This may seem like a small loss at a time of so much human suffering across our world, but it still matters. Next week the old house on Nantucket where I spent many happy summers as a child is scheduled to be demolished. In a way, it feels like the true end of my childhood.
That house was the place where I fell asleep listening to the waves and the foghorn in the harbor, learned the names of the stars, and scoured the beach for microscopic shells. It was where my grandmother read us books about turtles and foxes, and my grandfather listened to records of Italian opera; where my brother and I played with cousins we saw only once a year, and we all marked our heights on a door frame in the attic as we grew taller each summer. It was where my Dad took us camping on a deserted beach or digging for clams, and my Mom made us perfect sandwiches for picnics on the moors.
It was where I learned to ride a bicycle and was free to explore an entire island that was safely within reach, yet that stretched my knowledge of the world and nature. I often rode out to the old Quaker cemetery, where I wrote poems and read the gravestones and imagined the lives of people from other centuries, harder times. Sometimes I rode all the way to the South Shore, past the old mill and the wildflower fields, and just sat watching the ocean. On rainy days, I spent hours in the public library, learning about whales and shipwrecks.
Every summer, I counted the days until we would leave for our annual vacation, getting up in the dark before dawn and driving to the morning ferry at Woods Hole. I would stand at the prow in the wind, waiting and waiting for the first glimpse of the Nantucket water tower, then the First Congregational Church steeple, and finally the house, just before Brant Point. At least one or two people were always standing on the beach, waving towels to welcome us. Actually, I waited all year for that moment.
Today, the island is very different, and I have not visited there in years except briefly for a family wedding or other occasion. Many larger and fancier houses have sprung up, some with security fences around them. There are still old sailboats anchored in the harbor, but also ocean-going motor yachts tied up to the marina downtown. The ferry still runs from the mainland, but now there are direct flights from New York and other major cities. The old clam bars have been replaced by elegant restaurants where you need reservations far in advance.
My parents and the other members of their generation are all gone now. Some years back, my cousin Dave and his wife took over the house and started renting it out to seasonal visitors. Three summers ago, they began planning to sell it, so they invited my brother Tim and me to visit for the weekend. We rented bicycles and rode out to the cemetery, looking at the headstones of Quakers and seafarers and children who died in infancy. Several of my relatives are buried there now too. One is my uncle, a doctor, who swam out to sea after learning he had advanced Alzheimer’s.
In the evenings, Tim and I sat on the back porch by the harbor, watching the sun set and the tide come in. For the last time, we slept in the same adjacent rooms where we had stayed as children, with the smell of salt air and the sound of the waves and the fog horn lulling us to sleep.
Several months ago, my cousin’s wife Pam sent out an e-mail saying the house had been sold. At the time, I was on a hectic work assignment overseas and didn’t focus on it. Then on Friday, she sent another e-mail saying the house was going to be torn down shortly, but softened the blow by adding that the door frame with all our recorded heights had been saved and would remain in the family. All weekend I thought about the house, with its gray, weathered shingles and blue trim, which my grandfather built in 1939 and named “Beach Plum.” I thought about the rooms that would no longer look out over the water, and the peace of falling asleep to the waves that I have never felt anywhere else.
I have no idea who bought the property, and I don’t want to think about what the new owners are going to build there instead. No doubt there will be more modern appliances and a larger garage and a flat-screen TV, probably an alarm system and maybe even a security fence.
But I hope they will also discover something else even more valuable. I hope that sometimes, late at night, they will sit on the bulkhead watching the stars and the water, listening to the foghorn, and feeling a little of the magic I once did as a child, 30 miles out to sea and half a century ago.
Pamela Constable, a former Globe reporter, writes on foreign affairs for the Washington Post.