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Each summer, Frankie decamped around the first of July to another island named Mount Desert, on the coast of Maine. There, she typed in a small house in a forest overlooking a fjord called Somes Sound, which runs for some seven miles up the middle of the island. On each side of the fjord rise forested mountains of pink granite rounded smooth by glaciers and grown up with cedars, spruce and pines, patches of junipers and huckleberry, blueberry and bayberry bushes, and hundreds of wildflowers, plants and mushrooms that inhabit the northern forest. The mountains, many barren on top, are part of Acadia National Park. Here, Frankie's view, beyond the trees outside her window, was another waterscape, this one dotted with lobster trap buoys and alive with sea birds.
Outside the house, just off the porch under a cedar tree, three old wooden lobster traps aged in a bed of pine needles. Out back, a tangle of blackberry bushes fought with ferns for sunlight. Under the house sat a stack of firewood and a green canoe with enough scratches to suggest a history of intimacy with barnacles on the granite ledges out front.
The walls inside the house were gray. The floors and slanted ceilings were walnut-colored, giving rooms the dark feel of a cabin in the woods, or what, I learned later, other summer people called a camp. The shades on the windows were slatted rattan roll-ups. The centerpiece of the living room was a huge fireplace made of rough granite stones collected nearby. In front of the fireplace, a thick wooden ship's hatch served as a coffee table. On the back walls were shelves stuffed with books, above them was a loft with more shelves and more books, and in the ceiling above was a skylight.
A large kilim rug covered much of one wall. Below it, on a low table, sat a golden Buddha that had been rescued from the war in Vietnam. Its right torso was charred by fire. It was life-sized, it faced the front door, and it made an instant impression on anyone coming into the house for the first time. It made such an impression on the young children of Frankie's brother and sister that they came to call the place "Buddha's house."
Frankie first invited me for a visit over a long weekend in July of 1983. I had seen a lot of America and the world as a newspaper reporter. But I had never been north, or east, of Boston, and the Maine coast was completely new to me. I took an Eastern Airlines shuttle from New York to Boston, then hopped a tiny, twin-engine commuter propjet for the Bar Harbor airport, which is situated in the village of Trenton on what I came to learn was referred to by islanders as "the mainland." There, Frankie picked me up in a decrepit 1966 Volvo station wagon and drove me on to the island of Mount Desert, which she pronounced "dessert."
What impressed me first about Frankie's place was its isolation. The house was situated on a peninsula, and to get to it she turned off the main road down a narrow winding lane, bumping over stones and ruts through half a mile of dense forest. From the small clearing where she parked, we could see the house tucked among the evergreens, its cedar siding weathered to a black-streaked gray. From the car we padded over exposed tree roots and a spongy carpet of pine needles flanked by beds of moss, lichen-covered granite and patches of ferns and bayberry bushes. Three wooden steps led to a front porch, which overlooked water through more trees.
Inside, the house was dark but cozy. It felt like a nest. It was devoid of worldly distractions. There was no television, no radio. Indeed, except for a telephone, it was removed from all contact with other human beings that wasn't self-initiated. Of all the fantasies I'd had over the years of the perfect writer's retreat, none came closer than this. It turned out to be a great place to relax, too.
But that wasn't what Frankie had in mind. I was a guest that first summer, and not the only guest. Two of her friends from New York, Kevin and Gail, arrived shortly after I did. As guests, in Frankie's view, we had to be entertained. That meant her typing had to stop temporarily. Kevin, a magazine editor, and Gail, a writer, had been guests in the past. They were wise to the drill and shrewdly opted out of much that lay ahead. Frankie's idea of entertainment included so-called "walks" up and down mountains that would have been called forced marches in many of the world's armies. There was "swimming," an anemic euphemism for the shock therapy that awaited us in the icy ocean waters of Somes Sound. Tennis meant putting oneself at the wrong end of a vicious forehand. Then came trips to smaller islands and walks around their rocky shores. Then sailing, which meant following orders, sorting out a tangle of ropes, being corrected for calling them ropes instead of lines and sheets, and pulling them and cranking winches until rarely-used muscles burned, and later ached. Then more mountains, more tennis, more "walking," more "swimming." I called it the FitzGerald Survival School.
Between these recreational ordeals, Frankie took me to the little village of Northeast Harbor. We drove down the eastern side of Somes Sound on one of the prettiest stretches of road I had ever seen. She showed me its snug harbor full of sailboats of every size and description. The harbor was flanked by steep, wooded hills dotted with large shingled cottages. She introduced me to Mr. Stanley, the fishmonger, and Bob Pyle, the librarian. She took me to McGrath's, the little store where she got the newspapers, to Brown's hardware and to the Pine Tree Market. She showed me the house in Aunt Hannah's pasture on Smallidge Point where she spent summers with her grandparents when she was small. She took me to the Fleet, a yacht club across the cove, where as a child she took rowing and sailing lessons. She told me a great deal about the history of the village and her family's long attachment to it; how her ancestors arrived as summer rusticators three generations ago. I remember listening to this, but I don't remember paying much attention to it. I was trying to catch my breath, and to steel myself for the next event of the FitzGerald Survival School.
The accommodations at Frankie's place were spartan. Behind the living room were two bedrooms where guests stayed. The beds were plywood racks topped with firm foam rubber slabs that served as mattresses. The end tables were made of unfinished plywood and had single drawers.
A third bedroom flanked the kitchen on the other side of the house. Besides a bed and two reading tables with lamps, the only other piece of furniture in it was a built-in L-shape plywood desk that faced south and west out large windows and afforded a panorama of Somes Sound through the trees. Here, Frankie "typed" on a half-century-old Remington Noiseless manual typewriter that weighed a ton and sounded like thunder. In the late morning, the sun rose high enough over a dense stand of tall cedars to spill its rays into the room and on to her desk. In the afternoon, the sun beamed in over her right shoulder from beyond the front porch, high over the Sound. That is, of course, if the sun shined at all. Sometimes it was cloudy. Sometimes it rained. More often the sun was obscured by a commodity of nature under-appreciated by those who have not spent time on the Maine coast: fog. Sometimes the fog swooped in so densely that it completely obscured the Sound and made Frankie's place seem like it was cacooned in cotton.
Fog or sun, Frankie sat for the main part of each day "typing" in splendid isolation. Not that she was entirely alone. Squadrons of seagulls patrolled her vista. Ravens and crows squawked in the treetops. An osprey, with its singular high-pitched cry, perched much of the time atop half-dead spruces near the shoreline. A magnificent bald eagle lived in the neighborhood, and made regular passes, occasionally stopping out front. There were forest birds and water birds, jays and thrushes, cormorants and loons. Chipmunks scampered over the porch. Red squirrels plied the trees.
Then there was me. How I joined the ranks of the fauna that were more or less permanent fixtures at Frankie's place is part of this story. It is, to tell the truth, a mystery. I know this much: I survived the FitzGerald Survival School that first weekend and then was invited back for another weekend in the fall. I survived again. The next summer, Frankie invited me for a week. Meanwhile, we began to spend more and more time together in New York.
Gradually, our commutes between Manhattan and Mount Desert became a habit. Each July, Frankie and I returned to Somes Sound, staying as long as possible, sometimes only a few weeks, sometimes a month, sometimes through Labor Day, and, occasionally, into October and beyond.
By mid-June, as Manhattan turned hot and sticky, our longing for Maine began to well up. Then on the appointed day, we would fly to Bangor, take a taxi to Ellsworth, where the old Volvo spent the winter. Reunited with this rusting hulk, we proceeded to stuff it with groceries and supplies and join a great caravan of vacationers headed for the coast. Along the way, we would begin to overdose on the green intensity of the forested landscape, with its many shades and hues. Finally, we would arrive at a clump of familiar lobster pounds, their outdoor pots steaming on both sides of the highway. Then it was up to a little causeway across the Trenton Bridge, over Thompson Island and on to Mount Desert Island. In the middle of the bridge, as the smell of ocean brine filled our nostrils, Frankie yelled, "Whoopie!" It was a FitzGerald family tradition. It meant we were back.
There was a comforting sameness to the summers at Frankie's place. There was a stability and predictability in the permanence of place and ritual, in knowing that the rotten tree trunk out back was still there for picking over by the neighborhood woodpeckers. That the raccoon that prowled the peninsula would eventually pay a visit or two to the garbage can on the back porch.That the lane to our house would have grass growing between the furrows made by our tires, and that mushrooms would pop up along it beckoning to be turned into soup. That the tides would rise and fall twice a day, and when they were low, we could pick shiny, black mussels off the wet rocks and make a delicious meal of them.
We could count on the weather changing rapidly, radically, and often. It would offer up light and color so crisp and clear, as Frankie liked to say, that it hurt. It would deliver stiff winds or dead calms. It would blow in storms that howled through the night, or bring rain, drizzle and fog that hung around for days, keeping towels wet, clogging the salt-shaker and sending sodden vacationers fleeing like half-drowned rats.
There was a deep comfort in knowing that once we tucked ourselves into this tiny corner of the woods by the sea we were all by ourselves. We could work and play, read and cook, walk and swim, and be with each other just far enough beyond the edge of the world's clamor to feel momentarily out of harm's way. Or so we thought.
This story takes place in a summer that was the same as others in many ways. Each summer began with a great sense of anticipation, a buildup of energy to splurge on a fresh interlude in the crisp, clean air and green, watery outdoors of the Maine coast. Then we would settle into a routine of writing punctuated by bouts of play. The days would fly by. Local soap opera fueled chatter at dinner tables and at sunset gatherings called porch-benders. Then it would be over, as quickly as the snap of a switch in a gaily-lit room.
Some summers, singular events stood out in my memory: the sunny day I asked Frankie to marry me; our first porch crops; my first mackerel and striped bass; a new store in town. Others contained seasonal highlights: the damp summer when chanterelle mushrooms were everywhere; the chilly summer when tomatoes never got ripe.
There was the summer we bought our boat and began visiting outlying villages, exploring uninhabited islands, and watching sea birds and seal colonies; the summer we saw a mother skunk and five baby skunks parading beside the road into Northeast Harbor at sunset; the summer a cock pheasant and a fox played cat and mouse on the side of Cedar Swamp mountain, appearing before us at the same place along a walking trail almost every time we walked past.
There was the first time we went whale watching in a friend's little lobster boat. As we neared Mount Desert Rock, a tiny island twenty-five miles out to sea, we spotted some humpback whales in the distance. But they submerged before we could get near them. When we arrived at where they had been, we cut the boat's engine and quietly drifted. Within minutes, two huge humpbacks came up along side the boat, their snouts within inches of its hull, their eyes peering up at us, their blowholes exhaling the foulest breath in creation: eau de rotten shrimp. They stayed with us, circling, playing, diving under and around our little boat, for almost an hour.
This book began with recipes. Frankie is a by-the-book cook, and a good one. Whenever a reliable rendition of a classic Julia Child production was called for, Frankie got the assignment. I liked to improvise. Experimenting was part of what made cooking enjoyable for me. Sometimes I pushed too far. Once I made a pate out of mussels that even the seagulls avoided. On occasion my creations turn out not half bad. Sometimes I placed a new dish in front of Frankie and she sniffed, nibbled, and said, "You've got to write this down."
One summer I started writing down recipes. When I concocted a fish stew or a bean salad that we agreed was good enough to serve to dinner guests, I'd go to my computer and write down the recipe while Frankie did the dishes. I hated doing dishes. Washing and drying dishes, I learned early in life, was a task adults dreamed up to torture little boys. My boyhood interest in cooking was motivated in no small measure by a desire to avoid dirty dishes duty. When I cooked, I was exempt from dishes, and this exemption I carried through life.
Since the recipes took only a couple of minutes to write down, I'd linger at the computer (while Frankie finished the dishes). To fill the time, I'd write the source of the ingredients for the recipes. I wrote about foraging in the woods for mushrooms and foraging in the village for groceries. My writing began to take the form of a journal. I put down the events of the day leading up to the meal and even my thoughts during the day. I wrote about what we talked about on walks. When we told stories about events from the past, I put those in too. I wrote down growing-up stories, cub-reporting stories, young-writer stories, war stories.
Quite early in this summer of recipe journalism, some very unusual things began to happen. As I included them in my journal, I thought that I might have the makings of a book. The book would be about a summer at Frankie's place. To write it, I realized, I would have to answer a question: what was so special about Frankie's place?
The question can be answered many ways. One answer was about location. Frankie's place was on the biggest island on the Maine coast. It is a beautiful island with an interesting history. I'd read several books about Mount Desert Island, Acadia National Park, and the Maine coast, but I didn't know enough. To supply this answer, I set to work reading everything I could find about Mount Desert, from the history of its geology to the history of its inhabitants. Among those inhabitants were some of Frankie's ancestors, and they lured me deeper into the library stacks and through books that took me back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and colonial Salem. All this became part of the story.
Another answer was about Frankie. Frankie's place couldn't be special to me without Frankie. The cozy house, the woods and water, the lovely views and the extraordinary island were part of a stage on which our relationship grew, and I knew that the story of that relationship would have to be part of my story as well.
Frankie's place was special to me for another obvious reason, but one I tried not to think about. Then one bizarre summer day I had no choice.
The day was August 23, 1991. It began at a small cemetery in the forest near Northeast Harbor where relatives and friends had gathered to bury the ashes of Frankie's mother. The morning, eight days after her death, was sunny, the wind still in the wake of a big storm that had battered its way up the coast and moved out to sea. The mourners, men in coats, ties, and white shirts, women in dark dresses, and children in shined shoes, gathered in clumps at the gravesite. The pastor said prayers. The mourners said their goodbyes. They took turns turning spade-fuls of dirt over a small tin box containing the ashes. Back at Frankie's place that evening, the phone rang. It was my uncle in Michigan. He said my father, my real father, was trying to find me. My uncle gave me a phone number. I called it as Frankie hovered at my shoulder.
"Hello," said the voice of a man I didn't know, a man who had disappeared from my life when I was two years old.
Discovering my father that night brought back painful memories. The life I told people I had lived was a kind of whirlwind of luck and adventure: growing up with relatives; then a stepfather on a farm; escaping to college and into journalism; travels to the far corners of the world as a foreign correspondent. It was exciting, but it wasn't the whole story. Something was missing: a home. I was a wanderer living in a suitcase.
Frankie's place let me unpack my socks, put them in the dresser, and feel at home.
Copyright © 2003 by Jim Sterba. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
Posted January 15, 2004
I, too, felt as though that each time I opened up the book I was right there on the island at Frankie's cabin. The writing was strong, the imagery vivid and real, and the stories told were enough to make me think of vacationing out there just to see that area in my own eyes. Mr. Sterba's ability to intertwine stories of past history of his life, Frankie's, and the island in with current happenings around their home was poetic and real. I highly recommend it!
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Posted September 5, 2003
I loved this book! It was as though I was at Frankie's Place, and I hated to leave when I had to put the book down. The descriptions, humor and wit make for a delightful trip with the author through parts of his life - before and after finding Frankie's Place.
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Posted May 27, 2011
This book was very boring. It was hard to get through it. I kept waiting for something to happen in the story but I was left disappointed.
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Posted March 31, 2010
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