Summer memories

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.

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your comments

  1. as usual, you’ve brought tears to my eyes. I’m so glad you share your talent with the world. I’m sure there are times when you don’t think of it as a talent…just a reminiscing of sorts, but it is a talent. And I’m glad you share it. You are able to put thoughts that so many of us have into prose that touches so many. I am at that point in life (with a 13 year old son and 2 five year old twin boys)that you are remembering, yet I know it will be gone in an instant. I am trying to remember it all, but know that it will all be just memories too soon. So your writings are always very poignant for me. Again…thank you from the bottom of my heart. I love when my email shows a new entry from you! Know that you are making a difference to people in this world! (beyond your personal family and friends). :o)

  2. Earlier this summer, in an email you wrote something like, “I hope you’re enjoying the first days of summer with your children”. As much as I hate to admit this, at first, I was not enjoying the days. I was anxious and fielding bickering and arguing and I was frustrated. REALLY frustrated. But the last few weeks, a calm acceptance has replaced (most of) the frustration. Moments are spent being. As I sit in my seat of young children (5 and 8), your words hold a powerful trance over me. They remind me to savor. Hug longer. Embrace. Breathe. Thank you. xxoo

  3. Me, too! I would give anything to be back there with my babes….very hard to let them go…very hard to deal with their struggles….very proud to see all their accomplishments! You gave them such a great launch! Be confident and proud in your strength in pushing them from the nest. They are so wonderful! And you have done such a great job.

  4. This is lovely and hits home, though I’m still a mother of young, shell-collecting, exploring kids. I wrote a piece on my blog last week on a similar topic, except it was arguing that, try as we might, it’s actually impossible to memorize the days we share with our kids. I think that might be the most heartbreaking and surprising thing I’ve learned as a mom. I thought for a long time that if I just paid attention, I’d be able to hold onto my kids at all their different stages, to summon up each precious stage of their lives in my daydreams any old time I want. And I’ve realized it doesn’t work that way. I see other people with infants and toddlers, and though I know I paid attention (while also being tired and cross and impatient at times), I can’t really remember how my children moved, sounded, smelled, looked when they were infants and toddlers. Unless I look at photos or videos, and then I just feel sad to confront the evidence of all the vital stuff I’ve simply forgotten. I’ve decided that, while it’s impossible to memorize (and as my aunt pointed out after reading my piece, people with near-photographic memories say it’s often no picnic), it’s still important to pay attention. So that’s what I’m trying to do, pay attention, even though I know I’ll look back 10 years from now, as you are doing, and grieve all the “last times” that I didn’t even realize were happening.

  5. I loved this so much. And I echo what Denise said. We have had so many wonderful days this summer when I remembered to just enjoy them as they were, and you are right – you never know which meal will be your last before it all changes.

    I loved the green squash paragraph the best though. If I were 20 years younger, I would be waiting in line to make Jack dinner with his eggs and green squash and pasta. What a cutie!

  6. What a timely story for me to read… Our oldest daughter arrived home after ten days at sleep away camp this morning ending the longest ten days I’ve spent as a mom. I was blown away by my missing and wishing that I had memorized each moment with her before she left. My hope is, after this experience (and reading this post), that I will memorize more and rush less. Thank you for sharing your words.

  7. Katrina, my daughter is only 11 months old and reading this made my heart ache. I am just getting the very first taste of one phase ending and opening onto another. I recently wrote a post about this very topic, noting “so often in life we don’t have a choice about what doors close when. Sometimes we don’t even know the door has creaked shut until we try to walk through it again and are surprised to discover it’s locked, the key long gone.” I felt that same underlying sense as I read your words. It’s interesting to me that, for such a special event each year, you can’t recall the last time you went, or recall why you stopped going. Life often feels that way: something ends, but it takes us awhile to realize that a door has closed. Your posts are always beautiful, but this one especially touched me.

  8. Lovely, as always – I’m in tears and my heart aches, but in the best possible, wide-open way. The Annie Dillard quote about never knowing when the last time will be really speaks to me … I think of that all the time. But at the same time, I’m not sure I could BEAR if I knew it was the last time, either. You know? Better to memorize it all, I guess. But that’s hard in its own way. Thank you, again, for reminding me of what matters. xox

  9. As usual you express what I feel so much better….now we are beginning to experience these special times with our grandchildren and I am trying to memorize them, as someday you will
    I keep telling my daughter to savor every day with her children.
    I still “miss” my adult children and the time they were here with us as children and they are 27 and 33.

  10. So resonant, Katrina… Just today I consciously treasured the walk to coffee with my wife and son, the simple pleasure totally memorized and memorialized while living it. Sometimes I remind myself that life had wonder and joy before children, and I trust that it may softly open to its eternal flux no matter what, where and with whom. Perhaps kids teach us this way, and it’s what we get to keep after they move on?

    This also made me think of feeling teary at the end of the most recent, final, Harry Potter movie, our young heroes grown and launching their own children… like kids forever selling their wares on every street in Our Collective Town… maybe in the end no island is an island but every parent sometimes feels like one.

  11. Hi Katrina,

    Just wanted to comment on your article as my family had our first Monhegan Experience this summer. A singular line best summarized our feelings about the place: “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”. Having a 6 year old daughter, we eagerly watched at sunset from the porch of the Island Inn as we allowed Julia to run down to the dock to greet her newfound stray cat friend “Love”. As we gave her the “ok” to wander on her own under our watchful supervision, she ran down the front steps, flapped her arms like a released bird and yelled “Freedom”. Everyone on the porch laughed in unison watching a child’s joyful expression of first time independence.

    We absolutely loved the place and hope this will become a yearly tradition for our family.


  12. Laura K. says:

    Lump in my throat…Our little girls are almost-5 and 8, and I’m definitely trying to memorize the days. Our littlest starts Kindergarten in just a few weeks, and is on her last 2 weeks of preschool. Her big sister will be starting 3rd grade! The time just flies!

  13. This post is incandescent. It brought me back to the summers when my sister and I would search for tomato bugs, eat icy watermelon, and play kick the can until the sun went down. Simpler times. And you are right–those times and those moments are what we remember.

  14. This really makes me want to slow down, to make a conscious effort to schedule time like this into our busy lives… What wonderful, beautiful memories you have. My family is all gathering at a house in the Poconos at the end of the month. It’s not as rustic as Monhegan, but I’m hoping my son finds the “boredom” (and I mean that in the best sense of the word) that kids need to explore, imagine, and play without the toys and noise of our everyday lives.

  15. I find that with each passing phase of life it gets harder and harder to go forward without bursting into tears over what will never be again. A friend and I had a conversation last week and she said that as we get older, we become important to fewer people, and I am starting to agree. I am not nearly as important to my grown children (24 and 21) as I was in the past, and I have been eclipsed by their friends and their need to live their own lives. Not that I am not a part of that, it’s just that my role has changed to one of a support person from the center of their universe that I was when they were little. While they are doing what they are supposed to do and I am very proud of who they are, my heart breaks in knowing that things between us have changed forever.

    As I again come to terms with my younger child leaving for college (you’d think after two kids I’d react less emotionally?!?), I pray that I can learn to put the fond memories in an appropriate context and smile as we make new ones out of the here and now. Thank you, Katrina, for your continued sharing of your thoughts. It brings me great comfort to know I am not alone in my feelings.

  16. A beautiful post. I love reading your blog. I am a new mother, creating wonderful summer memories with my 14 month old son. I only hope we have glorious summers like you and your boys had.

  17. But look at the glorious, vivid memories you have. What a gift, and I suspect something your boys will one day pass on in their own way. And all will come full circle.

    I’m so keen to create this sense of the good life, as you say, for my own boys. I appreciate this reminder, you’ve set me to thinking about future summers of our own.

  18. Thank you, Katrina, for this luminous post, both a reminder of my childhood days in New England and a promise of what the summers ahead might hold for me and my own children.

    Monhegan Island. I’ll have to remember that.

  19. I dream of vacations like yours but in reality I’m not very good at idyllic – I like to go and do SOMETHING. But we do camp and unplug and distance ourselves from the world.

    Today it is pouring rain, my kids, on their third day of school, are scattered about the house doing homework. And there is stillness. And I’m trying to find my way back to our regular life and regularly being smacked in the face with the inevitable path to ‘not our regular life’ … I know it’s coming.

    And I am trying to make this time last, to memorize as it were… but I know it will get lost, in the homework, and the dishes, and the girlfriends, and another season of wrestling, and… and that worries me a little more.

  20. We just came back from Maine (Harpswell) with a week just like that which you’ve described. My kids are 11, 9, 8 and 4. We too enjoyed letting our children run free and out of sight where they explored to their heart’s content (climbing on rocks, looking for sea glass, building impromptu “forts” amongst the incredible landscape). We left already planning next summer’s week in Maine. There is nothing like that week up there and I don’t look forward to the summer when that vacation doesn’t roll around. Your words remind me to treasure up those moments, to hold them protected in my cradled hands. Thank you.

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