In the last installment (August 12, U.S. 1), at first wary of the concept of leaving my husband behind as I embarked on a vacation, I happily discovered that, in fact, it is the perfect way for a bedraggled working mother to take a vacation. The destination: an 1830 farmhouse on the coast of Maine nestled into 40 acres of woods with its own boathouse and access to a secluded cove. For cheap labor and comic relief, I took along my 14-year-old son, Mackenzie, and his friend, Lexi, still young enough to be manipulated into doing what I want to do, as in “put on your shoes and go pick three dozen mussels out of the cove for dinner before the tide comes up; I want to lie here on the chaise and contemplate my navel.”
I found I liked the idea that in and around Harpswell, Maine, cell phones don’t work very well and there is no television; both kids and I were forced to disconnect from the real world as we knew it and tune in to the natural world.
The trip was such a success that when my friends who own the house invited me back for Labor Day weekend with them, I said yes, even after I discovered that again, my husband couldn’t join me, due to work commitments, and that Mackenzie would already have started school. In fact, I had improved upon my former venture, expertly leaving both husband and child behind to return to my idea of heaven: a small New England town where no one is fat, thanks to a life lived primarily outdoors hauling logs for the woodstove or lobster traps out of the water; where no one wears icky poly-blend pants from the clearance rack at Ross, only sensible cotton and wool clothing from LL Bean (whose 24-hour store is just 30 minutes away); where there are no McMansions with Stepford Wives landscaping, only white clapboard houses with windowpanes that are wavy from the sand that made the glass settling over two centuries of opening and shutting; where the mailboxes bear good Hawthorne and Melville-like surnames like Coffin; and where fast food means picking your own lobster out of a trap in the water at the dock at Watson’s General Store for less than $5 a pound.
The icing on the cake: my friends were coming home a day before me and I would have the house entirely to myself for 24 hours.
The last time I was totally alone for 24 hours was in the womb, I think. Though I also consider myself totally alone when food shopping, as I have come to find out a lot of working mothers do. There is something strangely intoxicating about wandering the aisles of Wegman’s at 11 p.m. (where I’ve been known to go in sweats pulled over my jammies because I’ve run out of contact lens solution just as I’m getting ready for bed). So many interesting kinds of sea salt to choose from, who knew? No one can bother me; no one can ask me for $40 bucks for the school dance (are they serving Beluga caviar?) or tell me that the cat threw up on the carpet again.
On the drive up I knew I’d crossed the Maine border when the tollbooth had a big red lobster tacked onto it and the car in front of me had a bumper sticker that read, “I don’t brake for Yankee fans.” Tom Watson down at Watson’s General Store had on his Red Sox tee shirt when my friends and I went to get our lobsters. We noticed a whole lot of barrels full of little fish in the shed next to the dock. Tom explained those were barrels of herring and redfish from Canada and pogies from New Jersey and Virginia that the lobstermen use as bait. That bait costs about twice as much as a barrel of crude oil, Tom said, about $120 a barrel, and the lobstermen use one to three barrels a day. “What with the price of gas for the boat, you can’t be a lobsterman and leave this dock for less than about $600 a day.”
Inside the store, his wife, Karin, tallied up our critters on a little scrap of cardboard, four one-and-a-half pound lobsters: $31. I paid for the lobsters. Seemed the least I could do as a house guest. (My friend later told me I am the perfect house guest: “You pay for food, you do dishes, and you disappear,” referring to the fact that I willingly took off on my own for several hours a day, so that my friends could have some privacy; after all, it was their vacation too.)
When I introduced myself to Karin, reminding her I had been in at the end of July, she said, “Oh, I remember your son. He came in here and was mesmerized by the TV. [That’s what happens when you take your millenial child away from technology for a week, I thought.] He said to me, ‘I’m E.A.’ I asked him what that meant, and he said, ‘easily amused.’”
Later my friend told me she came into Watson’s at the beginning of one summer season a few years back and asked Karin what had been going on in town since the last summer. “Oh, everything is all the same, just different people doing them,” she said. Another year, having traveled to Tuscany, my friend told Karin about the trip, and asked if she’d ever like to go to Europe. “I like it here,” Karin answered matter-of-factly. “I’m not goin’ anywhere.”
That night I called Mackenzie to quiz him for his first test of the year in World Civilizations honors. As we plowed through patricians, Plato, plebians, and ptolemy, Mackenzie wanted a report on what was going on in Maine.
I said I thought we might be filming an episode of Animal Planet soon. We came home the first night to two fat porcupines lolling about in the yard, like two old drunks with prickly beer bellies. My friends’ two black labs were eager to make friends and approached them fearlessly. Oh, no, you don’t, we said, grabbing them (the dogs, not the porcupines).
The next morning we saw a small fox out the kitchen window with pale orange fur and raccoon stripes around his eyes, contentedly poking his nose in the tall grass. That afternoon, down at the dock, where the most effort we expend is turning the page of a book, we saw a baby black seal, dipping in and out of the water around a giant long rock that disappears completely into the cove at high tide and is nicknamed Submarine Rock, Sleeping Dog Rock, or Crocodile Rock, depending on which family member you ask.
Lastly, I told Mackenzie that in the morning when I emerged from the squishy down comforter on my bed — like sleeping under a mountain of meringue — I could look out my window and see a flock of wild turkeys parading across the lawn.
I asked Mackenzie how it was going with finishing the English honors essays he had been assigned to write over the summer, which were due the first week of school. He told me he had had trouble thinking of the last of three ways to compare the friendships in “A Separate Peace” and “Of Mice and Men.” He said: “But I knew if I waited two weeks, my brain would, like, just refresh, and I’d come up with an idea.”
Having explored the road the house is on during my morning walks on my last trip, I took off in the opposite direction. Just five weeks later, the air already had a tinge of chill, a hint of autumn crispness that tasted like a dinner mint on my tongue, and the bank of orange tiger lilies along the driveway was all gone. With virtually no one on the road but me, I walked along as the early morning mist lifted, admiring the sound of my sneakered feet echoing in the tall pines with branches that whispered like schoolgirls. It was so quiet I could hear the beating of a gull’s wings flying low overhead. Ahead of me, one lone leaf, already brown, the first to go it seemed, floated down and swirled around me, like Forrest Gump’s feather.
I passed a pond covered edge to edge with green lily pads like paper dolls linked hand in hand and the miniature Cundy’s Harbor Library, housed in a storybook cottage (you have to go to the much bigger Brunswick Library to get an Internet connection) that looked as if you could put a candle inside and it would light up like a Christmas gingerbread house.
Up and down a few more hills I arrived at Holbrook’s Wharf, just down from Watson’s and discovered Holbrook’s General Store (“est. 1898, Cundy’s Harbor, ME” said the sign over the door), a simple white building with two big windows in the front, situated on a hill overlooking a bay full of lobster boats. It wasn’t open yet. Two signs in the window, however, announced “Black Crow bread, Wednesday and Friday by 10 a.m.” and “Fresh pies, scones, and cookies every Friday” and an outdated poster announced the Blessing of the Fleet on August 2: “All boats welcome.”
I peered in the window to see wooden countertops, no doubt the originals, and a circle of wicker chairs with calico cushions set around a low table piled high with old tattered books like “The Beans of Egypt, Maine” and “Stalking the Blue-Eyed Scallop.” I imagined it hadn’t changed in a hundred years. On the side of the building facing the harbor, there was a sign that said in very large letters, “STORE.”
Across from the store was a tiny two-story art gallery. I looked through the window and saw that the featured exhibit was a photography show titled “Up River: The Story of a Maine Fishing Community.” After a trek into Brunswick later that day to get my daily gelato fix at Gelato Fiasco, I came back to see the exhibit, a series of stark black and white photographs taken by photographer Olive Pierce over the course of nine years in the painfully poor fishing community of Vinalhaven in Penobscot Bay. Apparently, midway through the project, Carolyn Chute, the author of “The Beans of Egypt, Maine,” saw the photographs and said, “These are the people I’m writing about.” Chute wrote words to accompany the photographs, which have been published in a book.
I looked out the window of the second floor of the gallery across the bay. A stunning late afternoon light fell on the water and the lobster boats seemed painted onto a canvas with little white, yellow, and black blobs of paint, each one artfully placed upon the whitecaps. The scene somehow filled me with a great calm, as if someone were rocking me in their arms, back and forth. When I turned my attention back to the exhibit I came upon these words accompanying one of the photographs: “Quite often I am asked if the fishermen appreciate the beauty of their surroundings. ‘Appreciate’ may not be quite the right word. It would be more accurate to say that every change in the wind and weather and tide, every sunrise and sunset, every storm, every day that’s thick-o’-fog is as much a part of them as their own hands. Perhaps they don’t think of their surroundings as ‘beautiful’ the way a visitor would. Still, I have sensed a hush aboard a lobster boat as we nosed out into a pink dawn. And one of the fishermen might break the silence by exclaiming, ‘Ain’t that some pretty!’”
On Sunday morning, coming home from my other daily excursion — for iced coffee — yes, I drive 20 minutes off Great Island, where the house is, to the mainland to get a cup of java on the rocks — I saw two signs posted at the corner of Route 24 and Cundy’s Harbor Road. One said, “Eric & Jess’s wedding — you’re getting warmer!” and the other said, “Holbrook’s Community Breakfast/Labor Day/7:30-10” followed by the friendly but unequivocal command: “Be there.” At the corner of our road, I saw another sign: “Eric & Jess’s wedding — you’re hot!”
Later that afternoon, while my friends were down at the cove, I spent a good hour or two reading on the chaise on the lawn, enjoying the quiet, punctuated only by the sound of the two black labs on the ground at my feet, contentedly munching on apples that had fallen from the trio of apple trees in the yard.
The sun covered me like a blanket. I closed my eyes and dropped off to sleep, my book slipping from my hand. It is significant to note that I have not fallen asleep during the day since I was a child. I simply cannot nap (must be that Virgo with Martha Stewart rising) and did not nap even when I had an infant and everyone gushed, “Sleep when the baby sleeps!” I would just roll my eyes at those holier-than-thou moms who could sleep while breastfeeding, like they had little haloes around their gossamer heads. “Ooo, it’s so wonderful to breastfeed your baby while you doze off to sleep,” they would coo as they adjusted their organic cotton baby sling with the “Coexist” logo. Yes, and I’m sure you beat your baby’s cloth diapers against a rock in the stream to wash them.
Suddenly energized from all that relaxing, I took a walk down to the end of our road where it meets Quohog Bay. I sat on one of the big flat rocks and watched the sun make its slow descent upon the sapphire water, as a lone lobster boat puttered by in one direction and a lone duck glided by in the other. As I looked out across the bay to an island with pine trees so thick they looked like velvet upholstery I could hear, wafting over the treetops, the distinct sounds of Eric and Jess’s wedding reception in a giant white tent in the backyard of a beautiful old rambling house at the end of the lane: a woman’s laughter, the slurp of a bottle being pulled out of the ice, glasses clinking, a squeaky screen door opening and shutting, the murmur of a happy crowd.
My friends left mid-morning on Labor Day — after the Holbrook’s Community breakfast, which turned out to be quite an impressive affair attended by about 200 people, including Peggy, an older woman I sat next to from nearby Orr’s Island, who has lived there year round for 25 years and comes to Cundy’s Harbor just once a year for the Labor Day breakfast, which is a fundraiser for preserving Holbrook’s Wharf. The menu, served al fresco on the deck of Holbrook’s Restaurant, included a lobster omelette, naturally, that fairly knocked my socks off.
And so began my 24 hours of being totally alone. Just me, the forest path, the cove, and “Heat,” the wonderful book I’m reading by Bill Buford, a former New Yorker editor who quit his job of 23 years after interviewing uber-chef Mario Batali to work in the kitchen of Babbo, one of Batali’s restaurants. I sat on the dock and read for a while but I quickly found myself simply staring out across the cove, steeped in a kind of Zen state, as the sun poured a shimmering ribbon of glitter on the water, like a piece of child’s art, the glitter sticking only where there’s glue. I stayed that way for the longest time, amazed at my sudden capacity for doing nothing, for just breathing and being in the present moment.
And then, just when I thought I’d gotten as close to enlightenment as I’ll ever get, I remembered the outlets in Freeport. That night, dizzy from scoring a Brooks Brothers shirt for $35 that my girlfriend paid $100 for in New York, I stayed up late, writing on my computer by the light of two tall candles on the long handhewn farmhouse table on the sunporch, eating oatmeal and ice cream, happier than I’d been in a long time.
The next morning I reluctantly left, saying a silent goodbye to the squishy bed under the eaves and the antique furniture from Brittany in the dining room and the fireplace with four generations of family photos on the mantelpiece and all the old books on the bookshelves as I pulled the heavy front door shut — I would be the last visitor until next summer. I walked through the woods and drank in one last long look at the cove. On my way out of town I passed the stop sign where someone had scribbled “to think” under the word “stop,” and lingered at the Tuesday farmer’s market on the town green in Brunswick, loading up on pints of blueberries to bring a taste of Maine home with me. I’ve got three bags in the freezer; they’ll taste good in the dark days of February, I’m sure.