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I suppose our lives are nothing more than a collection of moments. Some moments tell us who we are. Others, what we've run away from. I was eight years old the year our story began, just a boy, but I can place its beginning in the moment my father came to pick me up from Mrs. Fisher's third-grade class. I looked up from my desk and there he was, standing in the doorway of the classroom in his royal blue carpenter's overalls that zipped up from the knees to his chin. Because I had never seen my father in my school before, something about his presence was a little unbelievable. And when other parents began lining up behind him in the doorway I felt the same kind of confusion you feel coming out of a matinee movie, stepping into darkness where there had been light.
The school was calling parents to come collect their kids that morning. My mother must have taken the call and then reached my father over the two-way radio in his pickup truck or the telephone in his shop.
I was holding his hand. His boots, I remember, were caked with mud and we were leaving a trail along the glassy corridor. When we passed the principal's office she was standing at her window with her head bowed, crying. I remember her shoulders were shaking, and I was still thinking about this when my father lifted me into his truck and said, "The president's been shot, Terry, everybody's going home."
For the next week we ate supper in the living room on TV trays, watching the evening news. In those days my father kept some of his carpenter's tools in a honey-colored wood chest in the kitchen next to the copper boiler. The chest was a perfect cube, three feet long by three feet wide by three feet deep, with little trapdoors and secret compartments and folding shelves. Lift the lid and you found a crosscut saw and a coping saw fastened by bronzed wing nuts to the other side. A bevel with a mahogany handle in a vertical drawer. A set of flat files lined up by ascending heights. That week when there was so much sadness and my mother kept crying in front of the TV in her curlers, I daydreamed of being inside my father's tool chest, stretching out my legs against a bronze level, resting my head in the smooth, curved hemlock handle of a block plane.
You remember the picture on television that November of John John saluting his father's casket? I think that picture was the reason my father began taking me to work with him on the days I wasn't in school. He'd never taken me with him before, and I came to believe that the young president's death had cut him open and that my father's way of coping was to pull me closer to him.
Our work mornings began with me pushing a stool from the kitchen table up to the counter so I could turn on the weather radio while my father did his push-ups on the floor. All his life he wore a Saint Christopher medallion on a silver chain around his neck, and with each push-up, it clinked against the linoleum.
On the way to work we stopped at Bridie's Hardware in Oak Hill for whatever supplies my father needed. There was a calendar with ladies in bathing suits above the cash register. We would load our supplies into the back of the truck and it would still be dark when we drove down to the end of the Blackpoint Road where the town of Ellsworth turned into Rose Point. There was an electric gate my father opened with a key, and beyond the gate a world you couldn't really believe even when you were there, looking at it. A high promontory of open fields and meadows set just back from the ocean, surrounded by giant fir trees, lime-colored bluffs that looked out over a milelong strand of beach, and twenty-two cottages hidden along narrow gravel lanes. Designed by the famous Indiana architect Leslie Woodhead, and built at the turn of the century by Pennsylvania steel and oil barons, these cottages were mansions really, sprawling four-story places, stick-framed and cedar-shingled, with turrets and gabled roofs and screened sleeping porches that faced the sea.
It was one of Maine's private colonies, a summer place that was abandoned to the care of my father during the off season. He had keys to each house, and the owners employed him to repair the damage done by the fierce storms that battered Rose Point all winter. In a shed beside the thirteenth green of the golf course he had a small wood shop where he kept his tools, a three-horsepower table saw, a planer, miter saw, belt sander, drill press, and, in a set of pigeonhole boxes salvaged from the old summer post office when it was remodeled, he kept the keys to each camp under a named slot; this was one rule of Rose Point, that each proprietor name his camp and print this name in discrete black letters on a rectangle oak board that my father spar varnished every spring and hung from the front-porch eaves.
Northwinds. The Ark. Fair Haven. Kettle Cove. I suppose the idea was that a name on your house could make you feel less temporary about yourself.
I went inside all the camps with my father that winter. In Long Rest there was a photograph of the owner standing beside President Eisenhower. The chandeliers and bronze light fixtures in Homeward came from the Spanish ocean liner Queen Isadora, when she was decommissioned at the turn of the century. On the marble-floored foyer of Last Light, Clark Gable once greeted evening guests. An electronic panel of bells that summoned maids and butlers was still in working order there. In Maine Stay my father once filled all five claw-footed bathtubs with bottles of champagne and ice before a party. The backyard of Right Way had been transformed into a fantastic miniature replica of Yankee Stadium, with every detail, including the dugouts and outfield walls, built to scale. For twenty-nine years my father cut the infield grass wearing soft leather slippers and using a push mower whose wheels he had covered with felt.
From Memorial Day until Columbus weekend the lanes at Rose Point were swarming with summer people from far away. Sailing was their main activity; each camp had a boat, and regattas were held four times a week. Following an old tradition, the skippers sailed in dark blue double-breasted coats with gold buttons and striped ties. Evening lectures were held in the stone library, picnic lunches at the beach house, and book fairs with Punch and Judy puppet shows on the library lawn.
After Columbus Day weekend my father locked up the camps for the long winter. He drained the pipes and shut off the electricity and capped the chimneys. He covered the furniture in white sheets. And then, in the spring, these chores were reversed. Putting the cottages to bed and then waking them up was how my father described this. He preferred the winter, when he had free run of the point and could come and go like a proprietor. When the summer people were there, he was just hired help and he had to use the servants' entrances and do his work without being seen or heard.
That winter of 1963, two weeks before Christmas, my father got word that he was to open the Serenity cottage. He told my mother and me about it at dinner one night.
"Backward," he said. "No heat. Pipes will freeze. Rich people are silly sometimes."
"Not only rich people," my mother reminded him.
He didn't acknowledge her. "But, if they want me to open the place, I'll open it."
The next morning at the hardware store I listened to my father telling old Mr. Bridie what he was up against.
"Who do these people think they are, anyway?" Bridie wanted to know.
"Yeah, well, there it is," my father said.
"Don't they know it's winter up here?"
"I wonder," my father said. Whenever he spoke of the people he worked for it was with a kind of solemn resignation.
"Summer people," Mr. Bridie growled. "They're supposed to migrate with the birds. We shouldn't have to deal with them again until June."
My father was a man who hurried through life, leaving behind him the doubters of the world, the cautious and the circumspect. He was the only man I ever knew to wrap his legs outside the rungs of ladders and slide down full speed, stopping himself just before he hit the ground. And so I have remembered clearly how we entered the cottage without making a sound, my father so careful, using both hands to ease the door closed behind us. We followed the shaft of yellow light from his flashlight and walked slowly from room to room. Slowly and silently, with reverence, the way you would walk through an empty church. This made me wonder in my child's imagination if another life went on inside the empty cottages through the dark winters. If people moved in secretly after the summer people left. They were living here in Serenity. They had heard us coming and they were hiding, watching us.
Inside the cottage it was as dark and cold as a cave. Through the cracks of doorways and around windowsills snow as fine as grains of sugar had blown inside and lay in small white drifts. A pyramid of snow on the counter beside a toaster. A carpet of snow in the alcove. In the library, my father ran his hand along the spines of a row of books, centering them on the shelf. He stepped back from a painting in the dining room to make sure that it was straight on the wall. Because he never took even a passing interest in the appointments of his own house, where he often tracked a trail of mud and sawdust, the time I spent with my father at Rose Point taught me that a certain dignity attends the work we do to earn our living.
It took two days to fill every room with light. There were more than seventy windows and doors, each covered with a sheet of plywood, fastened with screws in all four corners. My father had to climb a ladder to reach the windows on the second and third floors. I stood at the bottom, holding the ladder for him and watching the soles of his boots move up and down above my head. It was so cold we had to stop every hour and sit in my father's truck with the heater roaring. After we finished the last window and went back inside and stood in the lighted rooms, it was as if music had been turned on inside the cottage.
What I remember best about those days opening up Serenity is my father setting the mousetraps and letting me bait them with little bits of cheese. You had to be careful not to get your fingers caught. We put traps in cupboards, under beds, and in the medicine cabinets in the bathrooms. We set them all and then when it got dark in the late afternoon, before we headed home, we sat on the first-floor landing, my father with a finger to his lips. "Listen," he whispered. There was the sound of the wind rattling the windows and racing down the chimneys and then, gradually, the snapping of the traps like firecrackers. One, then silence, then another. Like most children I had learned from my storybooks to assign human emotions to animals, and those nights, lying in bed, all I could think about was some mother mouse and her babies waiting hopelessly for the father mouse to make it home with cheese for dinner.
Because the cottages were so close to the ocean none of them had basements. Beneath Serenity there was a crawl space in the dirt. I held the flashlight for my father while he dragged in bales of hay to insulate the water pipes. He built a box around the water pump and wired a lightbulb inside it to keep the pump from freezing.
On the fourth or fifth day we made one last trip to Bridie's store after the owner of Serenity had called my father, instructing him to build a skating rink in the front yard. "That takes the cake, Paul, if you ask me," Bridie said to my father.
We bought a canvas tarp and put the plow on my father's truck to clear away a square in the deep snow. We laid the tarp down in the square and hammered two-by-sixes into the frozen ground around the border. That night my father hooked up a hose and let water trickle onto the canvas. By morning the ice was an inch thick and smooth as glass. Years later I learned that the owner of the cottage had been an All-American hockey player at Harvard and captain of the United States Olympic team that competed in Innsbruck, Austria.
The last thing we did in the cottage before the owner arrived with his family was bring in Christmas trees for the three living rooms and the library on the first floor and one for the glassed-in widow's walk on the ridge of the roof. This one we decorated with colored lights. The moment we plugged it in, a stillness fell over us. I saw a look of surprise on my father's face. In later years whenever I recalled that moment, I thought of it as a look of wonder, the way an artist might gaze upon a finished painting that turned out to be more beautiful than anything he ever believed he could paint. My father turned me toward the glass windows and pointed to the black ocean. He told me that there were ships out there in the darkness and men onboard who would see the lighted tree. "You never know, son," he said, "this may help some poor soul find his way home."
Copyright © 2001 by Don J. Snyder