When our sons were young we had a tradition of spending a week each summer on Monhegan Island, eleven miles off the coast of Maine. For quite a few years we managed to get there right after school let out. Carrying coolers packed with food and bags full of books and sketchpads and crayons, we’d arrive on the ferry and then find our way on foot to some bare-bones rented cottage, a place I’d secured sight unseen the moment the year’s rental properties were offered, at nine a.m. each New Year’s Day. Sitting at my desk in the midst of winter, waiting for the phone line to clear, it was always a thrill to make that leap of faith into our future, conjuring boat rides and summer days on an island.
We always went with another family, good friends whose three children loved Monhegan as much as ours did. In later years, we would all pile into one rambling house for the week, having realized that what we lacked in privacy was more than made up for by the fun of sharing the cooking, eating together, staying up late playing raucous games of Slap and Spoons, lounging over coffee in the morning, and watching our children roll out of their sleeping bags to begin another day. The routine was minimal: long hikes around the island in the morning and lazy hours with books on the porch all afternoon.
It was the perfect vacation for children still too young to be independent at home but eager to assert themselves and longing for some space in which to roam. There are no cars on Monhegan, hardly any commerce. Short of jumping off a cliff, there really isn’t much opportunity for a kid to get into trouble. And so, to their delight, we turned ours loose and left them to their own devices. They read, they played ball, explored, made up games, and scrounged for change to spend on ice cream sandwiches at the store.
It didn’t take long, that first year, for the slow, unscheduled days to inspire an entrepreneurial spirit. The kids watched boat loads of day hikers come and go and quickly realized that all of the travelers and cottage dwellers passed at one time or another through the main corner — a dirt-path intersection where the small grocery store and art gallery are located. People arrive on this quiet, idyllic outcropping of rock and forest and quickly shed their real-world defenses. There is no place to go and not much to do, other than inhale the fresh air, wander along the foot paths, admire the flowers and the weathered seaside cottages, most of them faded to a soft silvery gray. It is hard not to smile. It is easy to imagine staying for weeks. It is lovely to realize that such special places still exist in the world, places where children and dogs and chickens are free to do as they please, donuts are baked fresh each morning, and the leisurely journey from point A to point B is always more important than the destination itself.
Our children spent a morning that first year scavenging the beach for smooth rocks and bits of beach glass. By the afternoon, they’d spotted a potential market for their wares, had priced their treasures, lugged a card table and a blanket down the trail, and set up shop under a shade tree near the general store. The beach glass venture expanded over the years, growing to include lemonade, homemade Rice Krispie treats, watercolor paintings, painted rocks. The kids negotiated with one another, learned to make change, and realized that, when the baking supplies ran out, they had little choice but to invest a portion of their earnings back into the business. They made a little money but most of all they had a wonderful time painting, cooking, shop-tending, and keeping themselves entertained for hours each day on an island far from all the ready-made distractions of their daily lives. Now, years later, all five of them look back on our Monhegan holidays as some of the best times of their lives.
I feel the same way. The island cast its spell on us all, became a touchstone, our idea of “the good life.” I’m not sure why we stopped going, but I do know that’s how life is: a son signs up for summer baseball, a work deadline looms, priorities shift, and suddenly a sacred tradition becomes the stuff of reminiscence.
This week, after a hiatus of seven years, my husband and I brought some visiting Midwestern friends out to Monhegan for two nights at the inn. It was a relief, getting off the ferry and looking around, to see how little has changed in the years since we last visited; even the long-haired collie Jack fell in love with as a little boy was still there, lounging in the sunshine outside the coffee shop as always. We bought lattes from Pam, who remembered our names, and visited the lighthouse, with it’s serene, timeless view of the village below. Every turn brought back a memory. Wonderful as it was to introduce dear friends to one of our favorite places, it was bittersweet, too — a reminder of how much time has passed since the days of Harry Potter books, beach glass, and Rice Krispie treats.
On our second morning, we got an early start for our long hike around the perimeter. It was early afternoon when we made our way back to the village. There, beneath the old shade tree, a group of children were selling painted shells, necklaces, and signed watercolors. They had a card table set up in the very same spot our own kids once claimed, and they were eager to give us their sales pitch. We bought necklaces and oyster shells, snapped photos, and chatted up the affable merchants, delighted to see that this lucrative location was bringing good fortune to a new generation of entrepreneurs. For twenty-five more cents I purchased a drawing of a pirate that bore an uncanny resemblance to my son Jack’s early work — how could I resist?
Meanwhile, our own boys were elsewhere, living their own independent, grown-up lives without us. Once back on the mainland, I called them both to check in. It was nearly 9:30 p.m. when I reached Jack, who is house-sitting for our old neighbors this week and taking the train in to Boston each morning for his job. He was at Stop & Shop when I called, tired, hungry, and mulling his options for dinner. He had a few questions. “I couldn’t afford to go to Whole Foods,” he said, “and I’m not sure what to buy.” He told me had a box of pasta and six eggs in his cart and was debating some chicken; at seventy-nine cents a pound, he was worried that the chicken probably hadn’t had a very good life. He decided to pass, and to make zucchini instead. “The stuff they have looks exactly like zucchini,” he reported from the vegetable aisle, “but they are calling it green squash. Do you think it’s the same thing?” I said it probably was and wished him luck with his dinner preparations. It was a sweet, rite-of-passage kind of conversation; my son on his own for the first time, trying to figure out how to make his money stretch at the grocery store. But I hung up the phone feeling a little sad.
It seemed, once upon a time, that those childhood days would simply go on and on, that we would always board a ferry for Monhegan to celebrate summer, that our boys would be ten and seven forever, selling beach glass and lemonade and then falling into bed in an adjoining room, instead of negotiating the world miles away from us. I don’t even remember our last time on Monhegan; in memory the years all blend together — the card games, the fireflies, the solstice cake with yellow icing, the sea gull with the broken wing, the hikes to the cliffs, the candlelit dinners with all the kids and adults crammed around the table, holding hands and saying grace.
“No one knew that ordinary breakfast would be their last,” writes Annie Dillard in her novel “The Maytrees.” “Why not memorize everything, just in case?” I read that line this morning and put the book down, to let it soak in. How I wish it were possible. Because the truth of it is, lovely as this summer has been, I yearn for the summers that used to be. No one knew, the last time we all did the dinner dishes in our shared summer cottage, that our two families would not return the next year, or indeed, ever again. How I wish I had memorized it.
My sons are doing exactly what they should be doing at eighteen and twenty-one. Working, learning about life, figuring out how to survive on their own in the world. I’m proud of them, so it’s hard to admit just how much I miss them. But I do. What I wouldn’t give right now for a baggie of beach glass, a Rice Krispie treat, and a beach house full of happy, tired kids counting quarters into piles.