Our house in Maine sits on a small island located 6 miles off the coast of a larger, heavily touristed island. Our island has one grocery store, one take-away restaurant, one tea room, two hotels, and not much more outside entertainment. Most events center around two community institutions: the Odd Fellows Hall (which holds a pancake breakfast every other Sunday) and the library (which screens a film every other Friday and hosts lectures).
If you are looking for the kitsch and bright lights of Bar Harbor, this is not your kind of place. (It is exactly *my* kind of place.)
Our home sits on a little spit of land called City Point. Our front yard looks out over the harbor, and our back yard consists of woodland that rolls up to the edge of Ghost Hollow. The hollow becomes a treacherous mud flat at low tide—local lore has it that a woman “from away” got caught trying to take a short cut across its deadly muck long ago. She died with her babe in her arms and both are now said to haunt the flats; you can hear them howl in the dark of night. (This just the right kind of ghost story to tell your children on your first night in Maine—together you all shiver and listen for the wailing, deliciously scared to bits.)
The house itself dates back at least to the 1860’s, when it was owned by the Gott family. It has been in my husband’s family for over 50 years. His maternal grandfather purchased it decades ago and it is his initial that is carved out of the shutters. When asked where we are staying we need only say “You know the house with the ‘H’ on the shutters?” for people to nod in recognition.
At present, the whole exterior of the house is in desperate need of a paint job. White paint stands up in curling bristles along the surface of each wall. This makes the house look slightly out-of-focus, blurred at the edges. The distinctive shutters-carved-with-an-H are also shaggy with neglect. They flag each window in proud but downtrodden pairs. You can see through their top-most layer of evergreen paint to a middle layer of red, and in some places an even older sliver of sky blue paint peeks through.
Inside, the house is all warm wood and a soothing mixture of Danish modern and mid-century furniture. The interior is lovely and cozy and it makes my heart sing.
The kitchen houses a stately woodstove—once used to cook on and heat the home, now used to display little baskets filled with sand dollars and other beach treasures. The living room and one upstairs bedroom also host small woodstoves, although we only ever use the one in the living room. The living room woodstove becomes a beloved friend on cold and wet days. The dogs and kids stretch out in front of its warmth and watch the logs burn throughout the day, pausing here and there to read a book or sip hot cocoa.
|Reading and napping in front of the woodstove|
The main feature of the living room is a long window seat, situated below a picture window that overlooks the harbor. It is maybe the most perfect spot in the whole world—equally captivating on days when the fog clings thickly to the water as it is on a crisp and sunny afternoon. We have no tv in the Maine house, because all the images we ever need unfold before this window. Sometimes we find small snails in the grass outside and place them on the window pane to see which one will reach the top first--this is as close as we get to screen time.
I feel irrationally protective of this house.
Over the course of his lifetime my husband has lost most of the members of his immediate family. He has no mother, father, grandparents or sister; life has been cruel this way. The house is one of the only ties to his family past that remains. Its solid wood frame and carved trim, its barn wobbling on a rock foundation, the crabapple tree shading the back yard, the meadow of wildflowers stretching back into the woods—all are a monument to those he has loved.
As with many married couples, our relationship is unbalanced when it comes to the amount of time we spend with each side of the family. My parents and one sibling have moved to our city from the Northeast; we see them at least once a week and my kids spend a ton of time with them. We spend less time with my husband’s family, in part because they live far away. It’s not fair, and it’s something that weighs heavily on me.
I can't magically cast my net and reel in all the family members we love; draw them close to our home and keep them by our sides. And so instead I devote myself to showing my husband's family house how important it is to us. How important his family is to us, how dedicated we are to preserving this special place.
I start by repainting the shutters.
The new paint color is called “Ocean Floor” and it matches the blue-grey of the harbor perfectly. I want to do the job right--to make it last for more than just one harsh winter. I scrape, and sand, and sweat and primer and paint until my shoulders ache. I endure endless deer fly bites that make my hands swell to twice their normal size. I use the tiniest paintbrush I can find to reach the inside corners of the carved “H” in the center of each shutter. I apply a second coat of the finish paint, using great care to fill each divot and valley in the wood grain.
I think about my husband’s family--his mother, mostly-- with every stroke of the brush.
Each summer that we visit the island I feel my mother-in-law’s presence more strongly. She died 7 years ago, and our family grief is still strong. My mother-in-law was beautiful and elegant; a skilled listener with an appetite for good books, world travel and delicious food.
I flip through cookbooks in the Maine house and find her script next to certain recipes. “Too watery—use less tomatoes” She recorded the date(s) that she tried each dish, and the names of who she cooked it for. I find my parents’ names next to “Scallops with peppers”; clearly a favorite of hers as she made it four times for four different guests. Several recipes bear notations that read "Want to try" or "Try this next!!!", and I wonder if she ever did get the chance to make that blueberry crumble.
Inside the back of one cookbook I find an old shopping list: butter, salt, garlic, wine, lamb, saffron. My MIL’s tastes were exquisite and I imagine her shaking her head at our cupboards and the many boxes of mac-n-cheese contained therein.
The list includes items that I find oddly tender: “Sean’s fishing poles” , “Sean’s sleeping bag” Evidence of my husband as a child; his needs and interests so similar to those of our own kids. I wish she were here with us. She would take great delight in each of the three kids—marveling at my daughter’s appetite for books and laughing as the boys tumble in the grass.
We tell the kids stories about her as we crisscross the island on our daily adventures:
"This is the cabin where we stayed before this house belonged to your Oma; back when it belonged to Morfar."
"Here is where Oma used to look for mushrooms, and over there is where she showed me to collect sea spinach."
"Oma used to swim laps here. She would go the whole width of Fine Sand Beach--back and forth."
"Every summer Oma would allow herself *one* Harbor Bar--just like this one--as a treat."
We look at old pictures, and we visit her grave (in a small cemetery on the island, next to those of her daughter and her parents). We leave her offerings of perfect sand dollars, small purple shells and wildflowers collected from the meadow next to our house.
In her honor we will restore the house. We will make it solid and proud again, and fill it with beautiful memories. We will seal the siding with thick coats of paint and we will fortify our hearts with sunshine and sea salt--honoring traditions old and new.
We'll keep coming back and we'll keep the family history alive.