VIRTUAL MAINE

words + photography PATRICIA CONWAY

Dear Maine,

I miss you. I really need the soul regeneration that only a linger at the Maine coast can provide, but last year’s COVID lockdown and this year’s major house project have interfered. Here at home in Pittsford, New York, the Erie Canal is our substitute for the sea; our airy screened porch must serve as our vacation home. Pittsford is very pleasing, with our personal trees mystically filtering light, robins sunning themselves, al fresco dining and wining with the occasional champagne splurge. The beautiful wide-open spaces here provide for long, energetic dog walks and healthy social distancing when we need it. But there is no ethereal morning fog, no sea tang in the air, no Atlantic Ocean vistas. Those are conjurings, only.

Southern Maine for me had been childhood vacations in rustic dwellings, then some whirlwind weekend getaways for us as adult New Englanders as we filled ourselves with the rest of the world, convinced that awe-inspiring travel had to involve the removal of a continent or two. How mistaken we were. Then we booked a Maine holiday 10 years ago: an ocean for us landlocked Boston expats, dog friendly for our longtime companion, lobster at the source, a 12-hour ride from western New York.

I’m sure Champlain, the Frenchman in question, was as struck by Frenchman Bay’s beauty at his visit some 400 years before as we were then. We depended on the tide’s retreat for our morning beachcomb, the whorly rocks and coarse sand revealed, providing a slightly precarious walking surface for the forgotten pleasure of shell searches, disturbing the gulls at their feast of the previous evening’s lobster debris. Our rental was appropriately cottage-y: weathered shingles, white-paneled living area with well-loved furnishings, and the deck wrapping two sides of the cottage provided a peerless private café for wine and Sullivan Harbor Farms smoked salmon. When I stood at the angled convergence of the cottage’s kitchen windows with the tide in, salt breezes in my face, I was on the prow of my own serene ship.

On that trip I saw wild beauty and history and tasteful elegance alongside hardscrabble existences. Seagulls, interlopers among the ducks along the Erie Canal, are positively regal in Maine, floating calmly, at home. A fisherman and his black Lab mate and the sporadic paying customer would set out daily in the red launch docked outside our cottage, returning spent and grimy at 5pm. Signs at private homes: lobsters for sale at $4.20 a pound, or clams for $2.50. I found blueberries in all incarnations, the Original Route 1 Chainsaw Artist with nightly shows at 7, and lobster-shaped soap, Made in China. I was enthralled. I needed that ocean time: Being surrounded by the boundless sea, by shifting colors, winds, scents, I found all my senses gratified. Maybe it would all become wallpaper if I lived there, a backdrop to life’s minutiae, but I was on the verge of tears at departure time, my 7-year-old self again waving goodbye to Wells Beach.

On the many return trips to Maine, I felt the old familiar excitement bubbling up at the Piscataqua bridge crossing, seeing all those Vacationland license plates, refueling at our favorite service plaza where we could have a restorative walk among aromatic pines. We rented other houses in mid-coast and in Castine, welcomed by huge windows opening to the ocean, lace panels fluttering, soft seaweedy wind caressing any discomfort away, noisy gulls our alarm clock, the total tranquility of sea staring. Our dogs shared a bit of my daily lobster indulgence; we bought emergency champagne glasses at Renys; we covered ourselves in fragrant Badger insect spray and toasted marshmallows in the fire pit in the company of family visitors, with dusky rose skies as our backdrop. I breathed in all the salt air my lungs would take. Inevitably came the pang at the thought of newcomers, interlopers entering our sanctuary: cars arriving in town packed to bursting, their occupants anticipating bliss ahead of them as we had done just a short time before. The dreaded day would arrive when we’d lock the house and cast a longing last look. We expressed our gratitude to the house’s owners, to neighbors: They said they hoped we’ll come back and we agreed. And so we would have.

My husband has kindly indulged me with our Maine trips, tolerating the long uncomfortable drives, the occasional assertive mosquito and his most unfortunate shellfish allergy. He is fond of Maine but does not share in my intense attachment. He has always been a proponent of vacationing where endless warm sunny weather is guaranteed, while I bask in coastal Maine days: softly lightening grays, then birdsong, then a brightening to blue. An early walk in the lovely cool drench mist that elsewhere would stand in for rain. A noonday sun hot enough to fry the skin, the breezy shade fresh enough to encourage a sweater. An afternoon passing rain intensifying the air’s saltiness, hours of fog bringing ghostly mesmerizing cool. Evenings painted with stunning sunsets in shifting hues of pink reflected in Penobscot Bay. An electrifying midnight thunderstorm.

For me, it’s genetic. There are no pilgrimages to a genteel summer residence passed carefully from one generation to the next in my DNA, but some Augusts, just a few, my mom pulled off a loaves-and-fishes trick with her flimsy budget and wangled us a two-week stay at Wells Beach. We would rent old-timey cottages, with indoor but basic plumbing, working kitchens, discreet mice, leaving behind stifling triple-decker-top-floor life. My skin would be dosed liberally with baby oil and sunburnt to a crisp. My siblings and I would brave the rough cold ocean and occasionally be rewarded with the surprise of a warm current, and beach explorations revealed the exotica of shells, colorful rocks, sand dollars, periwinkles and horseshoe crabs. I ate my first lobster in Maine, our dearly loved Uncle Jim’s treat from Lords Lobster Pound, lobster meat astonishingly priced at $4 per pound. My visiting grandmother cooked a strange-looking Irish pudding made with white moss she had gathered from the beach, as she had done as a girl in Galway. My mom and dad re-created the happiness they had experienced in far more carefree days, when Moody Beach and the East Wind cottage in Wells were their seaside escapes. Dad would sometimes swim out to a nerve-rackingly distant point until he was invisible, while Mom would relish coastline walking on foggy cool days. There was the novelty of picking up our forwarded mail in the tiny hot post office rather than from our apartment mailbox, of eating fried seafood rolls at Forbes and buying bottles of soda from the machine at Parent’s Market: stuff that only appeared on our menus in Maine. There would be a stop for pancakes on our trip home and unbearable teary sadness upon arrival. Always a hope of returning the following year.

More than six decades since my first trip to Maine, I still hope. But again this year there can be only Virtual Maine: lobster purchased online, blueberry pies that aren’t quite so special without the tiny precious Maine gems, studying photos taken on cherished past visits of sunsets and sea and exuberant grandnephews at the shore creating their own version of Maine Time. Imagining the magic is the closest I can come.

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