Sunday, July 28, 2013

Maine Part II: The House

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.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Maine Part I: The Journey North

On the ferry at last

Now that my husband and I are both on teacher schedules, we can spend a good portion of the summer at our family home on a small coastal island. We joke about being intentionally poor so that we can do this; that the low salaries and persistent financial worries are all part of the price levied for our getaway en famille.
 And so, playing the part, I take perverse pleasure in telling our acquaintances that we summer in Maine.
“Oh! How lovely!” they exclaim, with raised brows.
To be sure, the images raised by our announcement are lovely: Dinners of lobster-in-the-rough enjoyed at sunset. Weathered summer chalets in Winterport. Children in striped boatneck tops playing on the front lawn.Parents softly chuckling as their kids launch sea kayaks into the water.
“Race you to the other side of the harbor Mitzi!”
If only it were so. No, our journey is nothing like the manicured joy mirrored in the pages of an LL Bean catalog.
Our journey beings with four smelly and sweaty days spent crammed into an ancient Eurovan: two nervous adults, three whining children and two large dogs.
To keep it interesting the universe adds an unidentifiable warning light that pops up on the dash with a shrill “beeeep”. Its appearance confounds and terrifies us as we hurtle through the mountains of Tennessee.  We frantically flip through the owner’s manual. “It could be the brake system! Or the airbags! Or maybe the tire pressure?”  I am convinced we are going to die. Or be forever stuck in Bucksnort, TN.
The elder children bicker incessantly and tears are shed anew every few hours. Not one to be outdone the baby makes his own displeasure known, at astounding volume. By day three we are shoving every electronic device known to man into the back seat in an attempt to get them all to stop shrieking
We intend to camp each night, half of us sleeping in the van and the other half ensconced in a tent purchased hastily from Target the day before our departure.  On our first night we roll into a campground in Little Rock just as night is falling.  Our campsite is crowded in the back of the lot, between a host of RVs.
My husband struggles to put the tent up in the dark as I sit miserably at a picnic table with the kids and the two bewildered dogs. It is unbearably humid and the mosquitoes are swarming us. Somehow, the temperature rises even as the sun sets. I begin to think Arkansas hates us. We have neglected to buy bug spray, a flashlight or even water. We are dunces. We are doomed.
I am the first to speak aloud what each adult hopes the other will say, “Is it too late to find a hotel?” We move with lightening speed to deconstruct our flagging tent and hustle everyone back into the car. It is close to 11pm when we finally settle in the sweet air-conditioned splendor of a motel by the highway.  I sleep in a sleeping bag on the floor, as penance for our cowardice.
Each morning my husband folds his long frame into the driver’s seat and hunkers down, ready to annihilate 500 miles as quickly as possible (given his noxious cargo). By the end of our long days my belly bears red marks, carved there by the combined forces of 8 hours straight driving and too many dinners hastily gobbled at Sonic. I curse my jeans.
It’s not a glamorous venture, this summering in Maine.
But it is so worth it.
Safe and sound in the hotel room

****         ****
When we finally arrive at the ferry terminal we are giddy with anticipation.
It is one of those freak New England heat waves, where the temperature climbs to near-90 and everyone goes beserk. Oh how we Texans mutter “Bless your hearts” when our northern friends do this; your “heat waves” are adorable.
We park our van in one of the three “reserved” spots at the front of the ferry line. We unload kids and dogs and clamber down to the water, where a small sliver of rocky beach awaits. The kids throw rocks into the waves and the dogs jump in and out of the tide, sniffing the seaweed wildly.
Suddenly, we hear someone calling. Calling to us? Yes! It is my dad and my sister; they are booked on a later ferry but came early in hopes of catching our fleet before we board. They join us on the beach and the kids stumble over one another in their rush to tell my dad all about our trip so far.  We listen to my sister’s tale of her recent move and we make plans to reconvene on the island that evening.
It is time: the ferry pulls into the terminal and we rush to get back into our car. An attendant guides our vehicle onto the deck and we are sandwiched amongst other cars, belonging to islanders and “summer people” alike. Our windows are down and the bite of the sea breeze comes barreling in to whip through our hair.
We’re 40 minutes away from our second home.
He loves lupines.