Phoebe squared the corners of the last bed sheet, running her hand along the folded edge. She deposited it on the pile of laundry, inhaling the fresh warm scent. Standing tall and squaring her shoulders she stretched as she took a deep relaxing breath. There was so much more to do. But this was her time and she had promised herself that she would pace herself through the weekend, fully savoring each completed task.
Just then a breeze came through the open window smelling of the sea. She longed to be outside but the remainder of the day’s chores awaited her. She carried the folded sheets to the linen closet and stacked them on their shelf. Tidying up the towels and other linens, she stepped back to observe the horizontal lines of color. It gave her great satisfaction as the riot of patterns was tamed by her imposed uniformity against the cool interior of the cabinet. She patted it, as if transferring her blessing, and made a mental note to refresh the lavender sachet.
This was later September and her favorite time to be at the beach cottage. The days were still long and the angles of sunlight seemed smudged at edges of shadow. The long narrow island of the Jersey shore was deserted, so still that the squawk of laughing gulls and the sound of waves breaking were the only interruption to silence. In the evening Phoebe would fall asleep to the soft brush of cedar branches on a window pane, so clearly evident in the absent hum of air conditioning.
It was strange to be alone in a house usually teeming with children and guests, as evidenced by endless dimples of sand from bare feet and the continuous array of coffee mugs reappearing in the sink. Her reward for opening its doors all summer was this one weekend of stolen stillness as she closed the cottage for winter. Her mother called it “putting the house to bed.” It was a ritual intertwined with bitter sweet nostalgia, emotions that the practical Phoebe rarely allowed to permeate her everyday life.
The house was now her own and her singular favorite place on earth. This was her great secret from the world. Being alone in this little cottage on a sun filled day gave her greater pleasure than wandering the halls of the Uffizi or hiking canyons in Zion. Every decoration, every color and stick of furniture, she had chosen to represent her own sense of joy. Long before it was fashionable, she had settled on a muted palette of beach glass with warm faded blues and clear sea greens. Nothing jarred the eye. The rooms were small and spare but comfortable and invited conversations. In configuring the space she had let her eye wander, ignoring limitations and softening the artificial stiffness imposed by walls and corners. It pleased her.
Order and structured discipline defined her life. She loved formulas and rules that predicted success. How wonderful if life’s problems could be proofed by solving for the unknown in any human equation. But she was drawn to the unpredictable human element, creating order and structure in human matters with careful planning that might take years to evidence success. And so she had plunged her order defining self into careers with deep pools of disorder.
It was only in the cottage that she relaxed into a casual approach to life. She took delight in rearranging the bookshelves to bring discordant authors in close proximity, their covers boldly forced together. Edith Wharton met Wallace Stegner, Willa Cather met Hemingway and Alice Munro cozied up against a Jackie Collins romance left by a visitor. What conversations might ensue!
Living in the cacophony of city life, she began to value organization as a lifestyle. From closet sized studios to her first townhome, Phoebe created a safe harbor of security and calm wherever she lived. Her mother called it “nesting” but Phoebe knew different. Her surroundings settled her inner core in a way that let her freely experience the world.
There was a stiff price to pay. Organization left little room for spontaneity. Balance was lacking and until she met her husband she doubted that anyone could understand her need for both.
Gerald was a case of extremes. “I might have seen the signs,” she remembered telling herself long ago. In those early days she would meet him at the train. He descended from the platform just one in a veritable army of businessmen, correct in his Wall Street attire. But in addition to his regimental briefcase, he carried several shopworn canvas carryalls stuffed with newspaper clipping, files and books. Dumped in the foyer or on the living room floor they revealed a child’s treasure trove of flashlights, batteries, smashed yogurt containers, cheap videos bought from street vendors and scarves, single gloves and eyeglass cases left on train seats. She never got comfortable with the incongruity of the predictable khaki pants and blue button down Oxford shirts, pockets stuffed with the chaos of oddly shaped stones, fragments of broken tail light, and absurdly short bits of coaxial cable.
Those carryalls were an appendage, as much a part of him as the soft smile that lighted his face and gentle gray eyes when he first spotted her waiting across the parking lot. Eventually they divided the house, allowing Gerald his space to accumulate clutter and Phoebe her oases of organization. But the beach cottage was hers alone, although Gerald was a welcome guest. He loved the house as she did but respected her need to be alone, if not understanding how the closing ritual brought her in conversation with her mother. Phoebe’s hands would shake out the same winter coverlets her mother had used forty years before.
Late in the day, she felt satisfied her time had been well spent. The hydrangeas had been burlapped against strong winter winds that would tear branches meant for tender spring shoots. Roses were pruned back just above the ground to let the roots energize and concentrate strength for a spring expansion. Only the Montauk daisy was left untouched. It was blooming heavily and she couldn’t bear to cut back the foliage in all its fall glory. It was a wild shrub she reasoned, best left to nature to care for it over the winter.
She noticed how the shadows had lengthened around the house. She was tired and hungry as she watched the sun begin to settle over the western bay. The late afternoon sky filled with scudding clouds over the beach. This sunset had promise. If she hurried, she might make it down to the beach in time to capture the warm evening color reflecting on sand, clouds and sea.
Phoebe pulled on a sweatshirt and changed her shoes. She didn’t know the tide and the beach might be wet, cobbled with eddying pools as the sea raced away. Puddled water would only enhance the reflections, she thought excitedly and grabbed her paint kit and water jar.
As she hurried briskly toward the sea, she suddenly felt the girl child by her side for the first time that day. “Oh you’re welcome to come along” addressing the air by her side. There will be room for both of us.” The girl child sometimes came to visit when Phoebe distressed, crawling into her lap and nestling her downy head in the crook of her arm. Over the years, she had come less often, simply standing close by or holding Phoebe’s hand, letting her fingers feather the inside of her palm.
Now the first golden rose tints on the underside of the clouds appeared as Phoebe bridged the primary dune line. Farther down the beach an abandoned lifeguard stand silhouetted against the dark blue of the sea. Phoebe made for the spot with urgency walking faster as she moved away from the dunes and onto hard packed sand. She threw her paint kit up and climbed into the seat with not a moment to waste.
Color box on her lap, here she was sheltered from the wind but afforded a sweeping view of the beach. Colors were deepening and shifting quickly and her eye was drawn to the darkest underlying edges. Preparing to paint, she soaked the top half of the paper with water, then began to wash on the colors of the sunset, pale pinks and golds deepening to reds and streaks of dark violet. Thin edges of pink and palest blue outlined the cloud peaks.
She watched suspended colors flood the wet paper and combine without interference to create lines and texture infused with the richness of sunset. Color, paper and water worked together to create a luminous array of hues. It was chaotic and felt edgy, but painting like this took her breath away.
She worked the dry foreground as the sea began to darken into layered bands of blue and green. Those colors too she knew would continue to mix on the paper and resolve into something quite different than her original vision. Only when the picture dried would she know if she had captured the brilliance of the sunset. Watercolor was a thrilling hunt to capture a moment in time. The pigment and water could not be controlled but would move on the surface of the paper creating a singular texture with subtlety.
It was over in minutes as dusk descended like the crashing coda of a symphony. Phoebe’s mind was calm, a place not often reached, where creativity flowed freely. The girl child, sitting quietly below her, reached up and gently fingered the edge of the paper.
That evening she called Gerald, excited to describe the sunset with its brilliance of colors as she examined the painting with fingers stained red and violet. “And, you didn’t overwork it?” he questioned, alluding to Phoebe’s perfectionist nature. It was Gerald who had taught her to let the paper and color do its work, resolving chaos into order without interference. He was a gifted painter with an eye for color and expression. As in life, he was Phoebe’s opposite, creating beautifully structured oil portraits emerging from muddled color of his brushwork.
At weekend’s end, Phoebe walked through the cottage as her mother had done for so many years before, stopping in each room, satisfied the cottage would winter well. Her car was filled with the heady fragrance of late mums, marigold and spicy geraniums, salvaged from now empty planters. Terra cotta pots lay upended across the flower beds to guard against the eventual damage of frost heaves. Assured that all was in order, everything in place, she began to slowly pull way, then suddenly braked.
She ran to the far flower bed tipping first one, then another clay pot to its side, breaking the rigid line of symmetry. Her artist eye told the outline would hold more interest, especially if eventually covered with snow. This was what she would remember in winter, the cottage neatly buttoned up with care and just a touch of unpremeditated chaos.
Her return drive was a straight shot through the tangled Pine Barrens. As familiar landmarks signaled her closer to home she thought of her husband, his clutter, soft gray eyes and artistic encouragement. A sigh emitted from her lips, her duality of content and frustration resolving into the slightest giggle. The sound echoed, and she shifted, startled, glancing quickly in the rearview mirror. The back seat was empty but there, on the passenger side sat the girl child smiling and bouncing softly in her seat as they grew ever closer to home.
Christina Kales lives in Pennington with her husband, Robert, and dog, Ellen. Earlier this year she sold her beach cottage after 50 years of family ownership.