At Home in New Hampshire > Sweet Memories of Summer

It is bittersweet, this time of year. On the Seacoast, and on lakes and ponds all over New Hampshire, people are closing up their summer cottages, camps and beach houses, and for me, it’s the saddest time of the year.

No matter how grand or modest, a summer place is a haven, an escape, and when it is time to leave that haven, there is a sense of loss.

Our haven was the Tiltin’ Hilton.

That’s what we called the ramshackle cottage on Ocean Boulevard at North Beach in Hampton. Back in the ’60s, my parents started renting it for a week every summer. The cost was godawful– as much as $150 a week, if you can trust my recollection–but my bluecollar parents found a way to pay for it.

As for the name of our haven, well, all you had to do was drop a quarter in any room to understand the significance. The slope of the floors–all angled and sagging–rivaled the fun house at Salisbury Beach.

For one week every summer, the Tiltin’ Hilton was the gathering point for a rapidly expanding extended family. At first, there were four of us kids, then five, then six. Toss in aunts, uncles, cousins and friends, then girlfriends who became wives and then the inevitable grandchildren, and the Tiltin’ Hilton was bursting at the seams.

Nobody minded.

Sleeping bags and mattresses jockeyed for floor space with cribs and coolers, and as the family grew, so did the duration of the vacation. One week became two, then three and then–call the Rockefellers!–the Claytons were spending a month on the shore.

Alas, we finally outgrew the Tiltin’ Hilton, but the tradition simply moved a few blocks north to a bigger encampment.

That tradition is why this time of year is so bittersweet.

I learned the meaning of bittersweet that summer when I was ten. My father was packing the station wagon, and my brothers were probably out shivering though one last plunge in the ocean. My mom was busy vacuuming, and I was supposed to be packing the board games. I started to cry.

My mom stopped the vacuum cleaner and asked what was wrong. I told her I was sad. I didn’t want to leave the beach. She said she was sad, too, but she was happy we all got to be together for a vacation. Then she told me what made leaving OK was knowing we’d be able to do it again the next year.

And we did. We did it year after year after year.

And now we don’t.

Life goes on. Summers pass. And time takes its toll. We lost my mom five years ago. It was August 30–Labor Day weekend. It was the weekend we always closed the beach house. Now my dad’s gone, too, and try as we might, it’s hard to bring six adults, assorted spouses and that gaggle of grandkids together the way we once did.

Sure, we get away for the occasional weekend. Heck, thanks to my parents, we’re all prosperous enough to spring for a weekend at Ashworth by the Sea— an unthinkable extravagance, to my folks—and while it is quite nice there, it’s not the Tiltin’ Hilton.

So for those of you who are closing up your camps, cottages and beach houses, sad though it may be, savor the moment. If the fates are kind, you’ll do it again next year.

If not, hope that, in time, the bitter will fade and only the sweet memories will remain.