Once On This Island
Katie M Zeigler
The water was like glass the night I knew. We’d just made the turn into Boothbay Harbor, and the evening air was so still, it felt like the world had quieted and conspired. I hadn’t originally wanted to take this boat ride. We’d had a busy evening of socializing with his extended family and I was ready to turn in — the sea air taking its inevitable toll on my ability to stay up past nine p.m. But he insisted, and his aunt and uncle insisted, and the sea itself insisted — so I took his hand and off we went in a cloud of exhaust, sea spray, and laughter.
This was not my first trip to Maine. I had visited one of my best friends, who was from Cape Elizabeth, the summer after our freshman year in college, and instantly felt what can only be described as a gravitational pull toward this place, so different from my Northern California home. When I flew into Portland, my nose pressed against the window (much to the chagrin of my seatmate), I had never seen anything so beautiful before — so green and crisp. And while visiting, my friend’s family showed me all the wonderful things every first-timer should see: we toured the Headlight, we marveled at Kennebunkport (wondering if George and Barbara were in residence), and we ate lobster, prepared lovingly by my friend’s mother while he, deathly allergic to the creatures, hid in an upstairs bedroom while we gorged ourselves on butter. It was like visiting a foreign country and being home all at the same time — each new experience simultaneously exotic and familiar, like falling in love. And as I flew home, I wished upon any available star that I would come back someday.
That wish was heard and answered when I returned, exactly six years later, with a boy I had met on a dance floor in Washington, DC, whose family had a house on an island near South Bristol, Maine. Driving across the Piscataqua River Bridge from New Hampshire to Maine, I hoped the same magic would exist; that, somehow, Maine would have saved a seat for me after all those years. And she did. She saved a seat for me in that boat, zooming past Damariscove, his hand in mine, his aunt laughing over the roar of the engine, his uncle expertly handling each wave and buoy. And it was in that exact seat that I knew this was the man for me, not just for the enchanted boat ride he offered, but the serenity and wonder on his face as we returned to this island of his, where his family had summered for generations.
Since then, I have had the great fortune of coming home again and again to this little island of ours and I’ve learned that, with time, my relationship with this place has evolved like any long-term relationship. I’ve experienced both great joy and great despair, I’ve laughed until I thought I might pee (OK, I did pee, but only a little) and I’ve wept both alone and with others through loss and change. I was on this island when I found out I was pregnant with both of my sons, the grocery store-bought pregnancy tests sharing the news as we held each other in the small bathroom off the dining room. I was resting in the hammock of our house when my husband told me softly that my beloved grandmother had suffered a stroke and that I needed to fly home immediately. This island has seen every side of me. I have felt every emotion I might feel on the mainland, but for some reason, both joy and despair feel changed, even heightened, on the paths of this island. And I think it comes down to the community of people, flung from every corner of the world, who hold this island as dearly in their hearts as I do. There is a sameness that runs as an undercurrent on our little spot in the ocean. Our bathing suits all quiver in the same breeze on the line. Our sunkissed bodies all shower in the same collected rainwater. Our evening attempts at reading are all lit with the same gas lamps. With no phones, no electricity, no corner store or street, our bond is strengthened and it is this collective experience that gives this place its solidarity and its magic.
When I try to explain the magic of our island to some people, what strikes them most is the lack of electricity and the poor cell phone service. “But what if you want to watch a movie?” they ask, bewildered by a place where channels live in the ocean, not on television. The concept of being unplugged from the world is unfamiliar to most, and desired by others. “I wish I could just get away from it all!” they say, longing for the ability to seemingly escape from the stresses of every day life. But what I try to explain, is that while we are unplugged from social media, from Netflix, from the constant longing to give the world a “like” and a thumbs up, we are actually plugged into something much more important: each other. We start each summer as if no time had passed — picking right up with conversations that ended on that same path a year ago. We see the differences in each other and ourselves, more wrinkles, grayer hair, slower steps, and celebrate the fact that we are blessed to embrace each another for one more year.
My second year on the island, we celebrated the 50th wedding anniversary of a cherished couple with an all-island party. Everyone came to set up for the evening, taking chairs down from the stage and placing them around a mish mash of card tables, each carried from our respective cottages. An enormous poster was hung at the front of the room, an enlarged black and white photograph of the couple at a school dance, dressed as Lil’ Abner and Daisy Mae. My job for the night was to decorate the front buffet tables, no small task given that the decorations were, for the most part, scavenged from desk drawers and the paths leading to the party. What I put together was a collection of old ribbon, flowers made from the 1970’s wrapping paper I’d found at the bottom of a kitchen shelf, pinecones gathered in the hundreds from the East Shore path, and a smattering of blue and green sea glass from that morning’s low tide. So, when the couple arrived, freshly showered and holding hands, I hoped the dim light of the gas lamps might hide the Scotch tape snakes holding it all together. But that night, and for every year afterward, both husband and wife would gush about the “perfect decorations” and the “lovely centerpieces.” Every year when I would first greet them on the path, or help take their groceries up the steep catwalk to the waiting Toro, they would, without fail, kiss me on the cheek, or take my hand in theirs, thanking me for my simple, inelegant token of friendship and love. And I am sure that they did this to every single person who lit a lamp, placed a chair, or swept the floor — making each and every one of us feel special and, more importantly, part of something. Whether we recognize it or not, each of us, summer after summer, have contributed to our collective relationship with this remarkable place — stitching together our memories into one well-worn quilt that we wrap around ourselves in the winter months, when the island is out of reach.
For together on this island, we have watched our loved ones get married at the end of a path; wildflowers strung in the bride’s hair and a line of mosquito-ravaged hands clapping as the new couple takes their first kiss as partners.
We have cast our loved ones’ ashes into the sea, their final requests to lap the shores of this beloved island answered and lovingly performed, as the thoughts of our own ashes doing the same fill our eyes and our hearts.
We have listened to the soft chords of guitars, strumming the notes of a song, newly written to celebrate the life of a man whose broad voice and kind eyes would live on in each and every one of us.
And we’ve brought our babies, pink and wide-eyed, and marveled at the miracle of them sleeping through the night for the first time, lulled by the endless voice of the ocean right outside their rooms.
I am not from Maine. I am just an annual visitor to her shores. But I have seen the heart of Maine — its kindness and rugged perseverance. I have borne witness to its endless capacity for joy and beauty and have watched as, time and again, this small community of which I am blessed to be a member, opens its arms to one another in reunion and friendship. When I’m on the island, I find myself breathing more deeply, not necessarily because the air is crisp and clean, or tinged with the delicious mixture of sea salt and spruce, but because, on some naive level, I hope that the more island air I have in my lungs, the more might come home with me when we have to depart. I hold out the hope that I might be able to return home with the island inside of me, changing my molecular structure into who I am when I am there. It’s a ridiculous notion, I know, but it’s one that I hold dear — this idea that one day my blood might run thick with lichen and early morning fog.
I fell in love on this island and I fell in love with this island simultaneously. I have been changed forever by her since that fateful boat ride. And as each year passes, and I watch our loved ones get older, frailer, their steps more deliberate along the mossy paths and well-worn porches, I am grateful to know that one day, with any luck, I will take my collective place on those paths and porches, looking out at the water, its surface like glass, still holding his hand in mine, a lifetime of memories in our sparkling wake.