Maine summerhouses never really get new owners.
By Susan Conley
In the 1970s my parents bought a Maine summer cottage from a tiny bird of a woman named Helen. She was the type of maverick that the coast of Maine is still lucky to attract, a stalwart who loved the land and lived alone, deep in the woods, without running water or electricity every summer of her life until she died there.
Buying the camp was the biggest financial stretch any set of parents on a shoestring can make in one lifetime, but what a wondrous stretch it was for my mom and dad. There were actually three cottages in their purchase and sale agreement — all part of a boys’ camp that Helen’s parents built in the fishing warren of West Point, mid-way up the coast. (Her parents had fallen in love with a fish shack on their honeymoon to West Point and jumped at the chance to buy it, plus twenty acres of Norway pines the shack sat on.)
The year was 1900 when the camp opened for business and the city boys who Helen’s father taught in New York began making the pilgrimage north. Helen inherited the camp and began to rename things. The dorm became the Waldorf. The house Helen lived in all those summers as a director’s daughter became known as the Castle.
I can tell you all this because I got to meet Helen in a series of Sundays back in 1978 while she decided if my parents and my brother and sister and I were up to snuff. That is to say, were we the right flavor of Mainers to sell her camp to?
She had stipulations. We had to be Mainers, and we had to swear to never ever build condos on the land. And we had to have the right names. So far, so good, but when Helen met my mother, a tall schoolteacher from away named Thorne, we hit a roadblock. Until Helen renamed my mother, too.
“Long-stemmed American Rose” was the full name she gave my mother. Sometimes she just called my Mom, “Rose,” for short. Helen explained she couldn’t sell the place to a mother named Thorne. “Too prickly,” she said. “Too hard.”
I was eight when we took a right turn down the long dirt road for the first time and made our way to the Waldorf. It was a scorching July day and Helen, who grew more eccentric with each passing year, had recently had her pine floors painted black and had permanently closed the thick velvet curtains to keep out the heat.
On that day she served us orange sherbet in ornate, pink parfait glasses. I remember how dark the dining room seemed after the blinding light of the fat July sun. Until my eyes adjusted, I could hardly make her out in all the finery — stockings and heels, plus a mink stole. Then Helen said she wanted to see us swim. “Could we do that for her?” Why yes, we could.
There was a metal ladder bolted to the granite face of the cliff. My brother and I slowly climbed into the water and hung off the last rung, bobbing in the surge. Then Helen clapped her small hands and laughed and said, “Yes, yes, yes.”
What my parents bought that year were the old cottages with their sturdy bones, and the tall, narrow outhouses like sentries in the woods. But I’ve come to think of the purchase as more of an open adoption. Because I’m not sure that Maine summerhouses ever really get new owners. Nor am I convinced that Helen ever left the camp — perhaps we’re just on very good terms with her ghost. Call it a kind of collective stewardship, a cabal of all the past owners of the houses and cabins and camps and cottages who loved the place as much as we do.
There’s a long, shallow, white porcelain sink in the Castle where I gave both my boys their summer baths. Toddlers and ten-year-olds and a posse of older cousins roam the land and launch cannonballs off the float. Every summer we pull into the drive and unpack our cars and begin a vacation of the mind. We unplug until we’re grounded again and the past and future and present begin to conflate.
Helen gave us this — plus a whole lot of wicker furniture that she also rashly painted black. There are photographs that hang in the kitchen of the Waldorf, snapshots of the troupes of campers who came before us. Here is one of the boys smiling on the buckling wooden steps. Here are a half-dozen of them diving off the rocks into the glinting sea.