The Fate of Summering

I am summering on an island in coastal Maine.  The fact that I can even use those words is nothing short of a miracle.  I have been working part- or full-time nearly continuously since the age of 16, and usually when I wasn’t working, well, I was looking for work and probably seriously underfunded.  A summer of leisure, in a beautiful place, with few responsibilities, is truly a joy and a treasure and is due nearly entirely to the generosity and support of my dear friend J, of whom I have spoken in the past.  She and her lovely canine familiar Amber have opened their home to me this summer, and for the most part (painters and mosquitoes aside), it has been glorious.

The fate of summering, certainly, is not in my hands alone. I am using the term here to refer to spending a long time over the warm months of June, July, and August *with no specific responsibilities besides those of basic living.*  It has held, in my lexicon, either a sense of upper class privilege or in the tradition of the British Raj, an excuse for escaping from the heat and disease of the city during the most torrid months. Troy Patterson, writing in Slate on June 25, 2014, muses:

“How much time must you spend somewhere before you can correctly call it summering? One plausible answer to this question is at least six weeks…Another plausible answer is two generations. (But I’d like to think that people born to the manor are those most keenly aware that this usage is terribly antique and may paint the speaker as some stereotypical Muffy or central-casting Chip.) Overall, it would be wisest to use summer as a verb only in limited contexts, such as when describing the migratory patterns of humpback whales.”

Humpback whales notwithstanding, J and members of her extended family have been summering (meaning spending *the whole summer*) here on the island for four generations.  This is practically unfathomable to me.  Four generations ago, my family was sailing ships in Denmark or picking potatoes in Germany or tailoring suits in Bohemia. And not only was her family here, others were as well, and the names of the houses (excuse me, “cottages”) reflect those generations back. Folks named “Smith” have lived for years in one lovely dwelling, but it’s still called “The Green House,” for example.  This kind of established tradition is perhaps more generally the purview of the East Coast than the West, where I was raised, but I still believe that it is nothing short of remarkable all the same.

And the current inhabitants are well aware of this, and seem to appreciate it keenly.  As I have written before in this blog, there is a “Brigadoon” quality to this place, both physically and emotionally.  “I’ve been coming for 24 years,” one renter said to me this afternoon, rocking gently on the porch of the Lodge. “I just love Maine.”  But coming for 24 years means coming in July, to the fully riotous glory of leafed trees, filled window boxes, the weekly punctuation of the Market Boat and the yacht club cocktail parties and the regular garbage pickup. One of course does not even show one’s face in what must be the icy dark days of January when the water is turned off and the charming weathered cottages can proffer no more heat than a fireplace or wood stove might allow.

Which brings us to the issue of Fate. J and I have been musing that the island feels fairly quiet this summer, that even the grocery stores in nearby villages seem a tad empty given that this is the high season in this neck of the woods. The question has arisen – whither the summerers? It doesn’t take an advanced degree in a social science to suggest some of the more practical reasons – two-income families don’t allow for that degree of temporal latitude; children’s school and camp activities create smaller windows for vacations; the cost of a second home possibly hundreds of miles from the first requires all manner of tending which puts pressure on strained budgets; even just the inevitable passing of the generations results in shorter and shorter time allocated to any given subset of a family.  These are all reasonable and plausible possibilities for a quieter summer.  Those who have been here for some time, though, speak nostalgically of seasons when bands of children whooping like wild Indians ran through the woods and along the beaches at all hours and large family dinners were served by live-in help and two services were held in the little chapel on Sunday rather than just one.

As is so often in the case in my life, I feel like the visiting field anthropologist, observing and describing. I stroll around a lovely, lovely island covered with second or third growth forest trying to return to its primeval ways.  I am invited into charming cottages filled with the remnants of bygone days, inviting one merely by sight or smell to settle in to a cozy chintz chair and rest one’s eyes on the view of a foggy shore on the far side of the water.  I chat with tanned and personable cottage dwellers (probably corporate titans in their real lives) who offer up a cheery hello or comment on the (ever-changing) weather.  But for me there is a “fin de siecle” sense to this summer experience for me, a sense that I am seeing the declining days of empire, or perhaps merely the last days of the island in this incarnation before it becomes a nature conservancy, perhaps, or turns into a “Sandal’s Couples-Only” honeymoon destination managed by Kimpton Hotels.

Fortunately, I don’t think J or I will have to see this next step.  For us, for this summer, the magic just continues to unroll one sunny (or cloudy or rainy) day at a time.  We sit, J and I and Amber, on the porch in the rockers, sipping our coffee or our G&Ts, speculating on whatever catches our attention, pointing out the ospreys or the passing boats.  I am fortunate indeed to see and experience this window of privilege, to share with J and the other denizens a little taste of a summer tradition that may be difficult to sustain.

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