It’s December as I write this, a season when gift and gratitude are top of mind, yet also when loss and grief feel particularly acute. That continual interplay—darkness encroaching on the light; light suffusing shadows—provides the backdrop for the poems in my debut collection “Winter at a Summer House”.
A reader recently asked me if the summer house in the title poem was real. I said yes—and no. Both are true. There was a real house, but it grew, through time and memory, into something different—turreted, and towered—more haunted castle than summer cottage.
The real house belonged to my parents who retired to South Yarmouth, Massachusetts in the early 1990s after the last of their children left home. As kids, we’d often vacationed on Cape Cod, and for a few years, my parents had owned a small cottage there. But it was their rambling, retirement home—a house with enough room for all of us—that became the hub of my, and my adult siblings’, and our families’ summer lives.
It was a sunny, lively house presided over by my parents during a mostly healthy and contented period of their lives. Of course, we all went through a myriad of ups and downs during those years, as people do, but in retrospect, the sun shone and shone then, year after year, until the day our seemingly spry and vigorous mother died of a sudden heart attack. We were devasted. Mother’s death precipitated our father’s decline. Once hale, hearty, and brilliantly competent, he faded overnight.
When the world collapsed, my youngest child had just left for college, and I had recently started a new job. My sister was busy with family, art, and work. Despite these obstacles, she, and I, both of whom lived two hours away, each began to stay with our father a few days each week. Our brother who lived further away used his vacation time to relieve us. We continued this for several years. While challenging, it was bearable, and often pleasant in the spring, fall, and summer. The winter was different.
The wind blows hard on Cape Cod in the winter. The shutters on Dad’s house banged. Windows and chimneys rattled. December and January days were gloomy, with darkness falling by mid-afternoon. Sometimes, I caught a glimpse of Mother coming around a corner then she’d vanish. I listened for her voice amidst the house’s rumblings. Having been an English major in college, I found the house, in winter, eerily reminiscent of Ramsay’s house in Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse,” particularly in the “Time Passes” section. Wind invaded. Moss, mold, and spiders set up camp. One could scrub, dust, and polish all day just to make way for a new crop of marauders. And though our summer house wasn’t on the ocean as the Ramsay’s was, I had walked and jumped off enough jetties to imagine one there, and thus its prime billing in “Winter at a Summer House.”
Early on, when people asked me what the book was about, I described it as a narrative, not focusing on the house, the water imagery, or associated metaphors. However, a recent Kirkus review highlighted the prominent place of the ocean, water, and the passage of time, and this caused me to consider it from a new angle. That review began: “Hines grew up in Massachusetts, adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean, and the poems in this debut collection are filled with richly detailed imagery evoking the sea—of characters swimming, bathing, diving as if time were an unpredictable element, and living, a process of navigating unexpected currents…”
I had not set out to write a narrative, nor a collection of water-themed poems. I wrote one poem at a time, and only later ordered them so that they could “talk” to each other and tell a story. And since I’m a lifelong, year-round swimmer, I evoked the water imagery naturally. Writing this post has prompted me to explore these thoughts more deeply, and to consider, alongside them, the role of the house in the book.
An author friend recently told me he believes that every book someone writes is a miracle. I understand more clearly, each day that goes by, what he meant, and I welcome opportunities to contemplate my small miracle from new vantage points, and to share my thoughts. So today, I thank author Anthony Avina for generously hosting me on this blog. It’s the first time I deliberately explored the role the summer house plays in this collection, and I hope readers enjoyed taking the journey with me. Happily, by the time others read this, we’ll be past the winter solstice and our short days will already be lengthening.
In closing, I want to thank Kelsay Books for publishing “Winter at a Summer House;” Poetic Book Tours for coordinating this tour; and all of you, Anthony Avina’s readers, who have taken a few minutes to commune with me here. I truly appreciate your time and attention, and if you read the book, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it! You can find me at www.marybethhines.com.
About the Author
Mary Beth Hines grew up in Massachusetts where she spent Saturday afternoons ditching ballet to pursue stories and poems deep in the stacks of the Waltham Public Library. She earned a bachelor of arts in English from The College of the Holy Cross, and studied for a year at Durham University in England. She began a regular creative writing practice following a career in public service (Volpe Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts), leading award-winning national outreach, communications, and workforce programs. Her poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction appear in dozens of literary journals and anthologies both nationally and abroad. Winter at a Summer House is her first poetry collection. When not reading or writing, she swims, walks in the woods, plays with friends, travels with her husband, and enjoys life with their family, including their two beloved grandchildren. Visit her online at www.marybethhines.com.
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