There is a house, across the cove from mine, on an island snuggled in the mid coast of Maine.
We, my nearly perfect husband and I, found this island by an accident of good fortune in 2005. It was an odd thing. I’d never been here, never even knew it existed. I’d never even been to the rather popular summer community that it is attached to, via an old swing bridge.
We’d come to Maine for a long weekend – to mid coast Maine for the first time – and followed a realtor’s sedan around to nearly a dozen houses on the first two days, and after that I was not just discouraged – I was pissed (for the U.K., Australian, and Kiwi crowd, I was not drunk – but I was certainly tempted to head in that direction). The houses we’d seen had all been so manipulatively advertised, it was stunning.
We’d seen several ruins advertised as being in ‘move in’ condition. We visited one house that supposedly had almost 300 feet of frontage on the Atlantic Ocean. And, you know, it did. It was absolutely honestly advertised. Nearly 300 feet on the ocean. With a cottage smack dab in the middle of the lawn between the back porch and the water. But, I mean, if you bought it you would own around and in front of that house (and all the waterfront taxes that entailed). The realtor representing the property said it was a “postage stamp cut out” in the lawn (doesn’t that sound sweet?), but assured us that we would own the waterfront. I kid you not. The inflated cost of a waterfront property and a full-on house in your back yard blocking the view and the waterfront you owned.
We saw one house that was supposed to have a beautiful back yard gently leading down to the ocean. It was actually a house that had a steep mountainous slope of a back yard that lead to a perilous cliff involving boulders and bone-crunching surf. And the humorless realtor who was listing it actually had the tenacity to announce that – and yes this is a quote – “The doctor says that his grandchildren swim right there.” and she pointed to an area and I looked at her and asked, “There? In the swirling vortex of death?” and John said it reminded him of the movie, Papillion. And the realtor didn’t even crack a smile (she was no fun at all). Clearly her dream client was a knucklehead who had trouble calculating angles and drop offs. Either that or this ‘doctor’ she spoke of was in nearly certain violation of the Hippocratic oath. ‘Do no harm’ my ass. She was lying or that doc had rescue frogmen on speed dial.
After the first day, John and I found ourselves in the most bizarre bed and breakfast place, which had also been falsely advertised as a super romantic former Oceanside estate-turned-romantic-inn. The photos looked spectacular. In reality, it was rather beat up and on a muddy cove (the views on the website must have required one heck of a telephoto lens). The building itself had a nice lobby, but when the front deskman handed us our keys and we walked up to the third floor, we found ourselves alone in the middle of a Stephen King novel. The darkly paneled walls of the narrow hallway lead us to our room, which was just large enough for our “luxurious queen bed” and one (yes one) 2-foot by 2-foot side table with a lamp on it. The bathroom turned out to be about 20 feet down the hall, which was only dimly lit. And I think we were the only guests on that floor that night. Maybe in the entire place. And we couldn’t figure out whether we wanted more guests on our floor or not, because who the heck were we going to run into on the way to the bathroom? A vampire, that’s who. You know it, and I know it.
We laughed so hard that night that we couldn’t breathe. It may have been the dusty pillows though, so I don’t want to give the humorous nature of the day too much credit. Clearly the next day of comedic real-estate misrepresentations wasn’t much better. So, even though the second night involved much better accommodations and a great dinner, we were thinking of cancelling the very last house visit on the list and just heading home (to kids and dogs and in-laws and cats) early. We actually woke up and called our realtor and told her this and she answered with, “But have you ever been to Boothbay Harbor?” No. “Southport?” No. And she convinced us that the drive through the town and over the bridge to the island and house was worth it in and of itself, even if we didn’t like the property.
So we met at the offices of the gentleman listing the house and followed him, and our realtor, along the winding roads leading down to one route that hugged the coast. We passed small coves and smelled the salt air and, sure enough, came to a swing bridge and we had to stop because it was open (By the way, this was something I had never seen – instead of a draw bridge, which involves the center of the bridge splitting and each side rising toward the sky, the entire center of a swing bridge turns a full 90 degrees, so that boats can go through on either side. So cool.).
We rounded the bend and found the road and got to the house pictured on the print- out I held in my hand. And I said, “I’m not even getting out of the car.” And John looked all mortified – wondering how serious I was and how embarrassed he was about to be. He had already opened his door enough so that our realtor was leaning in, eyeing me curiously, but with an “isn’t this great?!” look on her face. It was her first time here too. She was wondering why we weren’t excited, or at least moving. I knew that John wasn’t moving because he was caught in that husband conundrum: was there anything he could do that I would consider ‘right’. Poor guy.
Here was the problem: The house sat on one side of a street so narrow that it would count as a driveway in almost any other location, and the land on the other side of the street was the waterfront property. It offered a stunning view of the mainland across a beautiful waterway. There was a combination of moored boats and others that drifted by, toward and away from the bridge and inner harbor. The waterfront land was inhabited by lawn, ledge, and an enormous swath of beach roses. I looked at it and back to our realtor and, because I didn’t just fall of the realty turnip truck, silently screamed. She quickly stated that the land across the street went with the house we were about to look at. No one else could build there.
The silent scream ebbed away and John returned from his catatonic state.
I got out. John got out. And then the weirdest thing happened. John and I were sucked up into a romantically infused, wispy feeling of ‘we belong here’. We didn’t talk or nudge each other with our elbows or anything while we quietly wandered the house, half listening to the realtors. And, even though it had been viciously attacked by Texan house flippers, we fell in love with how it felt. The house was nearly 200 years of tired (as well as being the victim of a quickie aesthetic rehab that covered up a variety of plumbing and electrical issues, not to mention some pretty darling original features of the house). The grounds were overgrown, and a couple of outbuildings were, literally, sinking into the ground.
It was perfect.
We were nearly – and uncharacteristically – silent for almost a half hour after we left the house. By the time we turned onto Route 1 and began to head south toward home, we verbalized the thought that we were going to buy a house. We called in an offer before we got home. We had a signed contract less than 12 hours later.
We bought a house.
On the water.
There is this house across the cove from mine.
The first time I met Mr. Holland, we’d been invited to come over and have cocktails. We had met his son and his son’s wife when they stopped by to welcome us to the neighborhood. We were with friends, but they extended the invitation to us all. It turned out to be Mr. Holland’s birthday party. And it was his 93rd.
He was a gracious host, and welcomed us to his beautiful home with a warm smile, and he cupped my offered hand in both of his own (I love when older men do that. John is worried I will leave him for an old, Yankee man. It could happen.). Mr. Holland was interested in where we had come from and how we had come here. He told us of his friend and neighbor, Mr. Walbridge, who had owned our house. I learned that the Walbridges had lived in our house for more than 40 years, and that they were wonderful people (which was a good thing to know when odd things began to happen in the house (a post for another time)). We bonded over a love of Michigan football (neither we, nor Mr. Holland actually went to the University of Michigan which was sort of funny), and a mutual love of the Maine coast. Mr. Holland and his wife had been coming to his house since the mid 1940s and he said they moved there for good in 1980. He told the story of spending years winterizing it and how cold the winters could be. But it was his year-round home and, after his wife died more than ten years earlier, he had decided to stay. He had been there for 25 years.
He made sure to tell me to stop by, especially in winter, because “It gets quiet in winter, and dark pretty early.” I was able to do that more than I thought I might at the time. Mainly because it turned out that restoring an old house on the coast of Maine only sounded romantic. Instead it requires many decisions and in-person discussions – let alone many unexpected twists turns and check writing – for three years. The side benefit was that, if Mr. Holland was home and I didn’t have to rush back to Massachusetts, I got to spend a little time with him.
Mr. Holland’s house was a hive of activity, especially on weekends in the summer (I’m sure it was at other times as well, but we spent our extended time at our house in the summertime). His family would visit, there would be children and grandchildren and a Labrador Retriever who would wander up and down his long driveway.
When I got up early, to watch a sunrise or because I couldn’t get back to sleep after waking to the lobster boats, I would sit on our screen porch wrapped in a blanket. Soon enough, Mr. Holland would come out of his door and onto his own beautiful back porch. He’d slowly head over to his hammock, and have a seat. And he would swing slowly back and forth, taking in the sights and sounds and smells of his stunningly beautiful world by the water.
He was in that hammock nearly every day during warm weather, and even sometimes when it was cool. And it was a comfort to look across and see him there. Sometimes I would take a walk over to his driveway and head down to say hello. Like so many people who have spent a fair bit of time on this planet, his stories and experiences were fascinating. He had the presence of a person born long before the self-promotion encouraged by the computing and social media ages. One time – a couple of years after I’d met him – he pointed to my hat and said, “I see your cap says, Yale.” I explained that my daughter had just returned from a summer camp held on Yale’s campus and she brought me the cap. I told him she didn’t go there, nor did I. He surprised me by saying, “Hmmm. I did. About a hundred years ago.”
Every time we visited and spoke, a layer peeled back here or there and I learned about the experiences that fed into who he was. He’d served in World War II, had spent time in Hawaii, and was even Commodore of the Southport Yacht Club for a period of time (he was forever asking if my kids were participating in the sailing program there). Whenever there was a neighborhood event, he had many calls from people asking him if he had a way to get to the gathering and offering a ride if he needed it. Once, when I walked down to offer a ride to a much-anticipated house party down the road, he said he had so many offers he had decided to choose the best looking woman who offered to bring him to the upcoming party. When I asked him who that was, he said he didn’t know yet because he might get a few more offers before the party started.
In the summer, when I was here, good sounds drifted across the cove we shared – sounds of laughter and conversations accompanied the clanking of breakfast dishes right through to boat rides in the afternoon, cocktail hour and lights out. I know he could hear some of our silliness from over here, because he would often say it was good to hear activity back in this house.
Nearly every morning – and often multiple times a day – during the summer, Mr. Holland got into his hammock and I doubt he even knew that this little part of his daily routine added comfort and a smile to mine. He died, with his family at his side, in the summer of 2011. And this is the third summer that he has not swung in his hammock. His house was just sold to a wonderful family at the beginning of this summer. They know Mr. Holland’s family, and when his son just couldn’t take his father’s hammock down, they said to leave it there.
As with so many people who come into our lives and leave the gift of subtle memories that evoke happy sighs now and again, I wish I had more time to get to know him while he was here.
There is a house, across the cove from mine, on an island snuggled in the mid coast of Maine.
And once upon a time, a man named Mr. Holland lived there.
Thanks for readin’.