Like most of us, I grew up in a small town. Falmouth, Maine was a town of contradictions. Kids whose families were members of the yacht club, who lived in sprawling stately homes on the water, who spent winter breaks skiing at Killington or “the Loaf” and summer out on their boats. These kids went to school with those who lived ‘out to the power lines,’ who showed their livestock at the Cumberland County Fair each year, who went to Pit Parties, kids who lived a life much further from the wealth on the water than the reality of the modest distance that separated their homes. And in between were the middle class kids who grew up on modest but comfortable homes on the ‘flats’ or Middle Road. Our early years kept us separated by a system of small grade schools assigned to our geographical area. Then, in fourth grade, we all collided in our big shiny new elementary school and realized that our town was bigger than our little neighborhoods had let us to believe. And for the remaining eight years of our time together we formed friendships, acquaintances, and learned to come together as a class. For many of us, the ties that bound us to Falmouth chafed and hurt. We knew we were different, ready for more, ready to get out. And we did. Even if we didn’t go further than the next town or the next state we flew from Falmouth and the memories it held. I flew from a lifetime of taunts that made the fat girl cry. From the reputation as the “smart girl” the “good girl” the “nerd.” And with me I carried my secret of who I really was, a secret I couldn’t and didn’t face until well into my thirties.
We left. We grew. We married. We had families. We became success stories. We divorced. We became grandparents. We failed. We tried again. Some of us stayed and built lives in Falmouth seeing children occupy the same classrooms, hallways, baseball fields, and gymnasiums that we had. Those of us that left returned for holidays, for weddings, funerals, an occasional class reunion, to visit our parents, and, for some of us, to bury our parents. Every time my car made the journey across the Martin’s Point Bridge, I’d turn my gaze to the right, to the island where my home had stood, and I’d battle with a mix of emotions. The voice insisting I was “home” fought against the voice urging me to get in and out as fast as I could so I could return to my ‘real’ life. Falmouth. Complicated, beautiful, Falmouth, always calling me home and then pushing me away.
The first summer that I was dating Kelly I brought her to Portland for a romantic weekend and to show her my old stomping grounds. She’d heard me complain about my small town and how eager I’d been to escape it, and, as we drove through town on our way to my mother’s apartment she looked at me and said “you realize you grew up in paradise right? Someday I’ll show you the alley in Lawrence where I grew up and then you’ll realize how lucky you were.” I scoffed at her, telling her she didn’t really understand and left it at that. Then we pulled into my mother’s place and went inside and I saw the ghost of my father in her face. I walked outside, looked at Kelly and said “my mother has cancer.” For the next four years I would drive again and again to Falmouth to take my mother to doctors appointments; to sleep in her bed while she lay in the ICU of Mercy Hospital; to close up her apartment when it became clear she’d never come home; to plan her funeral; and finally the spring after she died to lay her to rest next to my father in the thawed ground of Pine Grove Cemetery – right across the street from where my brother and sister had gone to grade school. A few days before her funeral, after making arrangements with our parish church, Kelly and I went to Skillin’s greenhouse to order flowers. I sat down across from one of the Skillins who had gone to school with my brother. We instantly launched into that most Falmouth of conversations “which of my siblings was in your class?” and “were you at FHS with my brother or my sister?” The fact that we weren’t really friends in high school didn’t matter. We had a shared history that had to be examined and honored before the business could commence. After we were done I turned to Kelly and said simply, “ Falmouth.”
This week my class lost one of our own. Lisa died suddenly and tragically and far, far too young. The news travelled the way most news travels these days, through Facebook, where most of my small class remains connected in a polite and cordial way. I was stunned and shaken by her passing. I remembered her home and her birthday parties. I remembered her mom’s ceramic studio and the mug she had made for Lisa to give me one Christmas – it had my name on it and a silly green frog at the bottom that gradually appeared as the mug emptied. I still have it. I remembered Lisa in high school, skinny with dark hair and big eyes. Our paths didn’t cross much but in a class of barely 90 kids it was impossible not to see everyone every day. I remembered sitting near her when we graduated — me, Alison, Lisa and Ann – – the four tallest girls in the class sitting on the top row on the hottest night of the summer of 1984. Getting ready to leave Falmouth.
A few years ago, when I reconnected with Lisa and most of my classmates on Facebook, I was amazed at how similar we were politically. How much we had in common. I was touched by her messages of support when I announced my marriage, and the way she was always one of the first people to “like” my status updates. Once we messaged each other regretting the fact we didn’t realize 30, 35, 40 years ago how much we had in common. “If only we knew then what we know now,” she had said. How true.
When Lisa passed this week I watched something remarkable happen on the pages of Facebook. My classmates, and those in classes ahead of and after me, expressed their sadness, sent wishes of sympathy, and almost to a one said something about their hearts and minds being in Falmouth during this sad time. Facebook messages and posts flew back and forth as the news spread and I saw something happening. We were no longer those kids who had chafed against restrictive labels, the kids who bore the scars of teasing, or who still lived the past glories of high school stardom. True, now we were adults but more than that we were Falmouth. And one of our own was gone.
With both my parents gone, the reasons to return to Falmouth are few and far between. But now when I think of my hometown my heart does tug a little and I think soon I will need to plan a trip back there, even if only for a day. To visit my folks where they rest; to stop at Shaw’s for a bottle of wine and the chance to run into someone I know; to say a prayer for my family at Holy Martyrs; to buy a cup of coffee at Town Landing Market; to drive out to West Falmouth to take a look at what I will always think of as the “new” high school; to see if I can find my best friend’s house from memory only; and to stop for a moment at the spot on the island where we scattered my sister’s ashes; to remember Lisa, to remember all of us – the kids we once were and the adults we’ve become, and to let myself enjoy what it means to be in Falmouth. To be home.
This winter I despaired of summer every coming. Life was hard. Exceptionally hard. Around every corner lurked a new struggle or challenge, friendships strained, harsh words were spoken, and every week brought another round of frozen air and endless, endless snow. Spring made its appearance, hesitantly, slowly, even Memorial Day, the official start of summer was marred by frigid air and snow flurries! I became convinced that the year had it in for me and 2013 would be the first year in existence without a summer, which seemed like a uniquely personal affront to someone who lives for summertime.
But of course it did come, complete with everything we love most – beach days, nights on the deck, endless ice cream cones, lake time, vacations and “staycations,” visits with friends from near and far, sleeping late, and goofy belly flops at the pool. There were new theater projects for both Liza and me, with them came new friendships, and oh did I mention ice cream? Even work seemed calmer, happier and exciting (especially with Liza rehearsing in the same building for a few weeks!)
I am notorious for fighting the end of summer kicking and screaming, and saying goodbye to this summer – one that was so long in coming and so desperately needed- will be especially hard. So this Labor Day weekend, as is our custom, Kelly and I spent our last official beach day of summer on our favorite beach in Ogunquit. Lying there, toes in the sand, my thoughts wander to both the changing nature of life in coastal New England and the permanence of the beach. We began the year walking the frozen sand beneath dunes white with snow. A little over three months ago we sat bundled against the wind and spray as the angry tide pushed to the top of the rocks beneath the parking lot, yet six weeks after that we were sweltering in a heat wave, taking shelter under our umbrella and in the cool waters where the river meets the sea. My heart ached, as it always does, at the realization that the next time we return, leaves will be falling, Halloween and “harvest’ decorations will dot the windows of Main Street and Shore Road, and the beach will belong to the locals who can finally walk their dogs there again. I was prepared to let myself sink into my early September funk that a friend once dubbed my “weltschmerz,” or “world pain.”
But then the sun peeked through the high canopy of clouds and the humidity returned with a vengeance. Kelly suggested we brave the water. Having recently returned from vacation in Hilton Head, where the ocean was an unsettling 85 degrees, it was both a shock and a comfort to wade into the mid-sixties temp of this more familiar section of the Atlantic. The waves were especially good and the water was dotted with serious surfers, kids and a few adults with boogie boards, and people like us just in it for the body surfing. I’ve been body surfing for over forty years now and never tire of the sensation of being swallowed by the wave and carried to shore. But something happened to me yesterday that hasn’t happened in a long time. The combination of powerful waves and a rare moment of perfect timing coincided and for a few brief, powerful seconds I wasn’t inside the wave I was on top of it. The momentum was unlike anything I’d experienced, the roar was deafening and when my ride finally stopped I realized I’d ridden nearly all the way to the sandy edge of the water. ‘Did you SEE how far I went?” I called to Kelly. “Did you SEE?” My suit was full of sand, my knees were scraped, and my hair was a mess but I had gone the distance with that wave.
Later, as we lingered and lingered on the beach telling each other “oh just 15 more minutes,” before packing up to head to town for a late lunch and some shopping, I relived my ride on the wave over and over in my head: the way my heart caught in my throat, the way I was excited but also scared, and the way I didn’t realize until it was over how far I’d really travelled. Just like this year, I opened my eyes and there I was, safely back to shore.
Exciting things await us this fall. Liza starts high school (high school!) and I’m eager to see what new experiences and adventures she’ll find along the way. I’ve begun rehearsals for my dream role, one that has haunted me for over fifteen years, and on its heels have another juicy role waiting for me – an unheard of bounty for an old lady in theater! Kelly and I will celebrate the tenth anniversary of the day we met and our third wedding anniversary. And our family is happier, stronger, and more connected than ever before. For the first time in years I didn’t feel that ache of sadness when we left the beach because I knew that no matter what the coming months throw at me, the cycle of life on the beach will remind me that all I have to do is turn my back to the waves, take a deep breath, leap and let myself be carried safely to shore.
Here’s to riding the waves.
My wife and I love to discover new swimming holes, lakes, beaches, and places to park our backpack beach chairs, crack open the Snapple diet Iced teas, dig into a bag of chips (what? We’re drinking DIET Snapples!) and read, nap and swim away a perfect summer day. A few days ago, on a Monday off from work, we discovered a quiet little state beach at small lake, settled our chairs a few feet from the water and relished the quiet of being two of only a handful of people taking advantage of this picture perfect spot.
Until the day campers showed up.
Now, I’ll give their counselors credit. These kids were well-behaved, orderly, kept the volume to a dull roar and for the most part didn’t impact our day on the lake at all. But periodically throughout the day when the campers were in the water, the counselors would call out “Water Buddies!” and every camper had to stop and hold up the hand of his or her partner so the counselors could do a head count. This occurred so many times over the course of the day that any time we heard “Water Buddies!” Kelly and I would raise our hands up together to be counted.
On the way home, I thought about the weekend we had spent together, the trip we’d taken to tour the mansions of Newport, and connect with some old and new friends along the way. We had a great time but I’d spent much of the weekend uncomfortable about my size, omparing my frumpy fat mom look to the sleek preppy girls that gathered at a nearby table at the Black Pearl, feeling dowdy and huge next to my stunning college roommate in her fashionable outfit at dinner, and worrying about what my red, sweaty face would look like in photos of our outdoor brunch in 90+ temperatures. To say I was unhappy with physical self was an understatement.
One would think these feelings would be incompatible with my near obsession with spending as much time in the summer in my bathing suit as possible. I recognize it’s a contradiction. But something happens to me in the water. Weightless I can pretend I’m that lithe water sprite I feel like inside. I float with Kelly, she holds me, spins me around in the water, and I idly wonder if this is what skinny girls feel like all the time. Exiting the water returns me to reality. Wrapped up in our towels, settled back in our chairs I make a joke about the way my bathing suit top keeps rolling up over my enormous stomach. “Right?” laughs Kelly, running a hand over her own stomach “sexy huh?” I laugh and return to my book, my hand reaching out for hers across the arms of our beach chairs. And there, wedged into my beach chair, a ratty baseball hat covering my damp gray hair, my hand entwined with hers, I realize for the millionth time how lucky I am. How none of the worries about my physical imperfections, my size, my age, ultimately mattered. Because I have her. I have my Water Buddy. And when you find your Water Buddy, you never ever want to let go.