Anywhere You Hang Your Hat ...
As I rolled up the East Coast to Maine last Sunday, I told myself that I really did want to see our old house, the house I built long ago on a dozen forested acres just outside the pretty town of Brunswick.
Since handing the keys to the new owners in May one year ago, an older couple from Massachusetts, I'd carefully avoided returning to the handsome coastal towns that comprised my happy home for more than two decades.
Selling a house and garden I spent years shaping with my own hands -- the place where my children were born and grew up, the ground where I squandered much of their college funds making a faux English garden I called "Slightly Off in the Woods" -- has proved, in sum, much harder than I anticipated.
An older friend who is wise in the art of leavetaking urged me, in fact, never to go back and have a look. "There's almost no good to come of it," she said." You're guaranteed to be disappointed by what you find -- or don't. Home is where you are, not where you've been."
Fourteen months after the fact, however, I needed to go up and see my college kids before one blasted off for a year in Italy and the other returned for his sophomore follies at Elon. Son Jack is finishing up his first summer writing internship at his award-winning hometown newspaper, the third generation of Dodsons with printer's ink in his bloodstream.
Daughter Maggie is working at a posh Italian Sea Grille in Freeport and saving dough for her year abroad studying food and culture in Umbria.
I also had several friends I needed and wanted to see, including my old chums Bill and Paige Mangum, who played a major role in saving and restoring the historic dock at Cundy's Harbor, the de facto lobster capital of Maine. Moreover, their pal Isabel and her husband Bill, who are in their late 80s, were up this week from Richmond, Va., perhaps making their annual summer trek for a final time.
Friction With New Owner
The trip was intentionally impromptu, ostensibly a last-minute affair, or so I told everyone, though in point of fact I'd been pondering the trip for weeks, wondering if I would have the moxie to go see our former home.
A couple of months back, when my daughter asked if I thought it would be OK if she called on the new owners because she was desperately missing her childhood home, I encouraged her to do so, pointing out that she could even pick up the handmade wrought-iron candelabra an artisan friend had made for us, a beautiful thing that illuminated years of lively dinner parties in our dining room.
On the late spring day I departed 14 months ago, there wasn't room in my car for the candelabra, which the wife of the new owner graciously offered to keep until I could return and pick it up.
Maggie took her younger brother for moral support, a smart move since the homecoming, from their view at least, went rather badly. The wife, who had clearly wanted the property the most, was warm and receptive and seemed to take pleasure in showing my children how unchanged things remained, particularly the garden.
The man, however, complained loudly about the rustic post-and-beam house's lack of closets and groused about a dozen little things like the pencil markings on doorjambs and other small "surprises."
At one point, according to my family members on the scene, my son sharply reminded the man that there couldn't have been any surprises because his own inspector had gone over every inch of the house with a fine-tooth comb. Furthermore, though he had the good Yankee sense not to say so, the plunging real estate market meant that the deal the man received should have thrilled him to his blunt Yankee toenails.
But obviously it hadn't, which only left me faintly wishing I'd held on to the place. My children politely thanked the wife for holding on to the candelabra and took their leave. My daughter, she admitted to me later, left in tears.
A Deep-Seated Need
The need for home lies deep in the human heart, notes psychologist and author Thomas Moore.
"We spend our lives trying to make a home -- building, buying, renting, or borrowing houses, staying in the old family homestead or moving from house to house according to the winds of fate," he writes. "Few things are more important than finding a home and working at it constantly to make it resonate with deep memories and fulfill deep longings."
I was thinking of this without quite realizing what I was up to on Monday morning while Maggie and I walked around the Boston waterfront where her mom and I used to meet in our early married days. An hour before, the three of us had gone to the Italian Consulate for her student travel visa and the walk through Quincy Market had prompted a tidal flow of small, fond memories from a time when their mom and I inhabited a weathered old house at the end of a sandy claw of land surrounded by tidal creeks and salt marshes in Essex.
The view off our rear deck was a Childe Hassam painting. I'd bought my bride an old sailboat for an engagement gift and never quite learned to sail it. Our little house relied on an old-fashioned cistern system. On our wedding day, the remnants of a hurricane filled it to the brim, a gift from heaven.
We'd had funny, crusty, endearing neighbors, remnants of local clamming clans, lots of impromptu covered dish suppers, and little or no privacy at the end of Island Road. That's why my afternoon sorties into Boston to meet her mom after she got off work on Beacon Hill were such a treat.
When, a few years later, I first laid eyes on Brunswick's wide main street, I knew I wanted to live there. It reminded me of the Chapel Hill of my childhood, with a college anchoring one end of the street under century-old trees. It said "home."
During the two full days I was back there this week, quietly visiting friends and snooping around town, the summer tourist invasion was in full cry and I blended easier than I thought possible with the well-heeled occupiers, stopping for a hotdog at my favorite stand, poking around the bookstore where I used to know the owner, even ducking in to catch an afternoon movie at my favorite theater.
There were half a dozen new shops, I was pleased to see, and a shiny new train depot at the top of Maine Street. On the other hand, Grand City, the beloved 5-and-10, was gone, as was my favorite Brunswick True Value Hardware -- only to be replaced by a Dunkin Doughnuts the size of a movie theater. The real surprise was how nicely invisible I was on sidewalks where not so long ago I might have known six out of 10 passers-by.
When I stepped into Day's News stand to pick up my son's afternoon paper, Rachel the clerk was making change for a customer and scarcely looked up.
"Hi, Jim. Howya been?" she said, as if only a day had passed since I was last in her shop. "I saw Maggie the other day. She's completely grown up -- and so gorgeous. I've been reading Jack's stories in the paper all summer. You must be so proud." She gave me a familiar smile. "And all this rain, huh? Good thing you're down South now."
She must have thought I'd become one of those snowbirds the locals always make fun of but eventually become, if they have the opportunity. I didn't bother to correct the impression. It was that very moment I realized I really felt more like a seasonal tourist than a local.
I drove over to Freeport in a downpour to meet my bella bambino on her afternoon break and, being a few minutes early, braved the dripping hordes in L.L. Bean just to breathe in a smell I once found both familiar and oddly comforting. The place was jammed, all shopping bags and new shoes, lots of murmuring foreign tongues.
I studied the Summer Concert Series on the lawn, remembering when we saw America and Don McLean under the stars. My daughter was reading "Confessions of the Hedgehog," suddenly perhaps missing her boyfriend Rye more than her childhood house, salting tip money away for Italy like a good New England daughter, already thinking about her new home under the Umbrian sun.
We talked about the blog she's planning to write, wittily called "I'm Not Getting Fat in Italy," and other needs for proper nesting abroad. It makes me a little sad to see her so grown up and heading over the horizon, but I'd be far sadder if she didn't.
"Dad," she asked, "are you going to go see the house?"
I told her I was still on the fence about that, trying to decide if my heart needed to see the place. Then I changed the subject.
That night, over a supper of Southern grits and Maine shrimp, Isabel Correll, who is a feisty 80-something who still loves her golf at Dornoch, admitted with a sigh, "This may be the last summer Bill and I can make it up here."
She sipped her white wine and gave me a mischievous look over the rim. "That is, unless we decide to come again," she added. "You never know about us. We love being summer tourists."
The next day I lunched with my son and saw my old pal Terry Meagher, Bowdoin College's legendary hockey coach, one of the winningest coaches in the game. He's also my longtime golf pal.
I surprised Terry in his new office in the recently opened Sidney J. Watson hockey arena, a stunning wonder ship named for the other member of my longtime Wednesday group. Coach gave me a complete walking tour of the new facility and then we sat in his office, talking about our children and the many great years we had playing golf.
"You have to come back,' he said. "This will always be your home."
I thanked him for saying so. We hugged, and realized both had grown emotional.
The last place I stopped on my way out of town was the newspaper, to say hello to an editor friend and see my son, who is already working on his big summer wind-up piece for the paper.
"Did you go up to the house?" he wanted to know as he walked me to my car. I admitted that I hadn't, that like Dame Isabel I was learning to love being a summer tourist. It was a lovely surprise, I admitted, something I never quite anticipated would happen.
"Besides, home is where you are," I said without giving proper attribution. "Not where you've been."
And with that, I left, happy to be heading home to the Sandhills with my beautiful wrought-iron candelabra riding in back, already picturing the candles lighting up our terrace at dusk.
Jim Dodson, writer-in-residence at The Pilot, can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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