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Altering My Trajectory

How a Bucket podcast is helping reframe a shared family house

By Robin Howe

On week six of Covid-19, I, like many others across the country, was hearing from long lost friends, third cousins and elementary school classmates on Zoom. My niece had scheduled a family happy hour with aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews. I had not seen many in the last two years. We, as a group, were from Maine, Hawaii, Tennessee and Massachusetts. I was a bit uneasy at the start of the Zoom meeting as family tensions over shared sea property lurked in the shadows. Nothing like a little discord to bring down spirits during coronavirus! At best, the Zoom was okay, and everyone was positive. 

That night, I slept a bit fitfully as I began to think about another upcoming Zoom meeting with my siblings who I had just seen on the screen. The next morning, I happened to listen to The Bucket podcast with Katy Butler. In it she spoke of how people became “clear-eyed about the trajectory of their illnesses so that they could plan for the remaining years of their lives.” Although not ill, listening to her words helped me reflect on the last evening’s Zoom. I knew I had to stop being complacent and try to alter the trajectory of our less than ideal managerial approach to the shared vacation property.

Robin and neighbor Emily Cox

Most often, when at this seaside property in Rhode Island, where I have been able to spend ten days each summer for the past forty years, I hold my breath in awe of nature’s wonder: the swan pond, the granite boulders in the sea and the preponderance of Queen Anne’s Lace. It is my magic place.

This is the place I will never leave. I want my ashes scattered across the Atlantic Ocean, and I want my children and grandchildren to carry on the tradition of spending the summer here.

As I live in Tennessee, people have asked me why I continue to drive 20 hours to Rhode Island as there are so many nice beaches within a two-hour drive. I tell them, this is the place I will never leave. I want my ashes scattered across the Atlantic Ocean, and I want my children and grandchildren to carry on the tradition of spending the summer here. It is the only, and always be the only, coastal home I will visit.

In the 1950s, my grandparents bought a small shingled cottage on an acre and a half of land beside the Rhode Island shore for $6,000. They quickly passed it on to my father and uncle, and it became our summer home for the months of June and July. My uncle and his children took the house for August and September. As children and teenagers, we body surfed, built drippy sandcastles and collected cattails. We played tennis on one cracked, aged tennis court beside the town fire station. At night we played capture the flag or croquet or just lay out with friends to watch shooting stars. Some nights we’d even go skinny dipping.

Over time, my parents moved a gothic barn with cathedral windows from Western Massachusetts onto the back of the property. We then had two homes on the land; one a rustic shingled cottage which was able to sleep eight and the gothic barn which had two bedrooms and a loft. My parents, wanting their grandchildren to make strong bonds, offered the extra barn bedroom, the loft and a tent to allow for up to eleven grandchildren to be together. When their offspring got too rambunctious in the barn, they were shooed outside to play roof ball or soccer.

Sharing property was not easy. We had, and continue to have issues. The older we get, and as our children start to have children, the issues change. Some disappear to be replaced by others.

In their early eighties, they passed the barn and the cottage on to me and my three siblings. My siblings and I each had 12.5 % of the cottage and 25% of the barn. My cousins, owning 50% of the cottage, came down during August and September.

While this arrangement may sound ideal, as none of us could afford to buy a beach cottage on our own, sharing property was not easy. We had, and continue to have issues. The older we get, and as our children start to have children, the issues change. Some disappear to be replaced by others.

Robin’s Parents

I remember my two-decade-long resentment over walking into the cottage to find a list of to-do chores laid out on the dining room table waiting for me. I rarely had a say in what I would like to contribute in terms of work, and yet, instead of speaking up, I let my feelings fester. I recall the year I was to trim the Rosa Rugosas. I was so mad at my siblings for giving me chores which showed my ineptness that I furiously butchered the overgrown bushes. It is truly amazing the bushes survived.

As siblings, we naturally all have our different strengths. Relatively spacey, I feel inadequate when I cannot locate the paintbrush I was just using to paint the wicker chair or when I forget to turn out the bathroom light and thereby invite a trove of mosquitoes. I can spend two hours trying to cobble together a table leg which continues to teeter; my brother, a great handyman, can fix it in a minute. 

When Dad was there, we were on our best behavior. We didn’t get picky or testy in front of him.

I am not alone in my exasperation. My siblings get irritated too. Someone calls in a plumber and uses $60 from the house kitty for a service others feel could have easily been repaired by one of us. Another person has pets they want to bring, yet one sibling has children with pet allergies and wants to forbid pets from the house. Yet another sibling resents nieces and nephews visiting for the day with a cooler of beer intending to sleep in a spare bedroom.

Many aspects of the joint ownership work well, but only recently did I realize that my father’s presence was central to our annual property meetings. When Dad was there, we were on our best behavior. We didn’t get picky or testy in front of him. We never stopped seeking his approval even when we were in our 30s and 40s. I only regret that he did not continue to come to meetings.

When he was about 70, he felt it was time for us to manage the property without him. Although he lived another decade, he did not want to meddle in our affairs. We followed his wishes as best as we could. We would use the cottage for children and grandchildren and never rent it, and we would respect his wish for simplicity and frugality. The warped linoleum floor has never been replaced but secured down by rusty nails, and beach towels, as opposed to curtains, still block out the morning light. 

In our meetings, the roles we played as young children resurfaced: leaders, quiet thinkers, pragmatists and peacemakers.

Initially, everyone had an equal share in the management; one person scheduled time blocks, another dealt with finances, another managed the repairs and another arranged for the opening each season. We were all relatively responsible adults who at various times in our lives had lapsed into hippiedom, vegetarianism or Sufism, but our love of this land never lapsed. In our meetings, the roles we played as young children resurfaced: leaders, quiet thinkers, pragmatists and peace makers.  

Original painting by Robin

A nearby neighbor and friend, Sarah Windham and I spoke recently about the joys and traumas of shared ownership. She elaborated on her situation in which she co-owned a family summer house with eight cousins. Everyone owns a fraction of the house; whether it be as large as one eighth or as little as one twenty-fourth. She chuckled and shared a truth, “there is a threshold amount of how many people can share a house… when you combine [too many] owners in a seasonal property, it gets stickier and stickier …there is not one multi-generational family on the planet who can all get along all the time.” 

I also spoke to David Conwell, a long-time friend in Tennessee who too has struggled with the dynamics of sharing a  big summer home. He and his siblings held their mother’s Cape May property in trust in 2006, so that she could use it until she died. His mom then left this big house and moved to a smaller one nearby. With adult children in San Diego and Tennessee, only one sibling was able to watch the home. By 2008, because of the lack of upkeep, the house deteriorated quickly in the windy, salty air. The shared ownership did not lead to squabbling over who got what time slot or who took the hedge clippers home, but rather a general lack of interest; he said to make joint ownership work, “everyone needs to share the burden…they have to agree explicitly (e.g. talk through all the issues and write down the conclusions) as to how to move forward (rent, sell, share usage of the place, upkeep–how much to do and how well to do it)”

While problems are inherent to joint ownership, several families have learned to work amicably. Below are some recommendations offered by co-owners of multi-generational summer homes in New Jersey, Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island

  1. Include the original owner. If possible, have the original owner be involved during the first years of management. This might involve a conference call, inclusion in email or attendance at an annual meeting. With the donor included, new owners or owners-to-be can gain a clearer sense of how the older generation wants the home to be used. This way you can keep conflicts from arising if one member wants to rent their time if others believe the donor intended the home solely for family use. 

  2. Establish times for each family. In some house management plans, families keep the same time slot (i.e. two weeks in July) every year. Other families rotate slots each year. In most situations, joint owners agree on a specific time slot for the summer by mid-February.

  3. Establish a manager and the duration of his/her term. Some families keep the same manager for years. Others rotate out. Each year reconsider the benefits of a fresh face in an old job against the benefits of someone who knows the system

  4. Open a checking account for the sole purpose of management. All owners pay annual dues. Consider having two names on the checking account. Decide upon the repercussions of late payment.

  5. Consider the role of spouses. Decide whether husbands and wives are to be included in management decisions.

  6. Decide on usage. Are relatives welcome to come for the day, park and use the beach at a time when another family has use of the home?

  7. Have empathy. Put yourself in your siblings or co-owners’ shoes. What is their financial situation? Are they physically capable of some minor chores? At what point do you consider having a maintenance man or property management company?

  8. Document the process. Have a secretary to take notes at annual meetings to ensure that everyone understands and agrees to various proposals.

Clearly, sharing a house is tough, and the wear and tear can take a toll on family relationships. Inevitably, some families will have more disposable income than others; some will become budget-conscious retirees, some will passionately trim the hedge until it disappears. In spite of the difficulties, each time I go to our Rhode Island home, I hold my breath in wonder as I stand on the porch and look at the rolling waves. I love this place more than one might imagine.

Two days ago, we had our first annual meeting for the cottage on Zoom. I wanted to follow Katy Butler’s advice to be proactive, so I prepared myself to be more accepting. Instead of imagining hostility in a sibling’s eyes, I looked for openness. I knew I wanted to address my siblings’ ages and energy level; I actually wrote down wording, so I could express concern kindly. I also proposed that we consider rotating responsibilities.

I honestly believe that the meeting went smoother than it has in years. While I might attribute this success to my intentions, it could have been my son’s presence that favorably influenced the Zoom meeting’s dynamics. Just as when dad was with us, having someone from outside the siblings’ circle put us all on our best behavior. 

Butler’s words provided the catalyst for repairing relationships. I realize that listening to Butler once is not a one-time fix to cure all festering issues. Instead of falling back into my role as peacekeeper, I needed to encourage more dialogue.

Seagulls swooping down to grab a sandwich and sea air that thickens my hair are part of a family tradition. To preserve it takes work. To give it up is unfathomable.

 About the Writer

Robin Howe is an artist and teacher who spent her first forty years in New England. She then moved to the South where she began painting incessantly creating up to fifty works in a year. Her paintings have been noted as expressive, whimsical and comforting. Her newspaper columns have a similar tone. They are light-hearted, self-effacing and a welcome read. Upon learning of The Bucket and its mission, Robin wanted to become a part of it and see if she might help others change the trajectory of their last few decades. Never afraid to try and not embarrassed if she were to fall flat on her face, Robin took to the keyboard and contacted The Bucket staff.

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