A few weeks ago, after 10 years of running a bed and breakfast, my parents sold their inn, their home. In a way, that was always part of the plan. A ten-year plan.
I was a freshman in college when they called me with the news that they were considering buying an inn. I think I laughed at them, not because I didn’t think they could do it; I was sure they could. Rather it struck me as funny, I suppose, because, who does that? Who compensates for an impending bout of empty nest syndrome by filling the nest with strangers?
And yet they were serious. Within weeks, my sister, then a junior in high school, and I were visiting beautiful old houses in the town of Rockport, Massachusetts. We had family in Rockport, had spent summers there, and the fact that my parents wanted to live there was perhaps the least surprising thing about the whole ordeal. I don’t remember the specific factors that led to their choice, but my folks eventually chose an old gray colonial with maroon shutters on Mount Pleasant Street. The Sally Webster Inn it was called, after the last surviving child of the house’s builder.
My parents were natural innkeepers. Even before they moved to the inn, they were known for their hospitality. My mom is an ever-flowing fountain of conversation. She has a particular penchant for eliciting the most intimate of details from her conversation partner, never in an “I-can’t-believe-I-admitted-that” kind of way, but rather a “thank-God-I-have-an-outlet-to-speak-what’s-on-my-mind” way. This is why many visits to the Sally Webster, for many travelers, ended with a hug from the innkeeper. My dad, though less of a conversationalist, knows how to turn it on. He’s a charmer who can transform his whole body — facial expressions, posture — into a welcome sign. Though, most often, the smile became more real when he was no longer required to wear it.
For our part, I’m sure my sister would agree that being in college and having an inn for a home had many benefits, and a few downsides. The downsides were obvious and easily overcome: strangers in your house, the necessity to be quiet. But the benefits were enormous. As my college was a 20-minute, scenic drive from the inn, my friends and I were there often — to hang out, do laundry, eat free meals, and for many of us, to work. My parents employed nearly every one of my friends in college and, in some cases, for years after as well.
During those years and the several that followed, the most significant, as well as many seemingly insignificant, events of my life played out against the backdrop of the Sally Webster Inn. In college there were late night conversations that launched lifelong friendships, cigarettes smoked on the roof to the rhythm of college-deep thoughts, beach days that had their beginning and end at the inn, annual parties when the business was closed in January, and even concerts in the living room. Later, graduation parties, birthdays, and weddings of friends and, eventually, of me to my wife, and my sister to her husband, happened at the inn.
In my memory, the inn was more than the location of these stories; it was a character in them. And, of course, there’s a great tradition of houses as actors in literature. From the insidious house in Poe’s “Tell Tale Heart,” to the summer house in Woolf’s modernist masterpiece To the Lighthouse, and into film like the great building in Wes Anderson’s Royal Tenenbaums, or the analogous father/house in Life as a House.
Sally, as we affectionately referred to the inn, was alive with anthropomorphic personality. There was a picture that hung in the living room of Sally Webster herself, mean as hell and scary. And each of the rooms were named for her and her siblings, Caleb and Rhoda, Esther and William, Prentiss, Apollo, and Hannah, and decorated in such a way that gave each a unique persona.
Over the years my parents redecorated each of the rooms, keeping with the décor of the time period, but infusing Sally with a bit of Kathy and Fitzy. In this way, the inn provided the most physical embodiment of home possible. When my wife and I visited we sometimes felt like we had gone back in time due to the age of the house and the antiques, but more than that, we felt that we were literally inside our family, living within my parents. Certainly there is some Freudian satisfaction in this, but call it what you want, it felt like home.
The last time we visited, I found myself inadvertently avoiding the inn. I didn’t drive by it if I could help it, which meant I only saw it once. Already, I noticed, it felt less like home. My parents stayed in town, moving only a few houses down the street, and it was as if that Old Testament cloud that represented the spirit of God to the Israelites had lifted and begun to move on. Over the time, I suspect, this feeling will grow as the new owners remake Sally in their image, and my parents settle into their new home.
And that is one of the great things about old New England houses — every individual or family that inhabits them leaves their impression on the place. Maybe it’s something about the materials used, perhaps wide plank pine floors absorb personality better than the composite materials used in many new houses. There could be something to the old adage, “They don’t build them like they used to,” if the way they used to build them had some kind of mystical quality. Maybe that’s not it at all, but there was something extraordinary about the Sally Webster Inn, I think, something not quite explainable.
There will be other houses that live like characters in my life; I suppose when my wife and I finally get around to buying a place of our own, that’ll be a big one, but I find it hard to imagine a place with more personality, more spirit, than the Sally Webster Inn. Goodbye, Sally Webster.