A Magic Cottage In An Outermost Place
Memories of sweet summers past at the family home at Cape Cod
by Charles N. Barnard
The boxy little summer house was of the 1930's, built atop the sandy soil by a local carpenter, a one-room cabin-in-the-woods, four walls and four windows, a place to sleep, to hang wet bathing suits on a line, to boil lobsters for supper after a day at the ocean. "Sweet Home" it was named, in Latin, on a hand-painted sign, nailed to a tree: "Dulce Domum." The sweeping, endless beaches of Cape Cod were just down the road — as they are now, on this rainy afternoon taken over by memories.
Through seven decades, a dozen American presidents (one of them a young Cape Codder) and three generations of occupants, Dulce, as we all call her, has grown in physical size and comforts — a new kitchen snug as a ship's galley — and now a fireplace to replace the wood stove — but mere improvements are not what made the little place our Magic Cottage. That is due to something more — love, of course, for one thing,
a location that has a magic of its own, and the various contributions of those who have come here, grown up, gone away and, sadly, passed on.
There is a green glass bottle half-filled with beach sand and sealed with a battered screw-on aluminum cap. It is our doorstop. I knew the lady who created it long ago. I'm glad it is still here, though she is not.
What else makes a Magic Cottage magic?
You do not need to be told again, do you, about the geology and geography of Cape Cod? What this place is, where it is, how it came to be here, this Ice Age leftover, this gravelly moraine, reaching out like a body-builder's flexed arm, jutting how many miles from the American mainland?
"Seventy miles at sea," says the TV weatherman, trying to explain (with some exaggeration) why the Cape has its own micro-climate and will not be forecast like the rest of New England.
"Only an hour and a half from downtown Boston," boasts a real-estate broker (with some exaggeration), pointing to good roads on a highway map.
"A separate place that can't be measured in distance from anywhere," maintains a non-exaggerating neighbor who lives just up the street from Dulce Domum.
I first came to Cape Cod in the 1930's and looked out at the great wilderness
of ocean beyond the Great Beach and thought I was alone somewhere between
Portugal and North America. As that child, it seemed I had crossed a very
long bridge from Massachusetts to get here — but once arrived on this
otherworldly peninsula, all connection with the mainland was severed behind
Connection is always severed, every time I cross that bridge. It happened again today; I am "on the Cape"
now. It is a place apart, geographically and emotionally. Like a beloved summer cottage, the Cape makes its
In the earliest days, there was no bathroom at Dulce, just an outhouse — and,
for bathing, a deep freshwater pond in the piney woods nearby. Then came
the New Wing, which added a small bedroom and a lavatory — toilet and
basin. The outhouse became a woodshed then, but we still had no shower.
(The water in the glacial kettle pond was sweet and soft, and warmer than
the ocean, so we said we didn't mind.)
Then one summer, we got inventive and assembled a shower: a rope and pulley hoisted a 5-gallon can of
warm water aloft into a pine tree. A sprinkler head installed in the bottom of the can sprayed forth long
enough for us to soap up and rinse away the ocean's salt after swimming. A tarpaulin was stretched between
Dulce and the tree for privacy. We stood upon a bed of cinnamon pine needles and looked up at blue sky
until our five gallons ran out. Twenty-five years later, four grown children still say it was the best shower
they will ever know.
Travel agents in Tokyo tell their Japanese clients about this "Cape Cod," a Zen garden of pines,
rocks-and-sand they promise, a singular destination. Well, no point in confusing foreigners with the truth
about our country, I say.
The Cape has sixteen small towns (none much more than 7,000 population in winter) and at least three
unofficial zones. Upper Cape, the big region nearest the mainland, is linked to Massachusetts by bridges
over the Cape Cod canal. Lower Cape is usually taken to mean the towns from the arm's busy elbow to the
fist. Outer Cape means almost the same as Lower Cape, but without the elbow; it is the thin, sandy forearm,
the last four towns, those which face on both Cape Cod Bay and the often raging Atlantic.
Dulce Domum is on the Outer Cape — as was author Henry Beston's famed Outermost House. For those of
us who have learned to accept . . .to enjoy . . .the cold, wet breath of sea fogs in the morning — or storm surf that
trembles the very peninsula under our feet — or for whom a beach is not truly a Great Beach unless it
extends, boulevard-wide, to infinity at the horizon — for us, the Outer Cape is the Only Cape. Why be lured
by the abundant joys of the whole of Cape Cod (one of America's greatest vacation resorts, no argument)
when one can indulge in the private pleasure of so much less?
It is nearly four decades now since we made our first trip to Dulce,
since I first smelled these pitch pines, dripping with rain today . . .
(That means I'm an old coot and I'm not sure why I've come back here now, not really. An off-season week
alone at the cottage? Yes, but what if the magic is gone? Perhaps a week will be too long. Son Patrick is
coming up in a few days with Ms. Patty, but they don't need me; they can take care of themselves.
Meantime, here I am, being visited by Dickens' three ghosts.)
I was saying, they're the same old trees, just a little taller now. Outlines of their twisted, tilted trunks are still
as well remembered as the stance of an old friend who leans on a cane . . .see that one there, by the
clothesline? I know him well.
We were faithful diarists in those days, recording vacation dates and highway mileages and daily expenses
in a "trip-book" — which, somehow, has survived — wine-red cover, spiral binding, entries in more than one
handwriting. What a treasure! Because of it, I can tell you the exact hour of our first arrival at the cottage on
August 4, 1957 — or at what restaurant we had dinner that night — or on many nights for many years. (What
did we eat? Alas, not recorded, but not hard to guess: chowder, fried clams, baked cod, steamers, lobster,
oyster stew, fish & chips, Bay scallops, swordfish, crab cakes . . .what delicious ways to make four kids
forget about hamburgers!)
And the names of restaurants — oh, how those erase decades! The inexpensive ones, like Bill's Place, where
six could "eat for less," as the sign said. And Christopher Ryder House, the expensive, dress-up place for
Last Night. Or the very first Howard Johnson's in America! Also The Hillside. The Gristmill. The
Flagship. Some still here, some long gone, all remembered.
Outer Cape is a narrow land, only three to five miles wide, a giant sandbar, arid and bristly, forested mostly
with pitch pine, locust, oak, red maple, cedar, beech. No matter the species, all these trees seem to grow only
to a certain prescribed height and then stop, as if some ordinance forbids anything taller. Limited rainwater
retention in thin, sandy soil is nature's reason. Cape Cod's unique, sere beauty is the adaptation of life to
harsh, flinty conditions.
Where old forests have been cut away by man (a century ago, for shipbuilding
lumber) or swept away by storms (this is a tortured barrier against the
sea), rolling, grassy moors remain, green in spring, drought-brown in
summer, silver in winter, peopled by countless conical cedars, dark figures
marching up and down the hills like a straggling company of hikers making
their way cross-country.
A single highway bisects this forearm for about 25 miles, with many roads branching off in the direction of
ocean or bay. Within the territory of each town, a crazy-quilt of back roads wanders under dappled
shadows from the trees. The bark of the older locusts is often satin-silver, heavily veined. The pines have
rusty, armored trunks. Branches of all intermingle, reaching for the sky together, flailing and twining, as if
involved in a wild dance.
Cottages and year-round homes nestle in these woods, their cedar singles a
warm, golden tone when new, but turning a silvery gray after a season
or two in the salt air — or dark and streaky with rain, like mascara after
Owners or summer tenants in these houses usually announce their names with hand-lettered signs nailed on
trees at the roadside: the Smiths, Joneses, McCoys and O'Learys all seem to strive for a touch of their own
style. (I once painted the blade of a broken oar in vivid red and put our name upon it at Dulce. The kids
didn't like my taste.)
Any flash of color stands out amidst the muted grays, greens and browns of nature: yellow Toyotas in
driveways, American flags (many), scarlet geraniums in oaken tubs, a rainbow of kites in the sky over the
beaches, gleaming, just-washed fire engines parked outside the firehouse, purple surfboards on the roof
rack of an old silver Volkswagen Beetle.
After the New Wing was added to Dulce, came next the Sleeping Porch, a long room under a shed roof,
with crank-open casement windows on three sides and blue and white curtains and many fishing floats
(glass balls and cork rings) and smooth, odd-shaped bits of driftwood brought back from the beach. Here
there were two beds bolstered with colorful pillows of all shapes and sizes, some bearing the name "Dulce
Domum" spelled out in rickrack, and there was a table covered with blue/white checked oilcloth and
surrounded by four chairs painted blue — a table used only in the worst of circumstances, when rain forced
us indoors for lunch and the board games were brought down from the shelf for the afternoon.
This porch, in its early days, had a subtle springiness underfoot, a slight bounce, because it was founded
upon too few cedar posts driven into too-soft sand. Later came cement blocks and then there was no more
bounce — and we missed it. (Now there is no more porch, although the original windows, with their familiar
rattling cranks, are incorporated into the New Living Room. Time, and remodeling, marches on!)
We had been Outer Capers for several years when the Awful Thing happened. The United States
Department of the Interior arrived here in the uniform of National Park Rangers wearing their Smoky the
Bear hats. What we considered our own, our very own, Secret Place was then transformed into something
called a National Seashore. No escaping the fact: there were official signs that looked like they had been
designed in Washington, D.C. — by an artist from Arizona.
For God's sakes!
Eventually this would not be the Awful Thing we feared, of course, but trips to the grocery store in 1961
invariably became occasions to gossip with locals about what new Federal outrage happened yesterday, or
the latest rumor about forthcoming rules and regulations. It was a nervous time. The real shock came when
we drove to our own, our very own, Coast Guard Beach one morning and there he was, The Man, wearing a
crisp government uniform and a smile — and selling admission tickets!
What next? What would happen to Dulce? Would we have to paint the shingles National Park Green?
This didn't just happen in our town. The National Seashore took over 50 miles of the Outer Cape, elbow to
fist, from ocean across to bay in places. Visitors' Centers went up in several locations. The map of Cape
Cod now had a big green stain upon all the long miles from Chatham to Provincetown.
It turned out to be a good thing, of course. Dulce didn't have to be painted any color after all, and 27,000
acres of the Outer Cape have been protected from ugly commercial development that mars some other parts
of the peninsula. Yes, we pay to park now — but nothing worse — and we know there will never be a fast-food
restaurant near the site of Beston's Outermost House.
Getting to Dulce each year involved a 250-mile drive from Connecticut — just far enough so that, if we
forgot to bring some game or gadget for our summer life, we were not likely to go back for it. This resulted
in Mustn't-Forget lists which we all made (sometimes starting the previous winter). Some of these have also
survived as an appendix to the Trip Book. As follows:
"Paint horseshoes, red and white." Horseshoe pitching was a favorite pastime at Dulce; painting the shoes
(real ones) saved arguments about scoring. Today, under the locust trees, I see two indentations in the
sandy turf where the stakes and pits were located. (Two more scooped-out areas mark where the hammocks
used to hang between the trees.)
"Need oilcloth, 3x8 feet." The picnic table always wore a fresh cover annually. Red/white check, held down
with thumb tacks. "New swing hooks." A swing was a must, suspended from a plank spiked high up
between two tall pines, ball-bearing hooks required. The swing and the plank aren't there today, but even
through the rain I can see where the spikes left now-healed scars from the late Sixties. (And I hear a young
voice, "Push me, Daddy, push me hiiiigher!")
"Reel for kite." Another "invention" which we thought to be ours alone, a big, wooden reel made with a
coffee can at its hub and a long, strong stake to drive deep into beach sand. We could wind 1000 feet of
nylon twine on this, allowing our big kites to soar far out over Cape Cod Bay — and to impress everyone
else on the beach with our professionalism.
"New sand shovel for Chuck . . .Erector set for Pat . . .Frisbee . .
. marbles & "bolters" . . .Becky's inflatable green whale . . .air rifle
& targets . . .butterfly net & insect book for Jenny . . .darts & dart
board . . .Walkie Talkies . . .easel & paints . . . ." Dulce Domum was
the site of a Summer Olympics; competition was everywhere!
To a geologist, the Outer Cape consists of only two almost-continuous
beaches, one on the Atlantic side, the other on Cape Cod Bay. To vacationers
in several towns, these long sweeps of golden quartz sand are divided
into dozens of individually-named beaches, each with its own access road,
each with its particular defining memory: The Beach Where We Thought We
Lost Bijou the Dog . . .The Beach Where We Found the Prehistoric Dead
Fish . . .The Best Beach for Running Headlong Down the High Dunes . .
.The Beach of the Shipwreck . . .The Beach Where We Always Made Ancient
Mariner Beards from Seaweed . . . .
There were fierce preferences among us — for quiet Bayside beaches, for the Oceanside's surf, for the
intimacy of a Salt Pond. When it was decision time — Where shall we go this afternoon? — names were
chanted; each had its cheerleader and each was heavy with abstract meaning acquired over years:
"Thumpertown! Sunken Meadow! Cook's Brook! Nauset Light! Camp Ground! Herring Brook! First
We hardly knew the origins of these names, it didn't matter — all but First Encounter, which we understood
to be the place where the Pilgrims first encountered "hostile Indians" of the Cape shortly after the
Mayflower anchored here in 1620. History apart, each beach was someone's personal-favorite sandbox.
The family decision, once settled, was accepted by all, however — "Just for this afternoon, Daddy!" A fair
rotation was required.
There are differing opinions about television in the magic cottage. When the
kids were kids, there was a clamor to bring a small black & white TV for
viewing such as Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob. But reception was bad on
the Cape — which meant (yeah, Dad) bring a mast and antenna! (Henry
Beston would surely not have disgraced his Outermost House with such an
appliance . . . but he didn't have kids there, did he?) So, TV was one
of the first things to be hooked up on our arrival. ("Hurry, daddeeee,
we're missing our show . . . .")
The debate about TV continues. There is none here now — but today
I might wish there were; a football game would make this long afternoon
of rain more tolerable . . . .
No summer was complete without visits to Provincetown, the quaint community on the Outer Cape's tip
end. It is, at heart, a fishing port with an active fleet of boats, most of them owned and manned by
Portuguese seamen whose families have made this their home for generations.
In summer, however, P-town turns outrageous, its main street a parade of ogling tourists and seasonal
exhibitionists. The result is a garish mosaic: restaurants, art galleries, jewelry shops, museums, motels,
candy stores, kite shops, marine surplus, sidewalk cafés — and a town pier where whale-watching boats and
schooners sail out.
We bought sweatshirts, salt water taffy, leather sandals, handmade silver jewelry, cranberry bread at the
Portuguese bakery; we went to rustic nightclubs, saw performances of Eugene O'Neill plays at a rickety
theater on a wharf.
In various eras of its long, colorful history, P-town has been notorious as a sort of outlaw community — a
rum-running town during Prohibition, they say, then a "morally loose" artists'-and-writers' colony. Much of
this reputation has always been more hype than reality; the street characters were there for our amusement,
it seemed. The more bearded, anti-establishment, outlandish, rude or drunk they were, the more Bohemian
we felt. After all our long, healthy days at the beach, a little decadence was fun.
The rain has stopped. A fresh wind is up from the west; it is the break in
the weather I've been waiting for . . . . Oh, you'll laugh at this old
coot now, but I know there is a kite here, one of the last survivors,
a Bat Kite, we had several of those, red, blue, yellow — and the
1000-foot reel, it's here too — still wound with nylon. First Encounter
beach would be the best place to go, would it not?
Everything into the car before the wind shifts!
It is a short walk from my parking place through dune grass to the beach. The kite tugs in my hand already;
it wants to fly again . . .after how long?
I'm nervous. Imagine! Me, the old kite master! But it's like riding a bike,
I tell myself, you never forget. You just check all the bamboo ribs first
and then cast 'er up! There! What a strong pull in that west wind! Hold
her just so, don't let ER dive!
There she goes, up, up and away! Oh, what a lovely sight, a living thing
now, pulling the line out through my hand, a silver thread, give ER more!
A man and woman are reading in the lee of a dune. They put down their books to watch me, the old coot
flying his kite alone. Silly.
I've staked the reel into the sand, the hub is turning, the nylon still
hissing out. Let ER go, doesn't matter how high, the whole thousand if
she'll do it. Why not? And if the old Bat Kite tears free, let ER go,
let the Sixties go with ER, good-bye and thank you, West Wind!
The next generation comes in from Connecticut this evening after I've returned from kite flying. Pat and
Ms. Patty have their bikes mounted on the back of the Volks. I show them the battered old kite, boasting
about the flight this afternoon, pointing with a sort of macho pride to some near-mortal rips in the aged
"Did you use the reel, Dad?"
"Of course . . .What do you think? . . .always use the reel . . . ."
"How high?" (He's humoring me now.)
"I don't know. Maybe 500 . . . ."
Pat is the youngest. He pretends to remember everything about Dulce, about the old days, but he can't know
all, not the way I do. (I'll bet he doesn't know who made the doorstop from the green glass bottle!) So
whenever a moment seems right, I tell him things about the cottage that I want him to know, to remember, to
keep the story complete.
Some day he'll be doing the same.
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