“The road was new to me, as roads always are going back.” – Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs
January has always been that one month of the year that seems to put me in a quandary of sorts more so than any other month. I’m never sure whether I’m supposed to be completely happy or terribly miserable. So far, winter has been fairly mild for those of us who live here on the coast, whereas Northern Maine has seen more typical weather, especially with sub-zero temperatures and a covering of three feet of snow that they had a few weeks ago. A perfect backdrop, to say the least, for the U.S. Olympic Biathlon Trials that were held at the Maine Winter Sports Center in Fort Kent.
It’s been cold enough, though, for the pond and lakes to freeze over, but we’ve only had a few dustings of snow, and the one significant snowfall of a half foot we had a couple of weeks back washed away with the rain we’ve had this week. Unless winter gets here real soon, January thaw might end up going unnoticed this year, unless, of course, you live up in Caribou or Fort Kent.
After I got home from work today, I made a tuna fish sandwich and a pot of coffee. As I was sitting at the table sharing bites with my cat, I started to think about how I have struggled mightily over the years with the question of “home.”
I was born in Bangor, Maine, but as a young boy, I grew up in Pittsfield, Mass. after my mother had moved there from Belfast. During my teens and early twenties, home was central and southern California. As much as I liked those places, and still like going back to visit, they no longer feel like home. And even though I have lived in other places, Kansas and Florida, the one place that has always kept drawing me back has been Maine.
But I don’t think it’s because I was necessarily born here, or because my mother had been born and grew up here, and later moved back here in 1980 to live for good. No. Not for those reasons, although it could be argued that roots might have something to do with it. But it’s not that. As I look out the window and watch the snow that has begun to fall, I find myself reminiscing back to the time when I was nine years old during the summer of 1963. My mother drove to Saturday Cove, Maine with my brothers and me to visit with Uncle Mike, Aunt Mary, and our cousins Beth, Sue and Eben.
The drive up the Maine coast to Northport enthralled me with its scenery of pines and ocean. When we pulled into their driveway, I was amazed that they had the ocean right off from their back yard. I remember sitting at the window seat in my cousin’s second floor bedroom. Staring out at the water, at the fir covered island of Isleboro, I dreamed away the hour in mystery and adventure.
The next morning, after eating a breakfast of eggs, bacon and oatmeal that my aunt had cooked on a woodstove, my cousins and I headed down to the beach, and then went climbing on the rocks along the shore. In between we stopped at a small tidal pool and collected a couple of large starfishes that I dried out to bring back to Pittsfield with me.
Later during the day, my cousin Eben took me back down to the shore to gather mussels. I don’t remember what we had for dinner that night, but when we had finished, Eben went outside and built a small fire in the front yard, and then put a grate over it. He then went and got an empty Maxwell House coffee can and filled it with water. He brought it outside and set it on the grate over the fire. A half an hour later when the water started to boil, he emptied the mussels we had gathered earlier into his makeshift pot. Fifteen minutes later, I tried my first mussel dipped in the melted butter that my aunt had brought out for us.
The ocean, the islands of Penobscot Bay, the majesty of the white pines, the walks along the rocky shore, the step-back in time city of Belfast—-those were the reasons I had chosen to come to this place to live. My cat nuzzles up to my hand and takes the last bite of my sandwich. As I give him a pat on the head, I feel that maybe, after all, I did make a good decision by moving back here. Although I don’t live in a house on the shore as I used to dream that one day I would, I do have a nice apartment that’s within a half mile from the harbor.
The view of the bay and the islands beyond is still mine to look at whenever I choose to dream and wile away the hours. Like last night, when I walked down to the City Landing, the air thick in a swirl of fog, it occurred to me that what makes “home” feel like home, is our deep, abiding sense of place. I pulled my collar up close and headed back. For once it felt good I was walking “to” somewhere, instead of away.