Commercial Street begins in Provincetown’s quiet East End, just across the line from quiet Truro. The street name appears misleading at first, in this almost exclusively residential stretch, a mix of cottages, grand homes, and historic guesthouses. The crowds of tourists are absent for the first mile or so. My daughter and I especially enjoy exploring this serene section of the street, where lush gardens flourish and the waters of the bay provide a bright, sparkling backdrop.
A favorite subject of local artists, this white Dutch colonial, with its pristine lawn overlooking the bay, is the first home on Commercial Street’s East End.
Pigeons keep watch over Commercial Street from the dormer of the sturdy brick house where Norman Mailer lived and wrote for 25 years. After the author’s death, the home became the Norman Mailer Writers Colony.
An eighteenth-century Cape Cod cottage, glimpsed through the garden gate.
The gardens of Provincetown, though typcially small, are vigorously hardy, dramatic and colorful.
This spacious expanse of lawn, with its rugged old schoolyard swing set, is an odd, unexpected luxury in Provincetown, where bay-side land is at a great premium.
An artfully styled P-town compound, with a patriotic tableau of American flag and exuberant red and blue flowers in white window boxes.
At the Sea Urchin cottage, a profusion of wild roses and a sandy path to the water.
Tranquil spaces may be found even in the busiest section of Commercial Street, as here on the shady porch of Shor, a home furnishings showroom. Next door is the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House, built in 1847. The church’s front lawn, when not hosting an open-air market, offers an inviting escape from the crowds, as does its gracious interior, notable for the trompe l’oeil sculptural paintings in the sanctuary.
The beautifully detailed tower of the Meeting House.
This charming book store, located in a little house behind and surrounded by art galleries in the midst of Commercial Street, is reached by a tree-shaded pathway. D and I stop in at Tim’s to browse the shelves for interesting bargains and to enjoy the quiet.
Artists began to discover the small fishing village of Provincetown in the last decades of the nineteenth century. It quickly became established as an artist’s colony after Charles Hawthorne opened his Cape Cod School of Art in 1899. Now, over 40 galleries display a wide range of styles. In the hands of local artists, the regional tradition of atmospheric, Impressionistic landscapes, still lifes and figurative work remains vital and fresh. The gallery above specializes in bold contemporary Asian art. Many of the galleries are staffed by the artists themselves, who tend to be friendly and unpretentious.
The 200-year old Red Inn, which hosts one of the town’s most acclaimed restaurants, is in Commercial Street’s far West End, past the reach of the heaviest crowds. The deck, with its view of the harbor, is a spectacular spot for a sunset drink. Here, in the repose of early morning, neat white chairs welcome the promise of another beautiful day.
This year, H’s sister and her husband brought their three-month old baby to Cape Cod. We were not so brave. We waited until our daughter was two and a half. The year before, we had attempted our first family beach trip, to the Outer Banks, just the three of us. While it was a joy to experience the sun and sand from D’s fresh perspective, it not a vacation. The demands of our beautiful child, limitless as always in those early years, were more difficult to satisfy, being away from home. We were simply caregivers in an alien setting, and there was minimal opportunity for relaxation or enjoyment. When D was awake in the hotel, which was most of the time, H worried she would awaken or annoy our neighbors. On the rare occasions when she finally succumbed to sleep, these same neighbors typically awakened her and annoyed me. There was great collective frustration all around.
That trip made me reassess the Cape Cod complex that H’s family has visited for over thirty years. Some cottages are covered in white clapboard, others in weathered cedar shakes. All are small but charming. They cluster, like the homes of a compact village, around two spacious central greens and a pool. It’s timeless, quintessential Old Cape Cod, exactly the picture conjured by that 1950s Patti Page song of the same name. An immensely wide beach, unusual for Truro, provides a buffer zone from the water. Rather than the pounding surf of the Atlantic, there is the relative tranquility of the bay. It suddenly hit me that this was a decidedly welcoming environment for small children and their parents.
I realized that at the Cape there would be willing, helping hands, certainly those of Grandma and Grandpa, perhaps those of H’s sister and her husband. I wasn’t hoping to hand my child over completely, only grateful for any assistance that might be offered. I also knew by this time that our daughter tended to behave better when she knew there were other eyes on her besides those of Mama and Daddy.
H’s family’s adopted Cape Cod village opened its arms to welcome our daughter, and for her it was love at first sight. As children sometimes do, she appreciated the simplest things. She found it supremely entertaining to sit outside our cottage, pouring sand into a cup; she didn’t even need a pail or shovel. We would send her over to her grandparents’ cottage for cooking oil or butter, and she relished the responsibility. H would use the walkie-talkie to tell his parents D was on her way, and we’d keep her in our sights during her short journey. (There are no phones in the cottages, and before we were all so fiercely entangled in the web of technology, this meant an actual break from the typical work-a-day world.) Grandpa would signal D’s return, and she would arrive flushed and happy, more mature than when she had left.
There is a real sense of community in our vacation village, because families tend to return for the same week every year, and friendships are nourished. Most of the parents who are now H’s and my age grew up vacationing here with their families. Two sweet and thoughtful sisters, four and five years older than D, took her under their wings on our first visit. Through these girls, D became acquainted with kids of all ages. Even now, with one sister in college and the other a senior in high school, they remain close. All the kids look forward to their annual reunion. Friendships pick up seamlessly, as though no time has passed.
Above, D and her friends float in the calm shallows of the bay, a pastime that never gets old. Sometimes the waves kick up and boogie boards come in handy, but the water is never as rough as the ocean. Having grown up with the Cape’s prodigious seaweed, none of the girls finds it objectionable (as I did, at first). Neither are they squeamish about the amazing variety of life in the water, which includes tiny shrimp, eels, sea worms, insects we refer to as potato bugs, and a vast number of unidentifiable, speedily swimming slimy things. Some years there are hosts of jelly fish, but typically these are the small non-stinging kind, drifting in the water like blobs of translucent white paste. D and her friends have always collected these in buckets, examined them, and returned them to the water. The blue crabs that lurk in the sand are ready to rumble, pincers poised for an unsuspecting, intrusive toe. Occasionally we see multitudes of horseshoe crabs, the dinosaurs of the crustacean world. And there are the furry-looking spider crabs, of which D is inexplicably fond, despite her distaste for true arachnids.
At low tide, the water of the bay empties out nearly completely, so it’s almost possible to walk across to Provincetown. Starfish, sand dollars and scallop shells are revealed among the reeds. It’s time for D and her friends to build expansive sand compounds, which they populate with feisty hermit crabs and slow-moving moon snails. Before long, the tide turns and begins to inch back in. Islands of sand appear and gradually diminish. Soon the bountiful and diverse life of the bay is submerged once again.
This year, it was a blessing to welcome the new baby on the beach. It was also a blessing, at this stage of my life, to be the baby’s aunt rather than mother. D’s newest cousin looked out on the summer landscape from the shade of his peapod tent. When it appeared that even from that sheltered vantage point, the bright light made him cranky, Grandma and Grandpa went on a mission to Provincetown. They returned with infant sunglasses that strapped around the head with an elastic ribbon. This made their grandson, and all of us, much happier.
I had almost forgotten that magical essence of Baby. What a gift is a baby’s smile! How rewarding it is to share in his squeals of delight! Our darling nephew was just discovering his unique voice, and his vocal experiments were enchanting and enthusiastic. I had nearly forgotten the incomparable warmth and sweetness of a baby in my arms.
D treasured the time she spent with her cousin. For one week a year at least, he was, and will be, a substitute for the brother she never had. And I like to think that next year, when he’s old enough to walk, he will follow in our girl’s sandy footprints. I can see the two of them now, wandering through the sea grass, making their way down to the bay.
Our family vacation to Cape Cod, immediately followed by Vacation Bible School at our church, has kept me away from Wild Trumpet Vine for three weeks. I’m reorganizing and restructuring, picking through the accumulation.
It’s slow going. As everyone lucky enough to enjoy an actual vacation knows, the aftermath can be a struggle. I’m not complaining, simply stating the facts. There is, of course, the unloading of the jampacked car, after which the house becomes a confused muddle of disparate, sometimes nearly unrecognizable objects. Our vacation gear included bulky black plastic bags filled with slightly soured swimsuits and mounds of beach towels, still-sandy aqua-socks, a million pairs of other assorted footwear, enough damp rain jackets for a family of twelve, my Truro Vineyards wine, piles of sticky Penney Patch candy, the shells we foraged from the bay, the salt we boiled out of the sea, containers of half-eaten car snacks, and bundles of dog-eared magazines.
All this settled in uncomfortably with odd Vacation Bible School props such as Christmas lights, Bible-era robes, a blue wig, a garden trellis and a homemade catapult. Fortunately, H and D put most of the beach paraphernalia–the sand chairs and umbrellas, boogie boards, the thousand and one toys for throwing and digging, and H’s windsurfing board and sails–straight into the basement. An enormous tower of mail soon arrived, nearly all of it unwelcome. Kiko, back from the kennel, had begun to shed in dramatic earnest. A single pat of his skinny back sent clouds of fur whirling through the air, the final seasoning to the late-summer stew we were simmering. The clean-up is ongoing.
The lighthouse at Provincetown’s Wood End, seen from near the jetty.
Provincetown Harbour, showing the Pilgrim Monument and the towers of the Unitarian Church and and Town Hall.
The Wood End Light, seen from our stomping grounds in Truro.
Our backyard, when we first moved into our house, was not really a yard at all. It was a rather dismal expanse of cracked concrete. The previous owner was the developer who built the neighborhood in the 1970s. He used the large detached garage to store heavy machinery. There was a small back porch, to which a wooden wheelchair ramp had been added during the last years of the owner’s life. The only greenery was an enormous blue spruce that hid the oil tank and sheltered many bird families.
To my husband, the back of the house and its surrounding concrete pad resembled an old gas station. From the very beginning, he saw it as something that cried out for major changes. I wasn’t as harsh a judge. While the area wasn’t pretty, certainly, I saw a convenient play area for our daughter, a place for hopscotch and exuberant chalk drawings. I envisioned it busy with various toddler vehicles, followed later by a tricycle and a bicycle.
The ramp was ugly, but it served an immediate purpose. Our daughter fought sleep with great vehemence, but motion made her sleepy. She often nodded off in the big Graaco stroller if I walked long enough. When I pushed her very carefully up the incline, she might continue sleeping. I could park her on the porch while I sat at the outdoor table and snacked or read.
Our concrete yard also functioned well for several years. It was a busy highway for a variety of wheeled contraptions, an ideal spot for the wading pool. We bounced basketballs and hit tennis balls off the garage. Chalk masterpieces were created and washed away by the rain. And then one day, we no longer needed all that pavement. We began to imagine what the space could be. We had a very blank slate.
The back of the house, before the re-do.
Lots of concrete.
Unfettered by training wheels, our daughter exults. She put many miles on her first little bike without leaving the back yard.
It took us at least two more years of debate and procrastination before we began our big backyard project. There followed months of demolition, construction and innumerable, inevitable delays. Afterwards, we were left with a roomy sceened porch, flagstone courtyard, and a more attractive garage. There is a little grassy area for Kiko. An old-fashioned wrought-iron fence encloses it all. Unlike the front yard, which is heavily shaded by the big silver maples, the back is an oasis of bright sunlight. Where the concrete once baked white-hot, we now have a profusion of flowering plants. The red double knock-out roses quickly formed a dense hedge along the fence, and the pale pink climbing roses heartily embraced the garage trellis. From May to September, we are surrounded by a riot of roses and other flowers. For those who came by a lovely backyard easily, this might be no big deal. As for us, we still find it hard to believe that all that concrete gave way to such life and beauty.
The re-do begins, and things look worse before they began to look better. Kiko doesn’t care, though.
Our backyard and new porch, after the re-do.
Double knock-out roses along the fence.
More knock-outs by the screened porch.
Pale pink roses climb the trellis on the garage.
Just one of many perfect roses, within easy reach.
In the early spring of the first year we spent in our house, I noticed green buds emerging from the gray branches of the tall shrub by the front walk. I had wondered about the identity of this large and leggy plant. When I looked closely, I saw the beginnings of lilac leaves. Our new old house was blessed not only by eminent silver maples, but also by a mature, substantial lilac bush. This realization brought me a jolt of happiness more typically associated with an unexpected gift, such as one that arrives in a pale blue Tiffany box. Lilacs have a special place in my heart. Like the maples, they speak of home and loved ones.
Lilacs grew in great abundance around my grandparents’ house, the locus of my earliest and happiest childhood memories. Lilacs surrounded the area in front of the smokehouse and adjacent to the chicken lot. They created a leafy enchanted shelter, a cozy enclave where I liked to play with my grandmother’s kittens.
Atlanta is generally too hot for lilacs. I missed them, growing up in Georgia. For me, the lilac became a symbol of a time long past, alive only in memory and never to be repeated. I didn’t expect to live among lilacs again.
Then I moved to New Jersey, where lilacs, like peonies, thrive. My walks into Rocky Hill took me past a ramshackle former church in the center of town. Built in 1870 as a Methodist Episcopal church, by the early 20th century the building was known as Lyric Hall and used as a community theatre and concert space. I knew the place as the home of a dear friend with the unlikely, romance-novel-worthy name of June Bliss. For many years, June was the warm and capable administrator at the center of the art history department at Princeton University. To anxious grad students she was a calm and motherly presence. To professors preoccupied with the esoteric details of research, she was a grounding force.
Lyric Hall became June’s home in the early 1970s. She rented out the old sanctuary as a warehouse and lived in a warren-like apartment that had been added to the back of the building in the 1940s. June’s girlhood home was a magnificent Gothic revival house near Princeton, where her sister continued to reside. It baffled me that after growing up in such an architectural gem, she was content with her quirky, cramped apartment. I always imagined how the church could be renovated into a striking, spacious, light-filled home. June probably could have easily afforded such a project, but she wasn’t interested. She was thoroughly without pretense, and her unusual living quarters suited her just fine. I think she enjoyed the surprise in the eyes of first-time visitors’ to her decidedly eccentric home.
The old church was set on an expansive piece of property that adjoined what had once been the town green. June had a large garden in the side yard, bounded by a towering hedge of lilacs. She was generous with her bounty of vegetables and flowers. She encouraged me to cut as many lilacs as I wished, which I gladly did, usually under the watchful eye of the neighbor’s hulking pot-bellied pig. Every spring, thanks to June, our apartment was filled with bouquets of lilacs, in addition to the peonies I bought down the road. On a return visit after H and I had married and moved south, June dug up forget-me-nots from her garden to send back with us. I planted them behind our townhouse, where they are probably blooming still.
June was a cheerful person with a lively sense of humor and a keen appreciation for irony. She retained her sunny disposition in the face of the cancer that afflicted her for a number of years before finally claiming her life. I remember very clearly the warm summer day I went to the mailbox and found the kind note from June’s daughter that broke the news of her mother’s death. D was very young at the time, and we had been playing in the yard together. Seeing my sudden tears, she dashed over to comfort me. Our lilac bush serves as a reminder that departed friends, as well as the essence of home and family, remain with us always.
This spring, though, I was dismayed that only one small lilac bloom appeared. For several years now, blossoms have emerged only at the very top-most branches. June’s vigorous lilac hedge, in contrast, bloomed profusely, from bottom to top, for decades. When I asked if she had a gardener’s secret, she laughed and replied that she simply appreciated the plants and left them alone. Our lilac evidently needs something more than admiration. I’ve read that an aggressive pruning can reinvigorate an old lilac plant. We will get the shears out this weekend and go to work.
I recently discovered that upon June’s death, her home was donated to the New Jersey Historic Trust. The Trust sold it, with a preservation easement, to an architectural firm that restored the building to its original appearance and now uses it as their headquarters. The gray asbestos siding was removed, the original white clapboard restored and repainted. The arched windows were elongated to their full height and the sanctuary space’s soaring ceilings were restored. June’s old apartment was replaced with a bright and much larger one.
It’s remarkable to me that even though June didn’t care to restore Lyric Hall for use as her own home, she made it possible that others, later, could enjoy the beauty of the renewed historic building. It gives me hope for the rehabilitation of our tired lilac bush. Lyric Hall flourishes again, a fitting memorial to its former owner, and I’m convinced our lilacs can, too.
For the past two weeks or so, the seed pods have been falling from the big maple trees in our front yard. As the wind blows, they hit the roof with a sound like a shower of fat raindrops or forcibly hurled pea gravel. The tiny twirling helicopter blades drift slowly to the ground. Our daughter used to love to chase the flying seed pods. They gave my husband and me a welcome break from hands-on parenting. On warm weekend afternoons, we’d sit in cheap aluminum lawn chairs and watch her zigzag happily across the grass. We all still appreciate those spinning seed pods, despite the legion of tough little seedlings that spring up among the flower beds. We certainly love the trees that send them forth.
It was in the late fall, nearly eleven years ago, when we first saw our house. Most homes in our area date from the seventies through the nineties, and it stood out because of its age. Built in 1920, it was originally the center of a two-hundred acre farm. Unlike most northern Virginians, who apparently put a high value on new construction, I actively wanted an old house. I like the idea of a house with a past, with character, with some history behind it. Having watched my grandparents’ lovely old Victorian slip through our fingers, as well as the demolition of my grandmother’s birthplace, a far more historic dwelling, I wanted the chance to be a good steward of someone else’s family home.
I had all but lost hope of finding a livable old house, but suddenly we had stumbled upon one. It was a little shabby, and it had aluminum siding. But it was a genuine old farmhouse, a classic American four-square, with sizable rooms and a sensible floor plan. While it contained some dated 1970s touches, such as expanses of orange shag carpeting, it was solid and didn’t appear to need structural renovation.
And it had those wonderful trees, a semicircle of six huge trees that shaded the front yard. They were silver maples just like those that twisted their knobby roots through the soft grass at my grandparents’ house in Kentucky. Because it was late November, the branches were bare, but the shaggy gray-brown bark was as recognizable as the face of an old friend. This was the house! I was certain of it. The silver maples offered living proof.
Because my husband is a clear-headed man of business and science, he weighed all conditions carefully and made a low-ball offer on the house. I was anxious, nearly certain we wouldn’t get it, already formulating back-up plans. Maybe that 1980s house (the one annoyingly referred to as an “executive colonial”) wasn’t so bad after all. Or we could give up the search and spend another year in our rented townhouse. But our daughter, a new walker, needed more space and a yard in which to roam. I wanted an old house. I wanted the old house with the old maple trees. The one that just seemed like home.
Luckily, the prevailing local bias against older homes worked to our advantage. We managed to learn that our only serious competition was a developer whose goal was to tear down the house and build a bigger, newer one. Better yet, two. The owner, fortunately for us, much preferred that the house in which she had raised her children continue to be a family home.
During the following December, matters concerning our purchase took off on a wild roller coaster ride. There were complications with the contract, concerns about the foundation, the floors, the septic system, the furnace, the roof, the crazy property lines, and more. During our Christmas vacation with H’s family in Rochester, he was on the phone constantly with building inspectors and legal experts. But by early January, the house was ours. Our realtor, who had decades of experience, claimed that the closing was the most dizzyingly complex one she had ever witnessed.
That winter, while H worked especially late, I often sat by an upstairs window in a rocking chair, holding our year-old daughter. As she nursed, or slept, smiled or cried, I looked out through the somewhat uneven glass at the dark blue shadows the big maples cast on the snow-covered ground. It sure was good to be home. And it still is.
Silver maples are fast-growing trees with limited life spans. We had to remove this tree’s branches when they became fragile and hazardous to passing cars, but we left the trunk as a monument. Our daughter occasionally uses it as a place of solitary refuge.
On an Easter Sunday in the 1960s, my friend Jeanie and me beside one of the silver maples in my grandparents’ yard.
Our tree peonies, which could more accurately be called shrub peonies, began to bloom several days ago. Unlike the herbaceous varieties, the foliage does not die back each year. They bloom earlier, and the blossoms are larger, sometimes up to seven or eight inches in diameter. For sheer fabulousness, the tree peony blossom can hardly be surpassed. It is, I believe, my favorite flower.
Peonies like a good cold winter, so they are rarely seen in Georgia. I first became acquainted with them when I lived in New Jersey, which apparently offers the perfect climate for the flower. As a house-sitting grad student, I brought in armfuls of peonies from the back garden and was then surprised to see the dining room crawling with ants. I learned to check for ants hiding in the profusion of petals.
After my husband and I were first married, we lived in an apartment on the outskirts of Princeton. Once the snow melted, I often walked the pleasant country road that led into the tiny, picturesque town of Rocky Hill. In front of one old farmhouse along the way sat a big stoneware urn filled in spring and summer with cut flowers for sale on the honor system. There was a hand-lettered sign and a battered metal box for the cash. The peonies were especially beautiful and bountiful, and our apartment was well supplied with the dramatic flowers. I loved living in a place where such trust was still possible. The peonies we now grow around our house in Virginia will always remind me of my rambling walks in sweet old Rocky Hill.
My husband’s family has vacationed in Cape Cod since he was a little boy. They cherish their time on the Cape. It’s a Family Tradition marked by capital letters and exclamation points. They will battle illness and adversity to reach the Cape. Fortunately, I appreciate the unique environment as much as they do. We began taking our daughter there when she was two. Her love of the Cape was immediate, as natural to her as breathing. H’s parents were immensely pleased with the discerning wisdom of their young granddaughter.
Our quaint little rental cottages look out across the bay to the Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown and the lighthouse at the tip of the Cape. We feel privileged to spend time each summer in this transitional, luminous, glorious spot. As in such magical places as Cornwall, Mont St. Michel and Key West, the expected balance of land and water has shifted. The land resembles a narrow ribbon drifting on the water. The sky is vast. The light is awe-inspiring, ever-changing.
The land itself is in constant flux. I was unprepared for the quiet drama of the bay. Growing up, my beach experiences were limited to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coasts of Georgia’s islands. Both are beautiful areas, but they lack the sharply defined tidal contrasts of Cape Cod Bay. Every year without fail, soon after we arrive, a knock at our screen door signals Grandpa’s delivery of our copies of the tide chart, our guide to daily life. At low tide, the flats extend nearly as far as the eye can see. The shallows glimmer like silver in the shifting sunlight. When the tide begins to rush in, the change is at first almost imperceptible. Before long, though, the water is swirling around us, its determined, unstoppable force clearly evident. At least once every day, we watch as the expanses of sand shrink into islands, smaller and smaller, before they become completely submerged again.
The bay is not a prime beach for shelling, but occasionally it offers up its particular treasures. Every so often, during an especially low tide, scallop shells dot the flats like pale, muted jewels, their colors subtle and austere. Naturally, my daughter and I collect them. Over the years we had acquired several sand pails full before we discovered an ideal, simple way to transform the shells into appropriate mementos. With the addition of a few beads and smaller shells, they became Christmas angels. (Once again, the hot glue gun allowed us to turn out a host of ornaments quickly and easily.)
Our little angels keep Cape Cod with us during the off-season. The medieval pilgrimage connotations of the scallop shell give the angels a certain dignity and make them all the more evocative. One of the world’s first souvenirs, the scallop shell became the emblem of the pilgrimage to St. James of Compostela, the several routes of which stretch through the mountains of France to northern Spain. Tourism on a grand scale was born in these pilgrimage routes, and the Way of St. James continues to attract pilgrims, many still on foot. Medieval pilgrims were, to some degree, tourists, just as many of today’s tourists are, in a sense, pilgrims. For travelers of the eleventh or the twenty-first century, whether navigating the perils of wilderness paths or the trials of Interstate 95, the goals of the journey are similar and elemental: an escape from the daily routine, the promise of adventure, a firmer grasp of life’s real meaning, and the opportunity for spiritual renewal. I love it that such richness of meaning is tied up neatly in the humble shell angels on our Christmas tree. *
*One final, fitting point of interest: our scallop shells wash ashore near the place where our country’s first pilgrims landed. As most of us learned and later forgot, the Mayflower’s initial stop in the new world was in what is now Provincetown Harbour.
A blog about motherhood, marriage and life: the joys and frustrations, beauty and absurdity, blessings and pain. It's about looking back, looking ahead, and walking the dog.