Hazy dawn greets me our first morning in Maine. The familiar smell of salt marshes at low tide and the promise of sunny humidity makes me grin with anticipation of a day on the beach with my family. Liza wakes, all tusseled hair and eyes that suddenly seem to belong to a 20-year old. Uncharacteristically she makes her bed, straightens her room before joining me at my perch on the screen porch. “I think this seems weird momma, but I feel like it’s home here, she says.” While she’s been traveling to Maine with me her whole life her visits had mostly consisted of long days in nursing homes and hospitals during my mother’s last few years of life. This is her first bona fide Maine Vacation. But for me, it is home.
The night before, after a long sweaty day of packing, traffic, unpacking, and grocery shopping we finally arrived at the promised land – Higgins Beach in all its glory. The three of us plunge into the waves and the cold Atlantic washes away every ounce of heat-induced irritation we had been feeling. Nostalgia has already begun battling with reality on this trip – every mile of Route 1 (for I insisted we take the ‘real road” not the turnpike) brings memories “ there used to be a make-your-own sundae bar there… now it’s a hotdog stand!” “I remember our 8th grade science class trip through Scarborough Marsh…” “Oh boy,” groans Kelly, “Here we go.” And she and Liza roll their eyes at each other in their favorite pastime of “let’s make fun of momma,” but I ignore them. My trips to Maine are always nostalgic but this one especially so. With both parents and my sister gone and my brother living in Rhode Island, my tether to the state is tenuous at best. “I’m one of you!” I want to say to the locals in the Hannaford as we stock up the beach cottage kitchen. “Ignore my New Hampshire plates, I belong here!”
Higgins Beach is the beach of my youth and around every corner lurk the ghosts of the family I’ve lost. My mother, sitting low to the ground in her beach chair as the water laps around her feet. My brother, my only surviving family member, in boogie shorts, hanging out at the end of the beach where the river flows through the marsh to meet the sea, hot- dogging it and diving with his buddies. My grandfather, gone nearly 30 years now, sitting in dress pants and a button down shirt in his beach chair, binoculars at the ready to ‘watch the fishing boats,” but really following that circa 1970 bombshell in the bell bottoms and bikini top as she strolled down the beach. I drag Kelly and Liza through the narrow streets on a hunt for the house we rented for three weeks one summer. I think I’ve found it but am shocked it’s now yellow. “ But I remember it RED,” I say, not thinking that nearly 40 years has past since that summer and of course it would be painted many times over by now. I remember its outdoor shower, the back bedroom I shared with my sister, and the spiders in the corner. My chest aches the way it always does when I call Marie to mind but I feel a strong need to tell Kelly and Liza these stories, to name them as if to prove that we were here. That once I did have a family that made this same journey to this beach. That there once was a mother who held her daughter’s hands and shouted ‘Jump the waves!” Could I ever have imagined then – a chubby four year old, fat eight year old, awkward teen – that I would one day hold my own daughter’s hands and shout the same thing? “I’m getting really good” shouts Liza as she body surfs a wave to shore, and suddenly all I can see is my father – barrel-chested, with thatches of white hair — teaching me how to hit the waves at just the right moment to carry me in. I expected this visit to Higgins to be glorious, the stuff of summer dreams. I didn’t expect to come face to face with the ghosts of my dead family members in the process.
Monday morning, Liza and I sit on the porch for what has become our vacation routine, talking quietly – me over coffee her over chocolate milk – as the neighborhood awakes and Kelly sleeps. She asks why I always refer to my mother as “grandma’ but to my father as “daddy’ in stead of “Papa Joe” which is what she has learned to call him. I explain that she knew her grandmother so it seems natural to refer to her as such. But for her my father exists only in stories and a few photos. To call him anything but daddy rings false to me. “Would he have liked me?” she asks. “Oh my darling…” I start to reply…but can’t go on. I swallow and continue, “…he would have adored you.” She beams, secure in the love of a man she will never know but who would have sung her to sleep and walked the beach with her in search of sea glass if he’d had the chance.
On our afternoon trip to Old Orchard I tell Kelly and Liza how we used to take my mother there to play ski-ball on Mother’s Day each year – some years it would be cold and near freezing but there we’d be at the beach, as it if was a great treat for her to spend her Mothers Day at Palace Playland. “Uh huh” says Kelly and I’m momentarily crushed by her reaction. I want all of this to mean as much to her as it does to me. “Tell you what,” she says a bit sarcastically “someday we’ll do this same trip but in downtown Lawrence and I can tell you about MY childhood.” I look around and realize that now Old Orchard is interchangeable with Hampton, Salisbury, Weirs or any number of summer beaches where girls in swimsuits drip water onto arcade floors while playing Guitar Hero.
Later that evening after a much-needed cooling dip in the waves, we head to the Lobster Shack, where Liza has pledged to try her first lobster. So many family Christmas card photos were taken here on the rocks of Two Lights State Park. We reminisce about my mom in her last year of life so determined to make it up the long steps to the red picnic tables for one more meal of clam cakes and French fries. After dinner (where Liza professed to love the claws of the lobster but be ‘freaked out’ by the tail meat), we sit on the rocks and watch the waves crash down on the same rocks I’ve climbed my entire life. We sit in companionable silence until Liza says suddenly, quietly, “momma, I like your stories.” At the gift shop we chat with a man visiting from Lennox, MA and Kelly and I tell him about this vacation-cum-trip down memory lane but he doesn’t laugh. Instead he regards me seriously and states “that’s so great. That’s so great you’re doing this.” I no longer feel I’m clinging foolishly to a past and a family that are no more but that I’m preserving that time for me and for my new family.
Every visit to Maine brings me face to face with a certain type of woman I’ve known my whole life- one I’ve always tried to be with dazzling failure. We see them everywhere – at the beach, the lobster shack and the ice cream stand we stop at afterwards. These are the women so many of the girls I grew up with have become – tan, slim, athletic, in tennis skirts, khakis, or tiny denim shorts with perfectly faded J Crew Sweatshirts. I feel as I often do, too big for my surroundings. Marked by my rolls of belly fat and oversized hips that barely squeeze into our beach chairs, by my spiky gray hair and ensemble-a–la Target. As a child I longed to be one of those tanned young goddesses and now as a middle aged mom I’m once again plunged into their midst, still an outsider. My legs are lumpy, thighs doughy not toned from tennis or running the Beacon to the Beach marathon. Even Liza seems different from their children who sit at the neighboring picnic table in Life is Good t-shirts and board shorts with the white blonde hair of children who spend entire summers on the water. I laugh at how after a lifetime with people like this I still get it wrong. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m happy with who I am but as surely as the ghosts of my family haunt this trip so too do the ghosts of my childhood self, a fat girl in purple Tough- Skins from Sears surrounded by the golden goddesses of privilege in my hometown.
A friend of Liza’s arrives to spend a few days with us and the decibel level in the house skyrockets. We all head out to lunch with my godmother (my mothers’ best friend) and other family friends where more stories are shared and swapped. We make a quiet pilgrimage to visit my parents graves in Falmouth but I feel empty there, as though they are with me more at the beach than in this cemetery backing up to the 13th hole of the Country Club Golf Course (the only hole my father was ever able to play with any skill). We end the day telling stories on the porch and laughing long into the night. It was the kind of night I’d been waiting for – the kind of vacation I’d dreamed about giving Liza since she was born. Where she could run free on he beach, live in bathing suits, grow tan, and sleep like a rock at night. We take the girls to Funtown where I launch into more stories – my brother holding court in the batting cages, my mom ruling the mini golf course, my sister going so fast down the super slide she ran into the chain link fence at the end. These attractions are all gone now – the only one that remains is the old helicopter kiddie-ride. I’d never let my father push the silver bar down to make our helicopter fly higher so we always stayed barely bumping above the pavement for the whole ride. “Figures,” laughs Kelly as she hugs me. What an apt metaphor for my life – so often afraid to really fly I stay in my safety zone just above the ground. Liza, fortunately, is not me reincarnated as much as I sometimes would like her to be, and she takes off for repeat rides on flumes, roller coasters and the Pirate ship. I close my eyes and hope for her that she always finds the courage to push down on that silver bar and fly her helicopter as high as she can.
No matter where our vacation travels bring us my morning routine is the same – arise before anyone else, usually no later than 7:00 a.m. (not by choice, I’m usually unable to sleep later than that and Kelly, a more sound sleeper than I, can usually slumber for a few hours past that at least). So I make the best of it and get up to read, write, or simply watch the world wake up around me. As usual, the morning brings an endless parade of joggers and power walkers. Kelly and I like to joke about saying “yeah run pinhead run” while we take another bite of our bagel. This morning we’re preparing for a visit from two families of Liza’s school friends for the day. After getting everyone packed and sun-screened I grow resentful of my role as mom-organizer. Kelly and Liza’s friend have taken off ahead of us for the beach leaving me and Liza to make sure we have all the towels, boogie boards etc. Liza asks why I look frustrated and I burst out petulantly “maybe I’d like to walk on the beach while someone makes me breakfast- maybe I’d like to sleep late once in a while, maybe I”d like someone else to make sure everything is ready for the beach maybe I’d like to feel like I’m on vacation too!” Liza takes my hand and says in a small voice “momma I’ll walk on the beach tomorrow morning with you if you want.” And a marvel at how such a simple gesture has the power to make me realize how foolish I sound for griping so much about a role I usually willingly assume.
When our friends arrive with a grand total of three girls and three boys between them I’m struck by how different boy energy is than what I’m used to. The kids take over the beach, body surfing, exploring tide pools where the boys exult over the find of some eels and hermit crabs, snacking on grapes and brownies, sandwiches and chips they come and go from our blankets tanned, happy and sandy. Predictably, Liza’s friend who has been staying with us finds a new friend on the beach, an older teen much more interesting than “our “ gang of kids and promptly ditches everyone for the new girl necessitating a least one full out man hunt of the beach. When we find her, not at all where she was supposed to be or said she’d be I give my first hardcore “I’m very disappointed in you young lady’ speech to someone other than my own child which, judging by the surprise on her face, might have been a first for her. Later that night after pizza, backyard volleyball and big thank-you hugs, our company departs for home bringing our teenage guest back home with them as planned. Liza and I walk the quiet streets until dark and I listen to Liza rant about how hurt she was by her friends actions, how angry she felt at being shunted aside for someone older. For the first time I hear a difference from the usual childhood “she won’t share” complaints that arise among her friends and realize I’m hearing for the first time the confused and hurt sentiments of a young lady who has just come face to face with the ugly truth that we can love our friends and they can still let us down. I encourage her to try to remember the great parts of having her friend visit and not focus on the events of the last afternoon. “Maybe,” she says, “but not right now. I’m still too angry.” We stop and hug for a long long moment. I smoothe her hair and we turn the corner back to our cottage where Kelly is waiting.
We spend the next day taking a break from the beach – visiting Portland’s shops and museums and saving our walk on the beach for early evening. A sudden thunderstorm drives us in and we head out for dinner on our last night in Maine. It’s high blueberry season and we grow hysterical at the endless offering of blueberry specials on the menu – from blueberry martinis to blueberry glazed chicken to blueberry pie. “It’s blueberry palooza!” we laugh. I love the dynamic of the three of us when we’re at our best like this. I want to freeze this moment forever. Later, while cuddling on the couch with me and Kelly, Liza says “I’m glad it’s just our family now.” Just Our Family. I may have come to the beaches of Maine to confront the ghosts of my past but in the process I was able to send them back out with the tide that retreats further and further from the shore in the late afternoon. Turning my back to the sea I see the family I have now right in front of me and realize that while I may have thought I was “coming home “ to Maine, in fact I had my home with me all along.