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June 26, 2010

Summer and a Whole Lot of Smoke

Summer and a Whole Lot of Smoke

By Brunonia Barry

Last weekend, as my six week book tour for The Map of True Places came to a close, my husband and I drove north to New Hampshire for a much anticipated friends and family reunion at Brunonia Cottage.

Now, if you think I’m so egotistical that I named a summerhouse after myself, it is simply not true. I was named after the summerhouse. A Victorian cabin built by my great grandfather with family money that has long since disappeared, Brunonia Cottage has been in my family for six generations. It stands alongside three similar summerhouses on a small lake in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, and as true places go, this one is at the center of my map.

Campsign That the cottage has survived all these years is testimony both to the building practices of the time and to dumb luck. It has nearly collapsed under various winter snow loads, lost several of its outbuildings to falling trees, survived multiple economic downturns, family breakups, extremely rambunctious children, hurricanes, an ex-convict who holed up there one winter using the walls for target practice, and a wildfire that almost claimed all three camps.

The cottage didn’t have a name until the first year my grandfather attended Brown University. Evidently, Brown students often refer to their beloved alma mater as Brunonia. The summer after his freshman year, my grandfather named the cottage after his university. Carried away by his own collegiate enthusiasm, he named the canoe and the cat Brunonia as well.  He was what my grandmother liked to call a rabid alumnus. An amateur composer, he wrote fight songs for Brown’s football team and drinking songs for his college buddies. Ultimately, there were far more drinking songs than fight songs, my grandfather being more enamored of liquid refreshment than contact sports. Years later, when his grandchildren were born, he strongly suggested that each one of us be named Brunonia, and though I’m quite certain he was kidding, I know that everyone at least considered the idea. He was a charismatic character who could talk people into doing all sorts of silly things. His powers of persuasion were greatly enhanced by the fact that he had quite a bit of money, which everyone hoped to inherit. My mother, being a more down to earth New England type, refused to saddle me with such a first name, seeing the inevitability of nicknaming and imagining the difficult time a girl might have with the nickname Bruno. So Brunonia became my middle name, and eventually, as my grandfather always suggested to me, it became my pen name as well. 

My grandfather was my writing mentor. He was a wonderful piano player and wrote quite a bit of music, which he would always play for his guests after dinner and a few drinks. He and my grandmother kept a flat in New York and, in the early days, they often took the milk train down from Boston to go to Harlem and listen to jazz. They lived a charmed life and a rather fast life. In the end, to the horror of both his wife and children, there was nothing left to inherit.  One day, he woke up and simply announced that everything was gone. When the family protested in disbelief, he answered, “What are you complaining about, you had fun didn’t you?” And they had to admit that they had. Adventures with my grandfather were the essence of fun.

When asked what he would do now that he’d spent all his money, he replied that he planned to retire to Brunonia Cottage and grow marijuana, an idea that sent shock waves through the rest of the family who feared he might be serious. At seventeen, I found the idea delightful. But he never got the chance. One night after dinner, he went to the piano and played a medley of the songs he had written, including all of the Brown football and drinking songs. Then he stood up, swore under his breath, walked out to the back porch and collapsed.

The following summer we found two huge marijuana plants on the beach. Most likely, they were planted by one of my cousins or by the hippies who lived across the street, but it made us wonder.


Isn’t it funny, the things you remember . . . and the things you don’t? I had forgotten about the marijuana plants until the day of the reunion when my friend, Gail, reminded me. She also reminded me that I had taught her to smoke. Not marijuana, Marlboros.

 I was incredulous.  “I have asthma,” I said. “I don’t smoke.”

“Well, you did that summer,” Gail said.

 And then another memory started to flood back, the memory of lighting up our stolen cigarettes and practicing the art of French inhaling. The next morning, having taken our example, the little kids tried the same thing in the woods and almost burned down the state of New Hampshire or at least all three camps. Everyone ran outside, carrying brooms, hoses, buckets of water, blankets, anything they could find to smother the flames that were quickly spreading across the dry pine needles in the grove between the cottages. By the time the volunteer fire department arrived, the flames were out, but we spent the next three nights taking turns keeping watch to make sure the fire hadn’t spread underground and wouldn’t reignite. We were all immediately grounded, and the little kids missed a trip to Santa’s Village, something they were still lamenting last weekend at our reunion. I offered to drive them that afternoon, and to pay for it as well, if only they would stop complaining. 

On the day of the fire, smoking was banned in all three cottages with one exception made for my grandmother who had been chain smoking unfiltered Camels forever and refused to give up her habit. Her smoking was relegated to the front porch where she quietly puffed away for years. We tried on several occasions to get her to quit, citing the health risks. She was in her eighties when she told us she didn’t want to hear another word about it. She said that she would never give it up, that she’d been smoking all her life, and that it hadn’t hurt her yet.  The minute she made her pronouncement, I became fearful. Be careful what you declare, my mother always used to say. Don’t tempt the imps. But my grandmother was a powerful matriarch, so I told myself that any imps would be crazy to mess with her. And, even in her eighties, my grandmother was the healthiest woman I had ever met. In all the years I’d known her, she’d never had so much as a sniffle.

A year after my grandmother made her declaration, she died in a fire caused by smoking in bed. Irony isn’t an imp, it’s a bitch.

Someone mentioned the death of my grandmother at the reunion, and someone else just as quickly changed the subject. That’s the way it goes with people you know well. They know when to move on.

“I gave up smoking three years ago,” Gail said quietly to me.

“Let’s all have another drink,” someone else suggested. 


To learn more about Brunonia, click here


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Thanks for telling us how you got your name--I was wondering! And what a great story about your family summerhouse. A lot of rich history for a writer to mine.

My husband graduated from Brown, and he's always called it Camp Bruno!

I was wondering about the name myself. Lovely to still have a family gathering place. Our land has been in the family for a few generations but no houses or outbuildings. We're bad for burning down our houses. Lots of heirloom trees and plants. No heirloom furniture!

We moved around so much growing up that I never had a place with memories attached. My husband however grew up on a Catholic Worker Farm that was later turned ovewr to his parents. They being the original Catholic workers that started the farm. So they have great stories of the early years of the Catholic Workers. Now they family still returns for family reunions where four generations come together. So I get to have a family gathering spot through him. My great Grandmother smoked until she was 93 when she moved into the nursing home. When told she would have to go to a special room to smoke she said the hell with it and quit cold turkey after 70 years of smoking. I loved her so much I named one of my daughters after her.

What wonderful stories, Brunonia. And I have to ask -- DOES anyone call you Bruno, for short?

Any old boyfriend of mine went to Brown, and it always had that aura of romance mixed with profound intelligence to me. And now it has a nickname too. I will probably never visit Brown, as I doubt the reality would live up to the vision in my head.

What a great story. And it looks like a wonderful place. I just love your grandfather's response to the concern about the money being gone. It sounds like he used it the right way.

Brunonia, I wanted to walk up to the lovely door in the picture and turn the handle, see what's on the other side! The whole concept of a Victorian summer cabin has an air of enchantment to me. It's always comforting, too, to know that there's at least one other person in the world who wouldn't be surprised in the least if I were to cut loose with stories of true family eccentricities, lost or stolen millions, etc. I'm looking forward to reading your work!

Harley, you never know. I once gave a talk at Brown, which more than met the rich imagination I had for it, then on the train back to Chicago--a nice, long ride--I met a most charming man. We dated for a time, but I can't give that romance a fairy-tale ending without exaggerating, it was just a lovely time.

Brunonia--how...wonderful. All of it. And I am so delighted you're our blog sister!

Someday I'l tell the story of how we met--or, actually , how I heard you talking in a booth next to mine--and i sepnt the day listening to you, enchanted and transfixed.

Do you laugh when you see the entrance to the cabin? It's funny how knowing the story behind the story changes perceptions so much..

I'm at the airport the way to DC...see you tomorrow!

Brunonia - I have never met you or your writing (came by the blog via Louise Penny)but your post made me laugh & cry.We don't have a family cottage, but my mother's family of 14 has a reunion every year where we catch up & tell stories of our eccentric elders. My 3 sisters, a few years back, bought me a doll & told me to shut up already about the tragedy of my baby sister being allowed to kidnap my doll and name her Bobby- where was the justice & what kind of a name is that for a baby doll? My mother quit smoking cold turkey at the age of 73 when we all told her we could not visit her in her apartment because of allergies/asthma. She is now 84 and suffers from COPD.

Brunonia, what rich and wonderful stories.
I love your grandfather's philosophy.."What are you complaining about, you had fun didn't you?"
Your pictures are just beautiful.
Thank you for sharing this wonderful blog with us today.

Brunonia--synchronicity! I wrote about the White Mountains on Murderati this morning, and an old family connection to the Willey disaster.

And my sister Freya was named after our grandfather's boat.

What a wonderful post, thank you!

Living in Ontario when I was younger it seemed that many people owned cottages on lakefronts.
We would go for day trips to visit or fishing jaunts where black flies were a menace.
Rowing on lakes and just letting nature sink in was an experience I will never forget.

Wonderful post. I loved the stories, and frankly miss the White Mountains where I spent a lot of time in my younger years. The doorway is so inviting, and promising...something pleasurable.
I loved The Lace Reader, and the Map is on my TBR shelf. It is good to read you here.

Hi, Brunonia. It's lovely to meet you and your grandparents! Those stories and that photo make me want to ring the bell and wait for someone to come to the door to let me in.

what great family memories and what a great memory you have!
Never had a cabin/cottage experience myself, love to read other peoples!
Marie, I lived in Ontario until I was 7, didn't need a cabin to meet blackflies in the summer. I still remember having to wear a long-sleeved hoodie, with the hood up in the summer to play outside in the evening.

"you had fun didn’t you?” Words to live by! Thanks!
The first national storytelling conference I attended was at Brown -- lovely campus!
I didn't find romance, but I did get some great stories!

I'd love to swing on that swing!!

OT: Thanks to all who suggested _Galaxy Quest_. What a romp!

I have the joy and pleasure of having Brunonia Barry as my oldest and one of my very dearest friends all of my life.We have been friends since before birth. Our great-grandfathers, who were great friends, built summer cottages next to each other and they date to before 1910. Brunonia is one of the most genuine and caring people I know and I am so pleased that her wonderful talent can be enjoyed by all who read :The Lace Reader" and "The Map of True Places". The cottage is a wonderful place where I have always felt at home. Thanks

Brunonia Love you.

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