when they clean away your ghosts

The summers of my childhood were smouldery, rainy things spent rambling over old broken rock and swimming in a shipwrecked sea. The family cottage, built by my great-grandfather between the wars, seemed like it had been put together from driftwood and dreaming. There were mysterious locked rooms, ancient books, and wallpaper that breathed. There were ghosts so heavy-hearted that I'd have to close all the doors at night and stay in my bed for fear they would overwhelm me. And there was a smell of dust, of deep memory, that I'll never be able to describe but that I search for always - in libraries, in old buildings, yearning endlessly for that recollection of home.

Except it wasn't just my home. It belongs to our extended family. For a long time, mostly only my branch used it, but in the last while others have increased their use to the point where it holds their art, their collections of shells, their choices, and all that remains of my own family are our memories. The house has been remodelled extensively. Wallpaper gone, rooms turned inside out, floor replaced, light let in. The ghosts, appalled, have fled into corners.

I am truly very glad the house is being used and loved. My family are wonderful people and have more right to the place than I, because of all their work on it. But there's still a strange kind of grief involved. I can visit whenever I want, and I hold all my memories of it. (For decades, I slept under that quilt in the photo above.) But I have become like one of the ghosts of the house. I lived here and now I don't. I see my grandmother shuffling down a corridor that has mostly gone the same way she went, into a stormy dark memory, long ago. I know none of the books on the shelves. I breathe the air - and it smells of someone else's summer.

My father used to feel the same way. He loved the place, but seldom returned, because his summer gave way to his children's summer, and everything became too different for him. Sometimes he spoke of his sense of loss and I did not understand. I still had the place myself. It still existed - why did he not see that? For I was not yet old enough to truly experience the drag of change - the letting-go that continues long after the past is thoroughly gone.

Other people now know more of the cottage's history than I do, and rightly claim more of its future. But I was there for the long silent years. And I have heard the weeping in the night. As I sat in the cottage yesterday and looked at photographs of its past - not one photograph of me or even my grandmother in that collection - I wanted to tell all my stories about it. Not the peaceful lovely summer stories, but of buckets beneath leaks, and a gas fridge that threatened to kill us all, and climbing down the chimney when the key broke, and watching stars through lonely nights, and how snapdragons used to grow there amongst the blistering hot rock, and finding all the snags in the eerie old forest paths - the places where magic caught - and the boat-bones now dissolved from sight beneath the waters, and impossible deer in the riverless woods, and how I said no to going down that one last time with my grandmother, and how my wishing for a different reply is one of the ghosts that squat now at the edges of the cottage's heart, subdued and aching from too much sun.


  1. Just found you, so glad I did. Your posts surpass beauty.

  2. So beautiful, and painful too. Our family has a cabin in the mountains, full of memories. But last time I went it had been used by someone else for a long time, caretakers of the place. I felt like a stranger in our cabin those few days we were there. I haven't gone since, but maybe I will. It's a bit of a painful place for me, though full of silence, rain, beauty.

  3. Ah, I know this feeling. Growing up, my great aunt and uncle (they were sister and brother) had a cottage on Chaumont Bay, and we spent every summer there. That place shaped mine and my brothers' souls perhaps more than anywhere else. The cottage had a fragrance, as did the land, that was unique to it. The wind and the meadows, meadowlarks and red-winged blackbirds, the fish, dock, and minnow trap, the fly paper, card games, books, and storms--these are the things I take with me everywhere. But, they sold the place when I was in my twenties. We drove up there, my brother and I, when I was pregnant with my first child. We just wanted to see it again, you know? And, we shouldn't have gone, because it wasn't there anymore. Not how we knew it. Yet, a part of me is glad that I went and looked in its windows and said hello to its old meadows. It is nurturing new hearts with new summertime adventures.

    Beautiful post, Sarah, and photos, too. ♥

  4. very beautifully put...

    i especially like the line about a house "built of driftwood and dreaming"---i've known houses like that.

    i hope that you have found many new places where magic catches...

  5. I always think it is a mistake to go back to where you were once happy. Nothing stays the same does it - you still have your memories though - it sounds a wonderful place.