears. Up at the house, someone else would get a splinter from the aging deck. In return for being brave and not crying while the splinter was fished out with a needle, we’d get a bottle of Twin Lights soda. Fruit Punch was it for me, Lemon-Lime a close second. Reading between the lines on Wikipedia, Twin Lights appears not long for this world. It’ll soon be just another forgotten artisanal brand, and its best hope probably lies in the hands of discovery by future hipsters.
We had a game we’d play with our cousins on the rocks behind the Rockport House. I don’t remember it having a name. Probably it was something like “matchboxes.” It went like this:
- Pool our respective matchbox cars.
- Push them, one at a time, down the rocky incline.
- Pick up a rock and crush the matchbox into flattened pieces of metal and plastic, the better to simulate a real car crash.
- Ask for more matchboxes.
So we never had many matchboxes. Resupply request denied and forbidden from destroying anything else, we’d turn to the board games my grandmother kept in the storage lockers – Stratego was my favorite – under her window seats. We also played a lot of cards. At one point while we were learning poker, I stacked a deck so that my younger brother would have a king high royal flush. Great hand, but surprise! I also had a royal flush, ace high.
The movie Gremlins came out in 1984, which was how our black lab puppy ended up with the name Gizmo. From the day we first brought her there until the day she died, Gizmo was never happier than she was at the Rockport House. We’d spend days at the beach, taking turns throwing the ball into the surf for her for hours. Back at the house, we’d look around and she’d be gone. She knew the way to the beach as well as we did, and would sneak down without us to try and find some poor victim at the beach to throw the ball for her. Most days we figured this out in time, and then there’d be an argument about whose turn it was to go back to the beach to collect her. Others, someone on the beach would get pissed at this crazy barking animal that wanted nothing more than fetch the ball forever, call animal control and she’d end up in the canine equivalent of the drunk tank. We had to bail her out more than once.
As Gizmo got older, she began to go blind. She never stopped loving that beach, though. The trick was having a handful of small stones on hand. Throw the ball into the surf, and she’d take off in pursuit – arthritis just a memory. Being blind, she had no idea where the ball was. You had to lead her in by landing small stones to splash just in front of her nose until she ran into the ball and triumphantly returned with it. Then barked at you to throw it again.
Another summer we brought my Tuxedo-colored cat – ostensibly named Sylvester, though we never called him that – up to Rockport with us. The day after we arrived, he disappeared. He was a one person cat whose one person was me, so I was crushed. Two days later, he casually wandered in the door having gained a noticeable amount of weight. Turned out the neighbors had had a wedding reception at their house, and with guests dropping pieces of shrimp or lobster every so often, he’d been sitting under their deck eating like a king.
Once a few of us kids even snuck up to the World War II submarine watch tower up the road, which was on private property at the time, for an up close and personal look at the relic. For a giant concrete tower hastily erected by the military during wartime and later effectively abandoned, it was surprisingly ordinary. Great views though.
The house at Rockport also served as a base of operations for trips into Fenway. In that way, the house is part of why I’m a Red Sox fan. I was at Rockport the summer I went to my first game. Most adults talk about their first trip to the park with reverence, speaking of their first look at the Monster in hushed tones. What I remember was that Jim Rice hit a foul liner that hit the kid sitting next to me in the stomach. He ended up being ok, but gotten take out on a stretcher.
My favorite memory of the Rockport House, however, will always be the attic. Originally a summer house, the winterization effort ended at the second floor. Sleeping up in the attic was like sleeping outdoors. When it rained, you’d fall asleep to the rain softly pinging off the roof. And the smell of that old wood.
It still smelled like that when I was up there for the last time in February.
In many ways, my cousins, my brother and myself were just following in our parents footsteps. Those rocks on Pebble Beach that we grew up playing on? They’d all been named by my father and his siblings before us. Station Rock was a gray, flat rock halfway out. Turtle Rock was just what it sounds like. The Dives were the end of the rocks, and when we were old enough we’d have to time a dive off of them with a swell, and swim the long way back around to the beach.
In his younger days, my father spent a lot of summers playing tennis, racing sailboats and lobstering off Cape Ann. Incidentally, curious where the best hauls were? Near the town sewage outlet.
A hell of an athlete, just like his mother, my father accumulated tennis cup after tennis cup winning tournaments in the area. Trophies that later served as table centerpieces for my wedding.
Another time, he and my uncle were racing Fireflies out near the Rockport breakwater when their boat capsized and the mast snapped off. Eventually, they were recovered and brought in. Laying on the wharf when they got back, caught not a 100 yards from where they’d gone into the water? An 11′ shark.
It’s hard to conceive of this these days, but my father would hitch back and forth from the house to Williams, which I later attended. It was a different time, I guess. Halfway through school, he met my Mom and she was introduced to the house. Unlike some sixty thousand other Americans of the Vietnam Era, after volunteering for the service he came home to the Rockport House unharmed.
I’m not entirely sure, because there were so many events at the house over the years, but I think it might have been my aunt’s wedding where one of my cousins snuck me my first beer.
It tasted awful, but then it was a Bud Heavy.
As the years passed, so did the milestones. I realized my first serious girlfriend was my first serious girlfriend when we drove down to the Rockport House from Williams for Easter in my old Mustang. We slept in the attic and listened to the rain.
When I graduated, I interviewed for several jobs in the Boston area. I used the Rockport House as my launching pad for these trips, as I was living in Manhattan at the time. My grandmother would make me dinner and see me off in the morning in my brand new interview suit – charcoal gray. One of those interviews led to a job with Boston-based Keane, which is how I ended up in the technology industry in the first place.
The final Rockport House milestone for me, as it turned out, was my engagement. In the summer of 2009, my grandfather had been gone for many years. My grandmother’s health began to fail. Then only dating Kate, I moved up my plans to propose to her by a few months so that Grammie might have some good news before she passed. Kate and I were engaged in August of that year. A month later, I was told I was told to come down as soon as I could.
Hopping in a car, Kate and I sprinted down from Maine. We didn’t make it in time. I got the call somewhere on Rt-133 in Essex, twenty minutes from the hospital. I had to pull over. Though I never got the chance to say goodbye to my grandmother, I like to think she knew I was in good hands.
Three years later, I was walking across the beach in bare feet with my brother next to me and his son on my shoulders to spread her ashes along with the rest of our family. My godson had many questions about why we were there, and what we were doing. I answered what I could.
To get to Penryn Way, you start at the top of Penryn Lane. The road is narrow, barely one car wide, and frequently washed out. When we were little, our dad would sit us in his lap at the top of this narrow, winding lane and let us “drive” the couple of hundred feet down to the house. It makes you feel very grown up, driving. Not that we could reach the pedals or were even actually steering.
If it were up to me, the Rockport House would be handed down to a member of the family. But we’re spread far and wide these days, and that’s not going to happen. The house has marked the passage of my life from infant to child to teenager to college student to adult, as it did for generations before me. Now it’s gone. The closing was today.
It’s strange to think that I’ll never drive down Penryn Way again. But I hope the Rockport House gives its new owners a hundred years as good as the ones it provided the O’Grady’s.
I’ll miss it.