Family Values Bolstered By Summer Homes

Whether it's a seaside cottage or camp in the mountains, they help preserve clan solidarity, researcher says

HOLD it! That end-of-summer detritus you're shaking from beach towels and pant cuffs is not just sand. To some New England families it is the stuff of a summertime ritual celebrating shared values and identity.

These extended families have turned inherited summer homes into shrines to their kinship, according to a researcher who interviewed members of summer-home-owning families in the Northeast. By annually retreating to their dwellings, the families not only flee workday cares but find an enduring haven from change - a place to cheat time itself.

"The families have this sense of an endless summer," says Judith Huggins Balfe, associate professor of sociology at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York, who conducted the study.

"The house is the one pole, the one consistency; cousins, second cousins, everyone feels that their life is in flux everywhere but in their summer home," she says. Ms. Balfe presented her paper, "Passing It On: The Inheritance of Summer Houses and Cultural Identity," to the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association last month.

Each summer, she says, families return to their lake- or seaside land and tap their clan's rich, aged-with-care spiritual reserve. Together they affirm their solidarity and shared values.

"The underlying text is keeping the tribe together," says one of the second- to fourth-generation heirs to 40 summer homes in New England and northeastern New York interviewed by Balfe. "It's sacred," the heir says. The families studied are largely in the middle class, with annual incomes ranging from $30,000 to $150,000.

The kin who together sustain inherited summer homes cultivate a cohesion that in a small way strengthens the country's social stability. Balfe's study highlights the value of extended kinship even as academics assert that American families are collapsing partly because people increasingly put personal desires ahead of family needs.

"Pundits and sociologists have concentrated so much on the ills and dysfunction of families that to talk today about 'happy families' is an oxymoron," Balfe says. "But we haven't looked enough at the positive role of extended families," she adds.

Balfe apparently struck a rich lode of family values. Within inherited summer homes, the reverence for fellowship seems to have attained its purest grade and richest luster. So much so, that families sometimes go to extremes in sentimentality in maintaining the ancestral property.

Some heirs insist that trees go unpruned, even though the verdure has almost entirely blotted out the lake view. They cling to ancient, handmade comforters tattered well beyond their prime. They refuse to paint over pencil lines on a door frame that record the growth of their forebears. They vehemently reject the installation of an indoor toilet out of veneration for an unfailing outhouse.

Some family heirs of summer homes are ascetics to the core who view labor as an end in itself, done for the glory of God and the good of the soul, Balfe says.

Rather than waste, enjoy, or flaunt the fruit from their work, they plow it back into a summer home. From the dwelling, they derive the satisfaction of more hard work as they provide a healthful retreat for their children and kin. They scorn outsiders who view the land merely as an investment or a status symbol.

Not all family members glory in the solidarity and tradition of ancestral summer homes, however.

"It is somebody else's dream, and it has now controlled two subsequent generations, and they all feel guilty because they don't have the same dream," says the inheritor of a home in Balfe's study.

Still, many heirs recognize that without the shared work and pleasure of an inherited summer house, kin would probably not be as close.

'THE house is the theme of our intrafamily relationships," says Lou Matlack, who with his two brothers inherited a lakeside house in Knox County, Maine. "Without the house, we wouldn't have that center," says the Camden, N.J., resident. For his family, he says, "the house affirms the principle of common effort toward the common good..... It's collaboration, it's cooperation, it's sensitivity and mutual respect."

By the time the third generation has come of age, many families have begun to run the house through a partnership, corporation, or trust.

By the fifth generation, the clan usually relies on a system similar to time-sharing. In one case studied by Balfe, 100 heirs divide their claims among the 12 most desirable weeks of summer.

The most common threat to family collectives is an heir who needs money and wants to sell the property. For most families, however, selling is anathema.

At some point, homes that are inherited and collectively owned pose a moral test. When heirs choose to turn away from kin or join a common effort to sustain an ancestral home, they also tacitly reveal their values. The family members who decide to keep a house together concretely declare their morality in the rules they set for the enjoyment and upkeep of the house.

Fundamentally, says Matlack, an inherited home "asks families to determine what their values are."

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