Closed for the Season

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My family’s house in Maine, called Eastways, has been in our family since 1944. It’s still very much the same house it was then, when it was already somewhere around 60 years old: a big old rambling shingle-style house, architect unknown, perched far enough from the sea to escape the waves but not so far as to elude the salt air, which is of course why we love the place as we do. It’s a house where my father spent all his summers growing up, as my brother and I did, too, and hopefully our children too someday.

Eastways, built as a summer cottage in the parlance of the times (and, later, of Richard Ekstract), isn’t winterized. The house literally stands on old tree trunks, teetering as if the next breeze will blow it over, though it’s actually solid as a rock. It’s got a water heater and furnace in the dirt-floored basement, which is open to the elements except for the wooden slats that enclose the house’s bottom — and which the furnace and heater share with a fresh cord of wood stacked by my brother a few weeks ago.

The furnace blows hot air through three vents in the first floor only, with the rest of the house’s heat coming from two fireplaces on the first floor and one in the master bedroom on the second floor. This setup works wonderfully in the middle of summer when sometimes the Maine air is so damp that a fire is called for, as well as in early October when the wind is crisp and the air cool and a roaring blaze turns the whole house cozy.

But Eastways lacks insulation, and the water main runs along the surface of the ground. Which means that before the first hard frost comes, the water must be drained — toilets emptied, sinks too. And the whole house shut down.

For our family, Columbus Day Weekend is always the weekend of putting the Maine house to bed for the winter. This means draining the water from the pipes but also cutting down the perennial garden, stacking the porch furniture in the telephone room, and mothballing (literally) the beds and sofas and chairs. Those and a thousand other tasks that my brother and I used to bitch and gripe about but now get done automatically.

We’ve snuck the occasional winter weekend in the house over the years. When I was young, we did one Christmas there, keeping huge fires stoked in the fireplaces, closing off all unused rooms, filling pots of water at our neighbor’s house, then sleeping under three comforters and waking up with the water glass on the side table frozen into ice. All part of the fun. But not the kind of thing you can or want to do on a regular basis.

This summer, for the first time awhile, we started thinking about making upgrades to the house. Most of the changes would be unsexy but long overdue. Parts of the electrical system still run on knob and tube (Wikipedia: “an early standardized method of electrical wiring in buildings, in common use in North America from about 1880 to the 1930s”). The roof needs replacing. The foundation needs shoring up. Etc.

As part of these conversations, an old question arose: should we winterize Eastways? There’s a certain logic to it, especially if we’re gearing up to do all this associated work as well. It’s a conversation that we haven’t yet finished as a family. But the contractor who came and took a look at the place last month who seemed to get it best told us, “If you wanted to winterize the place, you’d be better off tearing it down. But of course you’re not going to do that.” Which, he’s right. We’re not.

I think the odds favor us not winterizing the house. For me, the ritual of opening the house in the middle of April, when the lawn is wet and bright green and the air raw, then closing it down in October, when the long-finished peony leaves have turned red along the flowerbeds and the final monarch butterflies fly through the yard, is intrinsic to my entire love of the house, and Maine itself.

This season is now over. We wait for the spring to come and the cycle to begin again.