Monday, September 03, 2007

Down East and Kitchen Gnomes

What a whacked out life I have. A week ago, I was driving back from Down East Maine thinking… oh, would it be fun to buy that house.

And now? We’ve moved in.

Have I ruined everyone? Have I lost control of myself? What the hell do people think when I say… uh… by the way, we bought another house?


The smell of lantern oil takes me back to a cottage on Canandaigua Lake, built by good friends of my mother. They purchased the land and then, with their own young children in tow built the house, one weekend after another, bringing supplies, navigating a steep cliff. There was no electricity, no running water- only kerosene lamps and a tiny refrigerator that ran off kerosene- I think. Or maybe an ice block. I can remember my mother struggling with it to make it work. I was too little to care. The whole cottage was a single room, with built in beds, like a ship no more than ten feet by sixteen feet. Off one side, there was a tiny screened in porch with a cot, where my mother stayed.

The cottage sat right on the water. I remember the black and grey shale beach. There was very little beach, and a small dock to launch the canoe from- I was always allowed to take the canoe out, even by myself as a young kid. My mother didn’t know how to swim, but didn’t seem to have any fear of my exploring on the boat. I was the third child- she mostly left me to my own devices. There was a fairly large rowboat, as well, that I would go out on with my brother. The motor was off limits so we would take turns rowing.

I loved that place. I could hear my mother snoring on the porch at night. She was close and I felt so safe around her in that place. We were never allowed to light the lanterns ourselves, and rarely did we have a fire. Mostly, by the time it was dark, we went to bed.

It was a part of my mother that was totally relaxed. While the small camp stove made her nervous, and the initial hauling of all the supplies down the steep walk was never easy, after all was settled, she became a very different person. And we, I believe, became different kids. We played board games, and swam and walked to Whiskey Point to skip rocks. We were kind to each other.

It was like living in a different era.


I have that house, now, on a point in Down East, Maine. The only electronic gear is a small solar powered, hand-cranked radio for the Red Sox games or Bach. The refrigerator runs on propane. I walked around the first night, lighting the lamps. I was quickly given the job of lamp lady- caretaker of all wicks, mantels and oil. I love the smell. It reminds me of a very special time in my life.

I woke up my first morning there and made breakfast for everyone. Eggs, bacon, English muffins toasted under the broiler. I put a bowl of fresh cut peaches on the table while coffee percolated on the stove.

How do you do this? I asked.

Jeanine was aghast. Didn’t your mother ever percolate coffee? Didn’t you ever have to help the church ladies on Sunday with the coffee?

I looked at her. Hello? My mother was an atheist. I did not go to church.

What about her? Our friend Donald asked, a neighbor and former Dads camp location provider.

I remember instant coffee… and then I remember it being a big deal when Mr. Coffee came out with automatic drip coffeemakers. I’m sure there must have been a percolator but… I never saw her do that. Mornings were rushed, she needed to get to work, teapot on the stove to boil water for instant.

Donald walked me through my first pot. It was a little weak. I’m learning.

Standing at the stove, with a big camp skillet, and all the ingredients on the butcher-block counters, made me smile. I love cooking for a lot of people. My whole family together is a lot of people.

Our first dinner at the house was lobsters pulled from the sea that day, fresh corn and salad. After dinner, we pulled out a port from 1977 and drank it with some delicious cheese. By then the fire was cranking, and the kids roasted marshmallows.

Except for poor Jake who almost fell asleep at the dinner table. Jeanine tucked him into our bed in the main house. But he was afraid of the dark… so in came the lamp lady. The Aladdin lamps here are of all types, and the one in our room has a mantle on it and a gorgeous glass shade. You have to carefully remove the top, crank up the wick, and then gently place the shade with the mantel attached on top. Quarter crank off, quarter crank on. The mantel lit and the room glowed softly.

Jake asked me why there were no regular lights.

Because this is a house stuck in another time.

Why do you like that?

Because it’s important to remember where we came from. I think it is.


It’s different, Jake. We have everything now in an instant. Sometimes, we need to remember that it’s not about a switch but an act of lighting something.

He could barely keep his eyes open and I knew he was afraid of all the new swirling around him, the house, school, everything. He didn’t understand any of what I was saying, only needed to hear my voice.


It’s okay, honey. Time to go to sleep. I’ll stay right here.

I curled up with him and rubbed his back. Hummed a quiet song.

I wondered what my mother would think of this place as I sat with Jake.


Our first morning was filled with errands, and moving and adjusting things. Allan is the king of all things organizational, including furniture. He rearranged every room in the main house. It’s perfect. And now ours, where before it still felt like you were walking into someone else’s home.

There were things to be thrown away. Old rocks collected on the fireplace mantel, full of someone else’s memories, merely rocks to us. Some of the photos on the walls. And in the kitchen there was an … odd, stereotyped image of an Italian chef carved in wood. It’s about a foot long, maybe a little more. It has a carved out center- a place to store wine.

Tacky. Truly 1970’s trash.

Want this? Allan asked me.

NO. I said.

Walter replied the same.

I like it, Jeanine said.

First major impasse. A very ugly statue of a chef.

Well… uh…

Um, maybe we can find a place for it no one will notice it, Walter offered.

But I like it… Jeanine protested.

At the moment, we let it drop. The kitchen gnome remained in the kitchen.

I know, Walter said to me as we were cleaning up, let’s have it in strange places, peeking out.

He placed it under the kitchen sink, half inside the door, peeking out.

Let’s see how long it takes her to notice it, Walter said.

That’s it- it’s a game. Who can hide the kitchen gnome! I said.

The day went by and finally we explained the game to Jeanine.

She agreed, reluctantly. Even thought she knew the gnome was safe because of her single vote, and while she wanted it prominently displayed in the kitchen, it was better to have fun.

When the gnome was found, under the sink, it returned to its perch in the kitchen.

Only to be miraculously relocated to the outhouse, nestled next to the large bag of peet.

Found again, it has already made its way to several other locations.

We do not always agree. We are not always on the same page. Hopefully, we will always keep our sense of humor when looking for solutions.


Allan and Walter headed to the dump and the hardware store. We took the kids to the grocery store. Watch out. We’re dangerously coming close to very heterosexual roles. We returned first and the kids helped unload the groceries, while I put them away.

In the living room is a baby grand piano. We were told the owners brought it in a few years ago. Old, and a little battered, it still plays amazingly in tune. While I was finishing the last of the groceries, I heard someone playing. I thought it was Jake. Then I realized real chords were being played.

Real music.

I walked in and saw Jeanine sitting at the piano. I had asked her to play the day before and she scoffed at the idea. But with Allan and Walter out of the house, she was willing to practice. Slow at first, she played the old sheet music left there.

Jeanine hasn’t played the piano for me in 14 years. I love listening to her play. It was one of the things I first fell in love with, the sound of her music.

I went over and kissed her head.

Thank you.


We all have our titles now. Allan is the Organization Gentleman. Jeanine is the Technology Woman, as always. Walter is the Toilet Man, learning in earnest all about the compost toilets, even when we have all heard enough, he keeps informing us of more.

And to think I have to tell the kids no potty talk at the table!

I have gone from Lamp Lady to Light Lady to Fire and Food Lady. Jeanine pointed out I was obsessed with all fire, not just the lamps. It’s true. I have a fascination with flame.

Walter said, Sara’s in charge of ALL things that start with F…

I smiled. He knows me well… yes, I think that’s the right designation for me. Fire, Food… you come up with the rest.


Saturday, as the sun started to go down, we all sat on the deck. I saw a male loon… then a female, no two females. The giant wingspan of a great blue heron whooshed by, landing in the cove, followed by another. My excitement drew Jake to the binoculars.

Where mom? Where?

I felt tears in my eyes. This is what I did with my mother. Watch birds.

This is incredible, Walter said. I love this. It’s sunk in… has it for you?

And for Allan and Jeanine, It had.

No, not yet. I said. I feel like I did something naughty.

Why? Walter could not understand.

I hear my mother saying, Bad, Sara. No no no, you shouldn’t have done this.

Your mom would have loved this, Jeanine said.

Yes, she would have. I agreed. Knowing who she was at the small cabin on Canandaigua, she could only have loved this place.

Then… why?

I can’t answer, really. It’s the part of me that is still afraid. The part of me that believes Jeanine will leave and my life will fall apart. The part of me that always knew there really was a boogieman. Most children are afraid of a fictional character conjured up at campfires, or on sleepovers, with a flashlight held under your chin.

I had the real thing.

And he was someone I was supposed to trust.

What’s that? Jeanine asked. A bird hovered in the air over the sea.

It’s a Kingfisher! I was ecstatic. Two of them darted around the cove, fluttering high like a humming bird then diving hard for the water.

All at once, the cove was filled with two Great Blue Herons, three Loons, and two Kingfishers, along with assorted Sea Gulls. Jake, Zachary and Ben were sitting on the porch listening to me spout on and on about the birds.

Don’t you think that might be a sign from your mom? Jeanine asked me quietly. Maybe she’s trying to tell you it’s okay.


For dinner I cooked spaghetti and meatballs. Caesar salad. Garlic bread. I sat afterwards in the living room- I knew I did not have to clean up. Too many hands around. There is so many of us to take care of daily life. It’s a treat to do something for everyone because in return, someone does something for you.

I lit a fire in the fireplace.

Fire Lady.


Saturday afternoon, Allan asked if anyone wanted coffee. He was going to make a pot of French press…

I said, Yes, sounds great.

Fifteen minutes later, he comes out with a tray, creamer, sugar, and two teacups with saucers, spoons.

I felt like a queen. So spoiled someone would do something… well… that I would do. That extra step to make it special.

It was, perhaps, the best cup of coffee I have ever had.

Coffee, at Sea Winds, if served formally in the afternoon.


I took the kayak out and circled the island across the way. As the tide was going out, I barely had to paddle to coast along. The return, however, was a bit harder. I felt a moment of panic- I was in deep water in the ocean fairly far away from shore. The distance, in a lake, would be nothing. I could easily swim that far. But the tide rushing hard the other way, and the wind… I wasn’t sure. I will start swimming again on a regular basis. My goal is to swim to Hen Island and back by the end of next summer. In a wet suit, of course. The water is cold but it doesn’t hurt.

It’s how the kids and I talk about the water. When they come back from the first dip, I ask, Does it hurt? Because to ask if it’s cold is pointless. It’s always cold. The only difference is when it doesn’t hurt.


I had a dream Saturday night that Jeanine had left me. I keep having this dream, over and over. I was trying to put my mother’s house back in order after she’d been gone a month. It was a mess and my fault- the kids had torn everything apart. I couldn’t get the headboard to her bed reattached. Jeanine wouldn’t help me. My mother was due any second and I couldn’t get it done. Finally, I saw that it was only four screws. I reattached it just in time. When my mother walked in, she told me she knew it was a mess. I always do such things and try to get away with it. I never do.

And, she added, I didn’t quite put it back together again the right way.


Sunday morning and the sky is clear again. The Great Blue Heron is in the cove fishing. The Kingfisher is hovering, waiting for something to make its last, wrong move.

I never feel like the Kingfisher, steady in the sky, waiting for an opportunity to dive towards, swooping in for what I want. I’m the fish in the ocean, swimming along, clueless to the danger just a few feet away. In a flash, it can all be over.

I don’t know how to get rid of this ever-present dread. I have so much in my life. Things people dream about and yet it never feels quite like mine. If I hold it and take it in, it’ll all be snatched away.

The kingfisher will dive and I’ll be gone.


I’m almost ready to go back. My mind isn’t racing yet but will be soon. I had my break, the break I felt like I needed so much. I’m eager to go to the meetings I have lined up. I’m excited about a new project that is in the works I have been so fortunate to be invited to participate in. The anxiety, that never really goes away, is at low tide. It’s pulled far far away for now.

It’ll come back.

I am coaching Jake’s soccer team. I have a family meeting to organize that has the potential to be explosive in a great way.

But right now? It’s time to make sausages, eggs, and muffins. Fresh blackberries, peaches and bananas. After, when the tide comes in more, I’ll take the kayak out to the next island and circle that. Friends of Walter and Allan are coming over to see the place this afternoon. Before dinner, I want to walk the dirt road around the loop.

In the distance, I can see Nash Lighthouse.


Late Sunday afternoon, my last sunset, the tide was slowly going out. The Kingfisher came back briefly but left. Not quite time yet. The Loons have come back- early for the time of year, I was told earlier.

Friends had stopped by. We had a chance to proudly show off our house. I nervously asked it we paid too much, I was assured, no. It was a deal.

As if that really matters at this point. Merely quieting my inner critic. More importantly? I did not buy this alone.

It was not my decision to make the right way or my decision to make the wrong way. It was a family decision.


Jeanine and Walter cooked Sunday night. Lobster gazpacho, steamed mussels picked today out front, bread. The fire already lit because the breeze was cool enough to cause everyone to move from the porch to indoors. Sweatshirts were handed out and I realize it’s an important thing to have a lot of here.

A couple from down the road came knocking- with a blueberry tart they called ‘kutchen.’ It’s a Point recipe, we were told, having been passed around and perfected over many years. The couple, with a son Jake’s age, came in for a while to chat. It was great to meet a neighbor because it feels like you are so far away it can be a little intimidating for a city woman like myself.

It’s called “The Point,” we learned.

And the dessert everyone knows how to make is blueberry kutchen.


This place is a dream. I am safe with my family. It’s beautiful. It’s peaceful. I thought I would be afraid up here but I am not. At least not of the boogieman.

He’s still alive but very far away. I hold him too closely. I let my fears have a seat, front row and center. My father cannot hurt me anymore. He’s an old man, no longer the six foot two inch bulk that could not stand still, fidgeting from foot to foot, rocking himself like a baby. The smell of his skin, of talc and greasy skin oil is imbedded in my memory but doesn’t exist in my life. Letting him live large in my mind only takes away from me.

For a moment, I wondered what it would be to live with such horrible secrets. How it must feel to have lost two of his children because of a need so powerful it made him do the unthinkable. How only one child deals with him at all, and only sparingly- what goes through his mind?

I have worked so hard to have this family. This home is the culmination of years of time put into building relationships. We have placed a stake on the coast of Maine for our family. We are all committed to it. The kids, climbing across the rocks, I hope someday will be sitting on the porch with me, watching their kids do the same.

I have never thought so far out before in my life. The thought of grandchildren, the thought of something so permanent. Never have I let myself picture such things- I don’t want to burden my kids with hopeless dreams.

But it’s not about me, I realize. It’s about our family. It’s not up to me to make it happen or to make it fail. I’m just a piece of the puzzle.

I’m not alone. There is no boogieman anymore.

It’s a dream that could come true.

No, it’s a dream that has come true.


Anonymous Donald said...

What a great piece! Family is so important to you. It shows in your writing and the way you deal with your wife and kids, as well as Walter and Allan.

I hate that the right wing seems to think they have taken control of the word family, and abhor the term family values!!

I am a very lucky gay man, my nuclear family is very loving and supportive. But, I also have what I call my antinuclear family. They are gay and straight, old and young, men and women, parents and children. We have what makes us a family, ever though the right wing would not like to believe so. Loving, caring, teaching, coaching, traditions, support, etc. To us, family is more than just a word, it is how we treat each other. And that love and devotion is no different than I get from my nuclear family.

I feel blessed to have been able to share in your family's growth.

Allan and Walter have been for years, but I am now so happy that your family is part of my antinuclear family!

7:25 PM  
Blogger Suzy said...

welcome back, haven't had anything good to read in days lol. the place sounds fabulous darling and what a great way to end the summer and move into the school year for the boys. loveya

8:13 PM  

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