The Summer Cottage352
The Summer Cottage352
Spanning two summers decades apart, Susan Kietzman's poignant new novel explores the complexities of the people-and places-that shape our lives...
Helen Street spent every summer of her childhood at her family's cedar-shake cottage on Long Island Sound. The youngest of four, she shared her mother Claire's athletic genes and relished the orchestrated games and competitions that filled those warm, endless days. Unlike her older siblings-fiery Charlotte, ambitious Thomas, middle-child Pammy-Helen rarely felt the pressure of her mother's high expectations.
Thirty years later, with her brother and sisters scattered, Helen is the sole caregiver for Claire, now terminally ill. Knowing her death is imminent, Claire has put Helen in the awkward position of telling the others that she plans on leaving everything, including the cottage, to Helen when she dies-unless everyone comes to the shore for a long weekend over the Fourth of July. During this time together, Helen, Charlotte, Pammy, and Thomas will revisit their long-ago decisions and assumptions. And they will face new choices that could shatter their fragile kinship-or reveal a family's extraordinary power to remember, to forgive, and to grow...
Praise for the novels of Susan Kietzman
"Readers will find themselves drawn into the tragedies and triumphs of this fictional family-distinct and yet utterly relatable."
-Hartford Books Examiner on The Good Life
"This book gives a great view of a typical marriage...the storyline is realistic, and one all readers can relate to, married or not."
--RT Book Reviews on A Changing Marriage
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|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
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The Summer Cottage
By SUSAN KIETZMAN
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Susan Kietzman
All rights reserved.
Helen Street pulled her gray Volvo station wagon off the road and onto the patch of dead grass that had always served as the driveway for her mother's shoreline cottage. As she turned off the car, Helen glanced at her mother, who was buckled into the seat beside her. Claire was asleep, her head in an uncomfortable-looking position against the window, her mouth open but silent. Helen opened the driver's side door, stepped out, and stretched her arms to the sky, breathing in the familiar salted air that confirmed she had arrived. As it always did, the seaside air filled her with an urgent longing to shed her shoes and run across the street to the beach, through the warm sand, and into the cool waters of Long Island Sound. Instead, she walked to the house, fishing the cottage key out of her pocket on the way, and then pulled open the squeaky screen door to unlock the wood door that opened into the kitchen. Met by a musty scent, Helen walked swiftly through the downstairs rooms, opening every window that would. She then climbed the stairs to the narrow hallway leading to the four bedrooms, constructed like the rest of the cottage with vertical pine paneling, darkened by close to a century of sun. Helen tugged at the bedroom window shades, whose quick retreat left her squinting in the sudden brightness. Energized by the light, Helen rushed through the rooms, opening windows and holding them in place with the worn wood props that rested in the sills when not in use. Her father had purchased the dowels at the long-gone hardware store in town, and Helen, at ten, had helped him cut them and then coat them with shellac. Successful in opening fourteen of sixteen windows, Helen dashed down the stairs, as quickly as she had every summer morning of her childhood, and back outside into the sunshine. A quick look at the car revealed that her mother was still asleep, unaware still of the house and the sense of optimism it evoked, or had once evoked, in every member of the Thompson family.
Helen and her three siblings had spent their summers at the cottage that had been in their mother's family for three generations. Claire, at seventy-nine and widowed for five years, had always used the name Gaines, her maiden name, for herself, but everyone at the beach referred to the house as the Thompson cottage, a head nod to those who lived there, to those they knew. Claire was the only one who called it the Gaines cottage, but she did so less and less frequently, as it was never acknowledged, and, obviously, never took.
Helen grabbed the collapsible, aluminum wheelchair from the back of the car and placed it next to the rear passenger door. She pushed and pulled it into shape and then set its brakes. She then gently opened the door that held Claire's heavy head and twig-like body. "Mother," she said quietly. "Mother, we're here."
Claire opened her eyes and blinked several times before speaking. "Where," she said, eyes closed again.
"At the cottage." Helen supported her mother's body with one hand while she opened the door wide with the other. "We're at the cottage."
"I must have dozed off," said Claire, opening her eyes wide, and then, after a moment, wiping the saliva from her chin with the back of her thumb.
"Yes," said Helen, reaching over her mother to unbuckle the seatbelt.
Slowly, together—Claire insisting she do it herself and Helen offering encouragement and balance support—they moved from the passenger seat to the wheelchair. Claire landed with a thud. "I'm so tired of this."
"I know you are," said Helen, pushing her toward the house. "Let's get you settled on the porch. There's a lovely sea breeze."
Once in the kitchen—Helen had run back to the car for her mother's walker—Claire was able to maneuver her way through the dining room and living room and onto the screened-in porch. Helen helped Claire into her favorite spot, an old wicker armchair with faded floral fabric covering the back and seat cushions. Helen then pulled the cracked leather ottoman into place underneath her mother's frail legs. "There," said Helen.
"It is a glorious day," said Claire, breathing heavily from Helen's exertion. "Have you seen the beach yet?"
"No," said Helen. "Perhaps I'll run down before I unload the car."
"Do that," said her mother, closing her eyes. "I'll be fine."
"I'll just be a minute then."
"Take your time, Helen. I'm not going anywhere."
Helen walked outside with the blue and white-checked cotton throw that had spent the winter on the back of the couch and shook the dust from it. She returned to the porch and draped it over her mother's lap. "Are you settled?"
"Yes," said Claire. "Go to the beach."
Helen stepped back outside and eased the screen door shut behind her. She sat on the front steps, removed her running shoes and white ankle socks, and set them down on the slate paving stones at her feet. She walked gingerly across the hot street, along the grassy right-of-way, and down the dozen cement steps to the beach. As a child, she had routinely leaped off the seawall to the sand, a shortcut taught to her by her brother, Thomas. At forty, Helen was content to jump from the second step up from the beach, her feet sinking into the warm sand on impact. Feeling more like a liquid than a solid, the sand filled the gaps between her toes. Helen shielded her eyes from the sun with her hand and looked at the horizon, taking in the familiar islands, rocks, wood pilings, and boats moored in the inlet. The raft bobbed in the distance, waiting for eager swimmers to climb its ladder and sun themselves on its deck, to jump from its diving board. Helen looked down the beach to the left, then to the right. She spun around to check out the houses atop the wall, with their rectangular screened-in porches facing the water. Many were built in the 1920s—the Thompson cottage was one of the first in a neighborhood that had managed to withstand the 1938 hurricane and every other tropical storm that had made its way up the Eastern seaboard since.
The cottages bore the marks of bad weather and of cold, salty winters: peeling paint, rotting window sashes, curved, discolored wood shingles. Sitting on beachfront property, the cottages, if in top condition, would have been worth more than most people could afford. The lots alone would fetch more than a million dollars apiece. But the long-time residents weren't selling, even when offered twice the going rate by New York bankers and Internet entrepreneurs. This was not a tear-down neighborhood like Rocky Point, where the turn-of-the-last-century cottages had been razed and replaced by gleaming glass, shiny steel, and plumbed walls. The cottages at Little Crescent Beach were comfortable cottages, full of sand from the beach and hearty families from New England, who did their own maintenance on their houses and knew their neighbors, breezily lending tools and advice and sharing stories and their favorite warm weather recipes. Many of them had family money that was securely tucked away for retirement or into savings accounts for the children, who were now grown-ups themselves. Their everyday money, the husbands' salaries, had been used over the years on the same things—upgrades to their "city" homes, the houses they lived in ten months of the year, orthodontia, boarding school and college tuition, secondhand cars their offspring had driven to their summer jobs. Whatever was leftover had gone, still went, to the grocery store that had supplied the hamburgers and hotdogs, barbequed chicken, watermelon, marshmallows, and tonic water to the summer community and all its weekend guests for fifty years, and to the drive-in theater that featured family movies every weeknight in July and August.
Helen again faced the water and then strode toward it. She winced as her tender feet moved from the soft sand over the rounded pebbles at the shoreline. She hesitated for just a few seconds before walking into the water right up to her knees. Placing her hands on her hips in a tacit, unconscious display of satisfaction, she closed her eyes. She was back at the cottage with the entire summer ahead of her. And this year, if her mother got her way, Helen's three siblings would be arriving over the next several days for the Fourth of July weekend. Helen had not seen her brother, Thomas, or her sister, Charlotte, since their father's funeral five years before. And her sister, Pammy, while living less than a two-hour drive from Helen's home in the Connecticut hills, had visited just twice in the last year, in spite of knowing how much her company meant to Helen, in spite of recently being told that their mother would not see 2004. Helen talked to Pammy once a week or so on the phone, but Pammy kept the conversation focused on herself and day-to-day light details rather than larger life issues.
When Helen returned to the house, Claire was again asleep. Concerned, but not alarmed, Helen looked at her mother and was struck, almost matter-of-factly as Helen was sometimes, by the thought that Claire was dying. She slept many hours of the day, as well as the night, exhausted by months of treatment and now by months without it. She was as mentally acute, it seemed, as she always had been, although the pain medication she occasionally let Helen talk her into taking on her bad days made her drowsy. She was increasingly resigned to her imminent fate, a clear indication of her level of battle fatigue. Claire, until mid-March, when her straight-talking oncologist told her the chemotherapy had made no difference, had never before given up, on anything.
She had been an Olympic-quality athlete, Claire had, cut in the final round of the selection process for the 1948 American women's swim team. Had she been chosen for the team, she would have swum the 100-meter freestyle and 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay in London that summer with the other top female swimmers in the country. But an ill-timed flu and a bad turn at the 50-meter mark in the qualifying round smashed her dreams. Claire had continued to swim in national meets for the following few years, hopeful that she would qualify for the games in 1952. But by then, the younger swimmers were simply faster and better trained than she was in her late twenties. Had the selection process been made on effort or determination alone, Claire would not only have made the team, but also served as its captain.
Helen gently tucked the blanket around Claire's tiny frame. She then jogged back outside to retrieve their bags and cooler of groceries from the car. After the car was empty, Helen hauled their large cloth duffels upstairs—Claire's to the front room and Helen's to the pink room behind her. Helen returned to the kitchen, where she unpacked the cooler and the brown paper grocery bags that held dinner and breakfast materials. She and her mother would go to town the next morning for more food when they had the final count for the upcoming weekend. After folding the bags, which they reused to line the plastic kitchen garbage bin, and placing them in the cupboard closest to the six-burner stove, Helen walked back out to the porch and picked up a copy of The New Yorker magazine from the previous summer. She put her bare feet up on the wicker table and flipped through the pages, waiting for her mother to awaken.CHAPTER 2
As soon as the bedroom was light, Helen, who had just turned ten, climbed down off the top bunk. She gave her thirteen-year-old sister, Pammy, who slept on the bottom, a nudge. "Wake up," Helen whispered urgently.
Pammy rubbed her eyes and yawned. "What time is it?"
"Who cares?" said Helen, stripping off her pajamas. "The sun's out.
Pammy lifted her head and shoulders off the mattress to look out the window. "Barely, Helen. The sun is barely out. It's dawn."
"Let's go crabbing," said Helen, still naked. She had the body of a recent graduate of fourth grade, nipples flat on her chest, a slightly protruding stomach, hairless underarms and crotch. She crossed the room and reached into their shared bureau for clean underwear, then grabbed yesterday's shirt and shorts from the floor. She was dressed in a flash.
"Come on, Pammy. If we go now, the crabs will still be sleeping. We'll get millions of them."
"You go," said Pammy, lowering her head back onto the pillow. "I'll come soon."
Helen put her hands on her nonexistent hips. "You're going back to sleep. I can tell."
"Just for a few minutes. Then I'll meet you at the docks." Pammy flipped onto her back.
"You'll miss all the fun, Pammy."
"I'll have fun later," said Pammy, sleep in her voice.
"Promise you'll come?"
"I promise. I'll meet you at the docks in"—Pammy squinted at her Timex watch—"twenty minutes."
Doubtful but fleetingly satisfied, Helen left the bedroom, tiptoed down the hallway and then descended the stairs, carefully avoiding the fifth one from the top, which creaked. She walked quietly through the living room and onto the screened-in porch. She had her hand on the screen door when she heard her mother, another early riser, call from the kitchen. "Helen, is that you?" Helen didn't answer. She didn't want orange juice. She didn't want cereal. She didn't want to be quizzed about her tennis match with Amanda the day before. Her mother cared who won these friendly, casual games much more than Helen did. Helen hesitated for just a moment, and then she opened the porch door and launched herself out into the day. "Helen?"
Claire heard the door slam and shook her head. Day after summer day her youngest daughter rose with the birds and bolted out into the world without breakfast or as little as a morning greeting. She was a go-getter, her Helen, with energy and drive that would serve her well in life. Claire took the last sip of coffee from her mug and returned to her grocery list. A moment later, she glanced out the kitchen window to watch Helen, with a plastic cleaning bucket containing crabbing line held tightly in her right hand, run barefoot down the road to the docks.
Helen veered off the road at the Tetreau property, carrying her bucket through the itchy beach grass on her way to the breakwater that protected the docks from storm waves and strong currents. It was low tide, as she already knew, so it would be easy to find the mussels she used as bait. They attached themselves, often in clusters, to the granite rocks that had been hauled out of the now-abandoned quarry in town. Within a minute, Helen had two dozen of them in her bucket. On her way back, Helen waded into the water to find a good smashing rock and to feed the whale. The whale was actually a large rock protruding out of the water. It was split right where a real whale's mouth would be, and Helen routinely fed it, as if it were a living, breathing mammal. On this day, she dumped a half dozen mussels into its mouth, patted its head, and then began her search for the right rock, which, once spotted, she retrieved and put into the bucket alongside the mussels and her line. She ran back to the road and then across the strip of grass that separated it from the first dock. Once she reached the dewy, wide pine planks, Helen slowed to a walk. Her stubbed left big toe, which she had caught on an uneven plank the other day, was still healing. At this leisurely pace Helen was able to listen, for the first time that morning, to the sounds of the shoreline, the water lapping against the dock pilings, the seagulls calling to each other. In her haste to get to her work, to catch as many crabs as she could, she often missed these pleasant reminders of where she was and what she was doing. Helen made a mental note to be more mindful of her surroundings, something her father told them was important to the enjoyment of life. She reached out to touch the pilings with her free hand as she passed them, counting them and the boats and noticing the empty slips that were usually occupied by whalers owned by the Wallaces, Smiths, and Johansons. They were out fishing, the teenage sons with their fathers. Helen had heard and seen them walking down the street past her house when it was still dark, fishing gear in hand, talking in hushed voices that carried up to her bedroom window anyway.
Excerpted from The Summer Cottage by SUSAN KIETZMAN. Copyright © 2015 Susan Kietzman. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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