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Summer House


Charlotte had already picked the lettuces and set them, along with the bunches of asparagus tied with twine and the mason jars of fresh-faced pansies, out on the table in a shaded spot at the end of the drive. In July, she would have to pay someone to man the farm stand, but in June not so many customers were around, and those who did come by found a table holding a wicker basket with a small whiteboard propped next to the basket. In colored chalk, the prices for the day’s offerings were listed, and a note: Everything picked fresh today. Please leave the money in the basket. Thanks and blessings from Beach Grass Garden. She hadn’t been cheated yet. She knew the customers thought this way of doing business was quaint, harkening back to a simpler time, and they appreciated it. Perhaps it helped them believe the world was still a safe and honest place.

The day was overcast but hoeing was hot work and she had been up since four-thirty. Charlotte collapsed against the trunk of an apple tree, uncapped her water bottle, and took a long delicious drink. Nantucket had the best water on the planet: sweet, pure, and clear. It was shady in this overgrown spot, so she lifted off the floppy straw hat she wore, in addition to a heavy slathering of sunblock, and sighed in appreciation as a light breeze stirred her hair.

She couldn’t linger, she had too much to do. She took another long drink of water, listened to her stomach rumble, and considered returning to the house for an early lunch.

When she heard the voices, she almost jumped.

People were talking on Bill Cooper’s side of the fence, just behind the green tangle of wild grapevines. Hunky Bill Cooper and his gorgeous girlfriend. From the tense rumble of Coop’s voice and Miranda’s shrill whine, they weren’t happy.

“Come on, Mir, don’t be that way.” Bill’s tone was placating but rimmed with an edge of exasperation.

“What way would that be?” A sob caught in Miranda’s throat.


The moment had definitely passed, Charlotte decided, when she could clear her throat, jump up, and call out a cheerful hello. Vague snuffling sounds informed her that Bill’s dogs, Rex and Regina, were nearby, nosing through the undergrowth. She thought about the layout of Bill’s land: along the other side of the fence grew his everlasting raspberry bushes. The berries wouldn’t be ripe yet, so Bill and Miranda must be taking the dogs for a walk as they often did. She was glad the berry bushes grew next to the fence, their prickly canes forming a barrier between Bill’s land and Nona’s. A tangle of grasses massed around barberry bushes was wedged against the fence, and then there were the tree trunks. They would pass by any moment now. She would keep very quiet. Otherwise it would be too embarrassing, even though she had a right and a reason to be here.

“I never lied to you, Miranda. I told you I wasn’t ready for a longterm commitment, especially not when you’re in New York all winter.”

“You could come visit me.”

“I don’t like cities,” Bill argued mildly.

“Well, that’s pathetic. And sleeping with that --- that slut --- is pathetic.”

Miranda was striding ahead of Bill. She cried out, “Rex, you stupid, stupid dog! You almost tripped me.”

 “Mir, simmer down.” Bill sounded irritable, at the end of his patience. Miranda didn’t reply but hurried into the orchard of ancient apple trees. Bill followed, crashing through the brush. Charlotte could hear a few more words --- I’m not kidding! It’s over, Bill! --- then she heard the hum of their voices but no words, and then they were gone.

“Gosh,” Charlotte whispered to herself.

Charlotte had had a crush on Bill Cooper for years. Coop was a hunk, but so easygoing and funny that when you talked with him you could almost forget how handsome he was. She seldom saw him, even though he lived right next door. Of course, “right next door” was a general term. Nona’s property consisted of ten acres with fifty feet of waterfront on Polpis Harbor, and the Coopers’ land was about the same size. With all the plantings, you couldn’t see one house from the other, even in winter when all the leaves had fallen.

Like the Wheelwrights, the Coopers mostly summered on the island, the Wheelwrights coming from Boston, the Coopers from New York. Eons ago, when they were all little kids, Coop had played a lot with Charlotte’s brother Oliver, even though Oliver was younger, because Coop was an only child, and the two families got together several times over the summer for cocktails or barbecues. Then came the years when they rarely saw each other, everyone off in college and backpacking in summer instead of coming to the island.

Coop lived in California for a while, but three years ago his parents moved to Florida and Coop moved into the island house, telling everyone he wanted to live here permanently. He ran a computer software business from his nineteen-sixties wandering ranch house, mixed his plasma TV and Bose CD player in with his family’s summery bamboo and teak furniture, and was content. Mostly he allowed his land to grow wild, except for a small crop of butter-andsugar corn famous for its sweetness. At the end of the summer, he held a party outdoors, a clambake with fresh corn, cold beer, and icy champagne.

Charlotte had seen Coop and Miranda about town now and then, when she went in to catch a movie or pick up a prescription at the pharmacy. It was obvious why any man would fall in love with Miranda Fellows. She was a dark-eyed beauty hired to run Luxe et Volupté, an upscale clothing shop on Centre Street. She was British, and her accent thrilled the young, beautiful, rich, social-climbing set, men as well as women. She was such a snob, and Coop was such a genuine good guy, they seemed like an odd pair, but Charlotte hadn’t allowed herself romantic thoughts about Coop.

She hadn’t allowed herself romantic thoughts about any man for quite a long while.

Her own move to Nantucket had not been a lighthearted, impulsive act. She’d thought about it a lot. She’d searched her soul. She came to Nantucket to get away from men --- at least from one particular man --- and to somehow balance with good acts the wrong she’d done. Her organic garden was her own self-imposed penance and repentance, and she’d been diligent and hardworking and nunlike for three years. She didn’t know when her penance would be over... but she knew she would find out when the time came. Until then, she forced herself to work hard, every day.

She stood up and stretched. On this June day, the sky was overcast, but Charlotte wore a long-sleeved T-shirt, a pair of striped bib overalls, and the floppy straw hat. She’d been burned too many times after carelessly exposing her pale skin to the sun. She’d learned her lesson.

Gardening seemed endlessly full of lessons, ones that had to be learned through personal experience instead of research and memorization. She liked that about working in a garden --- the directness of it, the intimacy. It was so personal. No wonder people talked to their plants. Sometimes Charlotte sang to hers. And there was one stubborn wild rose, a rogue at the far end of the rows of winter onions, that had proudly kept a few green leaves all through the frigid winter. Charlotte actually visited it, touching its chilled leaves and whispering to it to cheer it on. When a failing plant began to thrive, she felt it as a personal victory; she believed it was her good work that somehow brought about good results.

Now she scrutinized the long rows of plants shining beneath the sun. At the far end, Jorge, her part-time employee, was plucking weeds and tossing them into a bucket. Jorge was a good, fast worker, and she was lucky to have him, because hand weeding was backbreaking work and absolutely necessary for an organic garden. There were many positive aspects about growing lettuces on the island ---  lettuce liked sandy soil and cool weather, and Nantucket had plenty of both, even in the summer. And since her lettuces were harvested while they were still young, they were seldom in the soil long enough to develop insect and disease problems. But weeds were her nemesis. By U.S. Department of Agriculture standards, chemical weed killers couldn’t be used in an organic garden, and Charlotte didn’t want to use them. The first year, she had tried to do everything herself, the seeding, planting, weeding, watering, and picking, in addition to taking the lettuces and other veggies to the various posh restaurants that would pay her prices for fresh locally grown produce, and at night she’d tried to keep up with the necessary paperwork for taxes and for her records. She just hadn’t been able to do it all. Fortunately, Nona’s landscaper, who had tended her formal garden regularly for years, recommended Jorge, and Jorge had saved the day.

Jorge was weeding now and would weed most of the day. Charlotte ran down her mental list of duties. She wanted to plant more lettuces and arugula and, if she had time, pot the double impatiens people bought the instant they were available. She walked back to her work shed, trying hard not to think about Coop.

She would think about her family. That would provide sufficient distraction!

Three years ago, she’d presented her plan at Family Meeting and no one, not her brothers and not her cousins, had objected to Charlotte’s use of the roadside end of Nona’s land for a trial market garden. Even when she had the ground rototilled so that the familiar bronze tones of wild brush and grasses were transformed into shining rows of dark sandy earth, even when dump trucks unloaded good soil and manure that smelled to high heaven, even when men came to build an unattractive wire fence around the garden to keep out deer, rabbits, and other wildlife, and especially not when Charlotte contributed sweet fresh strawberries or crisp lettuces to the family meals, did anyone in the family object.

But last year Charlotte had made a profit of four thousand dollars, and suddenly everyone --- well, her aunt and uncle and her cousins --- was having fits of jealousy, claiming that Nona was giving more to Charlotte than to the rest of them. Which was crazy of them, because to them four thousand dollars was just nothing.

It was not the four thousand dollars, really, Charlotte knew, that was the issue. It was the whole property, land and house and beach, worth several million, that everyone wanted --- and, rightfully, had a claim to. Nona was almost ninety; she couldn’t live forever, even though everyone wished she might and Nona herself seemed to think it possible. Nona had two living children --- Charlotte’s father, Worth, and his sister, Grace --- two in-laws --- Charlotte’s mother, Helen, and Grace’s husband, Kellogg --- six grandchildren, and --- from Mandy, Grace’s daughter --- two great-grandchildren. Nona had not, would not, disclose the details of her will, even though at each annual Family Meeting her children pressed her. When the time is right, she would respond, and it didn’t matter if they claimed to be insulted, she wouldn’t change her mind.

The three acres of land constituting Charlotte’s garden didn’t belong to Charlotte. There had never been any kind of arrangement like that, and in fact Charlotte had insisted on paying a token rent to her grandmother for the use of the land. But no one in the family had ever expected her to stick with gardening; they had all assumed that sooner or later Charlotte would think up some more appealing project and wander away, letting the acreage revert to its natural state.

Well, she was proving them wrong. Her grueling, dogged physical labor had paid off in unexpected ways. No one had expected her garden to be a success; she could understand that completely. She’d never been dedicated to anything before.

When she was younger, she’d had trouble settling down to any kind of career. In college, she’d never known what she wanted to major in. She spent her early twenties drifting from place to place and job to job. She’d tried writing for a newspaper in the Northampton area where she went to college, and then she tried selling ads for them, and then she went backpacking in Europe and forgot about the newspaper. In Italy she met an old friend from college who was starting a chic shop on Newbury Street, and in a moment of enthusiasm and too much Chianti, she’d agreed to return home to manage it. She’d done all right, but she’d grown bored with retail, so she waited tables for a while, thinking she might learn about the restaurant business, but that hadn’t captured her soul either.

When her father suggested again that she try to learn the family business, she surrendered. She’d always known she would, sooner or later. She adored her father and wanted to please him, and she had worked in the bank for three long years. She’d started as a lowly teller, and then worked in residential lending and for a while in operations. She did her best --- and she’d hated every minute of it.

Oh, in the very beginning, she’d had fun with the dress-up aspect of office work. She’d bought some clever little suits and killer high heels. Her parents gave her an expensive coffee-dark leather briefcase with gleaming brass buckles for her birthday, and she carried it to the bank daily, but in truth she was more impressed with how it looked as an accessory than what it ever had in it. Numbers numbed her mind. Graphs, rows, charts, and bank language made her eyes roll back in her head. “Liquidation” made her thirsty, and “asset class” made her think, childishly, of her bum. But Charlotte knew her father hoped at least one of his children had inherited his passion for banking, and she always wanted to make her father happy, so she tried. She really did try.

But she’d hated it. She’d been not just bored but miserable. Perhaps that explained why she had an affair, but it did not make it right. Nothing could ever make it right. But she could try, somehow, to make amends.

When she decided to attempt a market garden, she did so from the deepest part of her heart. She truly believed that one person could change the world --- just a little bit --- for the better, every day, and to do this through hard physical labor made a kind of sense to her. Plus, her idea was good. Everyone was trying to buy locally now, and on Nantucket there were plenty of posh restaurants and wealthy people who would pay top prices for organic produce. After her decision to leave the bank, Charlotte had determined not to appear like a feather brain in front of her family. She prepared a business plan and made copies for everyone, and she kept records, paid taxes, and worked her butt off. Also, she was living with Nona, which meant free room and board for Charlotte but relieved the family of no small amount of financial obligation, not to mention personal duty.

After Charlotte’s grandfather Herb died five years ago, Nona had surprised her family by stating that she wanted to sell the Boston house and move permanently to Nantucket. Worth and Grace had objected strenuously. You are eighty-five, Nona, they reminded her. Nantucket is an island with a small cottage hospital. Your health might be fine now, but what if something happens? And think of the winters, so long and dreary. You’ll be so isolated. None of your relatives lives on the island, and most of your island friends have died of old age. And that house is so huge --- think of the expense of heating it! And what if you fall down the stairs? In the middle of the night! We will worry about you every moment of every day!

Nona was never one to admit to any shortcomings, and the truth was that she was in excellent health for a woman her age. She insisted on moving to the island house, and to satisfy her anxious offspring she hired Glorious Wellington from Kingston, Jamaica, to live with her and act as housekeeper and, if necessary, nurse, for Glorious was an LPN. Glorious was in her thirties, a tall, broad-shouldered, voluptuous woman with a gentle voice and an easy laugh.

Nona’s children weren’t thrilled with this expenditure of money for live-in help, but it was Nona’s money, after all. And after the first year, they had to admit that Nona seemed to do very well indeed, living in that drafty old wooden yacht of a house, even in the winter. She had friends over once a week to play bridge, and she attended lectures, plays, and concerts, driven to all events by Napoleon Posada in his ancient Cadillac taxi, where Nona sat in the front seat and caught up on all the local gossip, for Napoleon knew it all.

Still, as each year passed, Nona slowed down just a little. Arthritis crippled her, so she needed a cane to walk and could no longer jump up and rush up stairs the way she had all her life. Her hearing and sight were diminished, and more and more she seemed to be forgetful, absentminded. When Glorious had to fly back to Jamaica when her own mother was ill, Nona assured everyone she was fine alone for a few days. But Helen had made a little spur-of-the-moment trip down from Boston and discovered that for three days Nona had pretty much forgotten to eat. When Helen pointed this out, Nona had argued that at her age she didn’t need much to survive.

Luckily for Charlotte, this was just a month before Family Meeting, and when she submitted her market garden plan, everyone in the family saw at once how helpful it would be to have a member of the family living full-time in the house with Nona.

The arrangement had worked out nicely for everyone. Or it had, until her relatives learned that she’d actually made a profit on her harebrained scheme.

Would it be better, somehow, if her garden enterprise failed?

Carrying a long woven basket piled with weeds for the compost heap, Charlotte headed back through the rows of growing plants to the greenhouse. Her back and arms ached pleasantly. She liked this feeling, liked having worked hard. How different it was from the bank, where she had spent each day with a cramped back and a crashed brain. Now she felt healthy, clear-eyed, well-used.

And she felt guilty for even this much pleasure.

Summer House
by by Nancy Thayer

  • Genres: Fiction
  • hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345498208
  • ISBN-13: 9780345498205