When school ended in June, our parents would pack us into
the car and leave our home in upstate New York to head to Maine, where we spent
the summers. Dad worked at the marine
biology lab across the two lane blacktop from our cottage on the lake, and we
kids focused our considerable energy on swimming, sailing, trying to convince
the librarians to let us borrow more than the allowed limit of books (we did
get more for being “summer people”, a cut above the average tourist), and
seeing how far our allowances would go at the candy store.
The house we lived in for most of the year was an old one,
the foundations very old. Local legend
had it that the five acre parcel we lived on was the pay a Revolutionary War
soldier received for his service instead of money, and that the stone
foundation (which flooded every spring as the snow melted) dated back to those
days. The rest of the house was built in
about 1820. I loved my cozy little room
under the eaves, with its window seat my father built, overlooking the hills
that gave our house its name of “Fox Hill”.
One summer night – in those days, we were sent to bed when
it was still light out, much to our chagrin – I noticed a bright light through
my bedroom window. I knew that the
carnival was supposed to be in town soon, so I thought that was what it was. I
called out to my parents that there was a light in my room. My father came upstairs to investigate,
undoubtedly to tell me to be quiet and go to sleep. He took one look out the window, exclaimed
“Oh, my God,” and ran downstairs and out the front door.
Dad ran through the fields to our next door neighbor’s
place, where the barn was on fire. On
his way there, he learned the hard way that there was a creek between the two
properties, and ruined his pants on a barbed-wire fence. Arriving at the neighbor’s, he helped to save
their livestock before the barn collapsed in a shower of sparks in the night
sky. My brother and I sat on the front
porch, watching the drama. My brother
had thoughtfully provided us with a bag of mint filled Oreos, into which he
dipped absently while saying, “I’m scared.”
The neighbors were thankful for Dad’s help in saving their
cows and horses, and a friendship sprang up.
They had a baby daughter who was about the same age as my sister, and we
would often gather at their house or they at ours. They had fled the madness of New York City
for the safety and calm of the country, and it’s hard to imagine a greater
contrast, even forty years later, between Manhattan and the place where I grew
up. Local gossip had it that the
neighbors had Mob connections, but I never learned if that was true.
I always thought of myself as a city person, and it’s
amusing that where I live now echoes the places I grew up. The rocky shores of the northern California
coast are so similar to Maine that this area often stands in for New England in
movies and TV shows. I live far from the nearest town, with a very long
driveway, like Fox Hill’s. It’s several
miles’ drive to the nearest store or post office, as it was when I was a child,
and no neighbors are visible from my house.
There are no locks on my doors, either.
I love the smell of low tide. It brings me back to my childhood summers in
Maine. This morning, when I was putting
gas in the car, I could smell the low tide – the gas station has a view of the
ocean – and I immediately felt like I was back in those long ago summer days,
when it was always sunny and we had an endless luxury of time. Every day, we’d wake up and decide what we’d
do that day, knowing that we still had weeks ahead of us, whereas now, it’s
trying to fit everything into the day.
When we arrived at the cottage, it was a chaos of children
and unpacking. One year, we arrived at
night only to discover that a family of squirrels had made themselves at home
over the winter, particularly in the mattresses. The house was such a mess that
we repaired to our friend’s house for the night, returning to deal with the
rodent-caused disaster on the following day.
But every year after we arrived, I took advantage of the confusion to
slip down to the lake unnoticed and touch it.
It was a magic talisman, telling me I had really arrived.
The cottage was very simple, just plain wood boards. You
entered through the galley kitchen, which gave way to a living-dining room with
windows overlooking the lake and the woods. There was a built in desk in the
corner, a Franklin stove for chilly nights and mornings, and two couches facing
each other. There was a radio, but no TV or phone. There was a phone across the highway at the
lab, though. My parents’ bedroom was downstairs, across from the only bathroom.
Up the spiral staircase were two more bedrooms, with a big window looking
downstairs on the landing.
Many years ago, when we were together in Maine for the last
time during Dad’s lifetime, we rented a house in downtown Bar Harbor. All of our friends from the lab came to
visit, and we threw a wonderful party with all the doors open, people laughing,
talking, eating, drinking, and remembering joyfully. Those golden days and our happy memories
bound us together even though we hadn’t seen each other for some time. During that visit, Dad and I went to see our
old cottage. It wasn’t locked, and it
hadn’t changed. It was like walking into the past together.
The cottage even smelled the same: pine boards warmed in the
sun to a warm, resiny scent. The balsam
pines around the house released their distinctive aroma into the summer air,
just as they had so many years ago when we lived there, always had, and always
will. As I write, another family is
having dinner at that same table overlooking the lake, playing board games in
the living room as the radio plays softly in the background, or gathering
kindling for the Franklin stove, including pine cones fallen from the trees
around the house, bringing the forest fragrance inside.
In my memories, it was always sunny, though I know many days
started out as foggy as my current home on the northern California coast, and,
like here, ended the same way, too.
There were wild and fierce thunderstorms too, when we girls would gather
in our parents’ as the house shook around us.
I’d hide under the covers as the lightning shattered the dark sky and
even spilt a tree right beside our house.
Sometimes, it would sizzle into the lake’s inky waters. My father and brother would watch bedazzled,
counting to tell how far away the storm was.
The boy who reveled in thunderstorms – the more dramatic, the
better – and fearlessly counted the time between the thunder and the lightning
is now the man who runs into burning buildings, fights sixty foot walls of
wildfire flames, and performs cliff rescues.
He is a captain in our volunteer fire department. Sometimes I can still see the little boy who
gazed fascinated at the fire next door long ago, saying he was scared while he
was clearly nothing of the sort. I
wonder if that fire and the lightning striking the tree next to our house
ignited something in him.
I’m still afraid of thunderstorms. It’s a fear I never outgrew, like my fear of
the flying, even though in both cases I know it’s irrational and could arguably
be considered old enough to know better. I don’t know what’s worse: the boom of
the thunder or the crash and flash of the lightning. Those long-ago storms in Maine could be so
intense that lightning sometimes crackled out of the outlets on the walls. Fortunately, thunderstorms are few and far
between where I now live, on the northern California coast, so there are fewer
reasons to hide under the blankets.
My brother and sister both share a love of danger. He is a volunteer firefighter, and she was a
paramedic for many years and now works in the emergency room of our local
hospital. She was one of the few women
who worked on the ambulance – there are none now – and she’s always calm under
pressure, no matter how horrific the situation is. I once asked her how she could bear to see
the things she sees, and she said that she is able to help, and she’d rather be
there to help than not. I admire her so much.
My brother has been sailing since the age of four, inspired
by Arthur Ransome’s immortal “Swallows and Amazons” books. It seems to me that he was a natural sailor,
though someone must have taught him the basics.
It may have been a friend and colleague of Dad’s at the lab, who gave my
brother his old Sunfish when he upgraded to a bigger and better boat. First he sailed on the pond outside the
cottage, and then in the cove outside the lab.
Eventually, he sailed on the Atlantic. Our parents agreed with Arthur
Ransome: “If not duffers, won’t drown.”
We could take out rowboats from the lab docks – but only if
we passed the lab swimming test. This unofficial yet official test took place
at the lab dock. You had to swim from
the dock to Blueberry Point and back, in the chilly Atlantic waters. Once you had achieved this milestone, you could
borrow a rowboat. Life jackets were
encouraged, though not mandatory, and we did this with no adults present,
unless you counted Dad, who was somewhere on the lab premises. Probably. I wonder if children now are as excited about
borrowing a rowboat and braving the ocean.
Our parents generally sent us outside after breakfast, with
the understanding that we would not be back until lunch unless emergency
services were required (and on the rare occasions they were, our parents were
extremely annoyed). This was the case
both at home and in Maine, where they would often drop us off at the beach or
in Bar Harbor for several hours. We were never scared to be alone, or worried
that some hideous fate might befall us.
In those days, we walked to school through the woods and never thought a
thing of it. We were free range.
Dad always said he would trust his life to my brother in a
boat, and he did, despite being a poor sailor and suffering from seasickness. This is an affliction none of us share, and
Dad felt that there was no greater gap than that between those that had it and
those that didn’t. Still he braved both
the mal and the mer for the pleasure of skimming over the waves. There is such a feeling of freedom when you
are sailing fast on the ocean, the blue of the sky echoed in the water, the
wind in your hair.
The lake we swam in most often was a hidden gem, down a dirt
road leading to a “parking lot” which was nothing more than a clearing among
the towering pine trees. From there, you
followed a narrow, unpaved path bordered by blueberry bushes and more pine
trees to the lake, which, like most beaches on the island, was on the rocky
side. This didn’t deter us from picnicking, though. The lake had a pink granite shelf to one
side, which was perfect for sunbathing, and the warm, shallow water as you
splashed into the water was alive with minnows.
The best-known beach on the island was called Sand Beach,
and the sand was made of thousands, or maybe millions, of pulverized shells,
including mussels, which gave it a lavender shade. It amazed me then and amazes me now that an
entire beach could be made of shells.
The sand was more comfortable for lounging on than the rocky beaches of
the island, and it was sheltered from the wind in a cove. But the water was about 55 degrees, even in
the height of summer, making it shocking to jump into and swim in. Not that it
Seal Harbor was another favorite beach. We’d swim out to the floats and sun ourselves
like the eponymous sea creatures. Dad would
lie on the beach, reading the “New York Times”.
Sometimes I’d come out of the chilly Atlantic waters and lie on his
sun-warmed back, putting my cold, wet face on his sun-warmed neck, my towel
over me. It must have been spectacularly
uncomfortable for him, but he never complained.
The Rockefellers had a summer place there, and when my
sister was a baby, she observed the boats in the harbor: “Boat, boat…BIG boat!”
That was the Rockefellers’ yacht.
My brother would sometimes accompany our neighbors when they
pulled up their lobster traps. In
exchange for his work, he’d get enough lobsters for us all to have at
dinner. In those days, lobsters were
cheaper than hamburger, which, as our father observed, was the way it should
be. Dad liked to tease us by turning the
lobsters over so they’d shake their tails at us, chasing us around the kitchen
with them. He also said you could hear them screaming when you put them in the
water, but it was just the air escaping from the shells. Wasn’t it?
Every year, there was a picnic on the beach near the lab
buildings. It was more of a clambake,
with the fathers making a big pit lined with seaweed to bake the clams in over
a fire. As usual, the men gathered around the fire as they do at most
barbecues, while the women chatted, gossiped, and kept an eye on the children. We ran around, flying kites, and paddling in
the frigid ocean. It was the end of the
season – time to go back to school and real life. We were lucky to have our
summer friends and traditions.
Our parents knew of a certain woman in Southwest Harbor who
made blueberry coffee cake from the local, wild blueberries. I have never tasted blueberries as delicious
as those – their larger, cultivated cousins are a mere pale shadow of the
small, deep blue wild berries that seem to grow all over Maine’s rocky
coast. We’d stop by this house on our
way to or from the beach, and if she wasn’t home, we’d just let ourselves in,
take the cake, and leave the money.
Sometimes there would be huge chocolate chip cookies. The door was never
locked. It was wonderful.
Another culinary delight was the popovers at Jordan Pond
House. They were a reward after a long mountain
hike nearby. The popovers were made to
order, so they were hot and fresh, served with butter and house-made strawberry
preserves. The restaurant overlooked
Jordan Pond, which to my eyes was more like a lake than a pond, and the
mountains that loomed over it. It was a
delight to sit at white clothed tables on the green lawn in the clean, fresh
air, eating that delicious treat together.
It was another hallmark of the summer, an event not to be missed.
Robert was an artist and a blacksmith. His wife was from high society in Boston and
had been disinherited by her family for marrying far beneath her. They had two children and a merry little
dachshund. Robert had converted an
ancient limousine into something of a mobile home with a bed and a kitchen, and
he drove it all over town.
He made the chandelier in the lofty hallway of the house,
which held actual candles. In his
bedroom, there was another piece of art he had made: a wrought iron sculpture
with a gun, pointed right at his bed.
Robert introduced me to Sylvia Plath and George Bernard Shaw
and Oscar Wilde. I’d borrow the books
from the library and then discuss them with him after I’d read them. It was inspiring to share his passion. I
still remember him sitting on the porch with a blanket over his gaunt knees,
his ravaged face alight with joy as he discussed the mordant humor in Shaw and
the dark, beautiful imagery in Plath’s poetry.
He confided that the gun sculpture in his bedroom was in case the cancer
ever got the upper hand, and I never told anyone. Until now.