A wooded path of scrub oak and pine leads me from my parked truck to the beach. In winter the gnarled trees are bare, leaving the low angle of light to peer its way without obstruction through this coastal forest. The ground is layered with brown oak leaves. Oak, the last to fall, holds on with tenacity, sometimes all the way through a New England winter. It is winter but no snow has fallen yet. The leaves remain dry and crunchy under my feet. I walk as I have walked a thousand times before, alone towards the sea. I walk and each time it feels like coming home. Each time I am equally taken by the simple beauty and peace that the short walk brings me. Each time I feel that I belong here.
Along the path where the oak and pine stop and the beach plum and poison ivy begin, an old split rail fence meanders its way out of the shaded woods and into the cold sunshine. The poison ivy that shimmers with intimidation in the summer seems bland and harmless on this winter day. I do not look at with the resentment I would in the summer. A tattered T-shirt hangs from a fence post and a solitary sandal sits in the sand. Today traversing this sand dune is easy, but in the heat of mid august the grains spill over onto each other burying your bare feet step after step. I think of summer days I spent here with my family. My parents would sit in beach chairs in the sand while my brother and I would float on rafts and play in the small surf. In those days we packed picnics of plums and crackers and listened to playoff basketball games on neighboring radios. In those days the Celtics won championships and Lambert’s Cove meant something different.
In part it was growing up, and in part it was my parents splitting up, but in young adulthood Lambert’s Cove Beach became an essential part of me. I turned inward as I never had before and sought the quiet and solitude that I found there alone. Home had become a place I no longer wanted to be. The urban condo my parents moved into was lovely, but inside the air was stale. There were few meals and holidays, less laughter and signs of contentment. It wasn’t a home, but rather a house where we lived as four individuals, not really a family. The playful days that we all knew well were slowly slipping away and being replaced by a silenced unhappiness. My parents had been disenchanted with each other for years and with their kids leaving the house, not always thrilled to come home, they were finally beginning to acknowledge it.
Soon we stopped going to the beach as a family and my visits became something I did on my own. I chose as often as I could, to drive the hour and half south to Woods Hole and cross on a familiar ferry, the Vineyard Sound. Once there, looking down over the railing at the foaming Atlantic, my mind would clear and quietly ease itself out of the complicated scenario that life had become elsewhere. The more complicated things became the more I resisted, and this solo journey became not just an enjoyment but a necessity. When I left the mainland I could breathe again.
Alone on the beach I could really listen to the waves and look with careful attention at every stone and shell as I passed them by. Having finished high school, unimpressed by the idea of college, but unsure of what to do; I was filled with questions that nobody was helping me answer. On the beach I allowed my body to fill with the nourishment I knew I needed in order to head out into the world again and attempt to make sense of it. I fell in love with solitary September beach days when the water was warm and the sun slightly cooled. I would walk a mile out past Paul’s Point and stake out a spot with no one in sight except the lobster boat off shore, and the cormorants drying themselves on rocks. With a towel and only sometimes a book I would bask and swim and feel peace, all alone. Soon September stretched into October, November, December and all the way through the winter. I always found a way to make it back to the beach. The luxury of soaking in warm sun turned into the unmatchable exhilaration I was to find from a winter walk on the beach. The beach in winter brings with it a clarity not present at other times of the year. In winter the beach is even more my own. The wind blows past my ears as the cove welcomes large whitecapped breaks. My eyes penetrate across the sound and easily focus on the neighboring island of Naushon. The colors are bright, the footprints few, and the loud wind and water focus my attention on my next step. I gaze out over James’ Pond whose brackish water meets the sea at high tide. Swans float on the pond in summer, but in winter its surface remains empty and still, protected from the ocean by dunes covered in slender beach grass whose tips draw circles in the sand as they move with the wind. When I was younger I didn’t notice these details and with each visit I paid closer and closer attention, becoming familiar with something new. The dusty miller that grows out of sun bleached stones, the razor clam shells in August, the jellyfish in October, the water irises that bloom near the fresh water that flows into the ocean from inland, and the cottage tucked back in the woods that the bare winter trees reveal. When I was younger I did not have the eyes to see these things; I was distracted by the happenings of a contented family. Only when the contentment became less, and I was driven to solitude did the beach’s true beauty reveal itself. Each time I returned I marveled at how the beach had somehow changed since the last time I was there. Stones were piled in different places, the tide carved out a new line in the sand, the water a new shade of green. I looked forward to the change, no matter what it was, and the simple enjoyment of noticing what was different.
While my family was morphing into something new and unfamiliar, I found clarity on Lambert’s Cove. There, walking alone, pushed forward by the driving wind, things made sense. I felt like I knew something that mattered. The rest of my life felt like a scattered conglomerate of people and places with no thread that tied them together or secured them to something solid. In and out of college, and constantly leaving and coming back from various traveling adventures I was searching idealistically for the unattainable. I was both physically and mentally unable to stay still. It was not entirely my crumbling family that made me live this way, it was simply who I needed to be at the time. I went places, I met people, I experienced things for the first time. But, no matter where I was going or returning from, Lambert’s Cove was there to send me off and welcome me home. I knew very well that I needed this place.
The last Thanksgiving my parents spent together our family gathered at our house up the road from the beach. I convinced them to celebrate the holiday there. I wanted the holiday to feel like coming home, coming home to a place that held more than my parent’s apartment. This was the house where our memories were and the holiday gathering was an attempt to make us feel like a family again.
On Thanksgiving morning I went for a walk to the beach. I left the bustle of preparation and again entered my own world. I walked farther than usual that day, almost all the way around James’ Pond. I approached a house with many windows that faced the sea. It was empty, its owners gathering around another dinning table on this day. I wondered who they were and what they felt about the beach that lay before them. Did they come here to find the same solitude I did, or were they still building sandcastles and splashing in waves? I will never know but to this day on my annual Thanksgiving walk I think about that house and the family I stood and contemplated that morning.
My cousins were arriving at the house, and I wanted to head back to greet them, but something held me there where nobody knew where I was. I walked to the top of the small dune that separates the fresh from salt water, and skipped stones at their confluence. With each stone I was postponing my return. Nobody knew of the intimate relationship I had cultivated with this place, and I was not going to choose now to share it with them. In an effort to bring things together I was actually isolating myself. On the beach that morning I separated myself from my family, creating an even deeper rift between the person I was as daughter, granddaughter, sister, cousin, and niece, and the individual I was in my own head, walking on the beach on a November morning.
I eventually walked back to the house where the holiday was getting underway. My mother’s sister and her family have always brought lightness and laughter to our own, and despite our unhappiness this holiday would be no different. For now, for this day, I was happy to enjoy it and to pretend to be a family that worked. The word divorce had yet to be spoken, and when it was eight months later it would come as huge shock to family and friends of both generations. We had been pretending for years, all of us, hanging onto a previous notion of family, one drastically different from the one that existed today. This Thanksgiving was one of our last efforts to hang on successfully.
I cooked garlic mashed potatoes that today are still talked about; we played board games on the living room floor, and made a late night trip into town for ice cream. I remember the laughter of my cousins, the peculiar comments from my uncle, the quiet presence of my grandparents, and my mom making sure everyone was comfortable. Who I don’t remember clearly is my father. In recent years his presence at this house had become less, choosing stay in the city while my mom and I, separately and occasionally together, became the unofficial caretakers of the house on Lambert’s Cove. In less than a year the house would belong to my mother, and slowly be transformed back into a home where a family gathered.
By the time I was twenty-two I was quite familiar with periodic trips to the beach and it had been a number of years since I had brought someone with me to Lambert’s Cove. Living way up north in Vermont during the thick of a sticky divorce, my friends were used to me disappearing on Friday afternoons only to return on Sunday with sand in my boots and stones in my pockets. The beach remained something I didn’t want to share, not because I didn’t want anyone else to enjoy it, but rather because I felt no one would have the same appreciation for it as I did, and more importantly, I still needed it all for myself. With a companion I would lose focus and potentially not be able to receive all the support and guidance that it had given me time and time again. To bring someone with me was to take a risk I was not yet ready to take.
In the years that followed my I befriended a fisherman named Matt Breuer. He made me laugh the way my cousins only did. On long drives around the Northeast Kingdom in his truck we talked endlessly about our lives, and one spring he joined me for the six -hour drive south to Woods Hole. We arrived at night to an empty house. My mom, still in between lives, had not yet settled into the house and I knew this would be one of my last opportunities to be there on my own terms. “The house” was still an ambiguous place to which no one really took ownership or complete responsibility. It remained there on Lambert’s Cove Road, waiting for sporadic visits from my mother and me.
Inside we turned up the heat, opened a bottle of wine, and quickly adjusted to the coastal environment. The Lowell Mountains and fresh water lakes of the North Country already seemed far, far away. Always eager for movement, Matt had us in my truck and heading down to the beach only shortly after we relaxed. On the short drive down to the beginning of the path I only half realized what I was doing. I knew I was about to take someone to my beach and that it was something I had intentionally not done in a while, but the gaiety I felt in my friend’s company that night and always made it hard for me to acknowledge, or care much about the significance. I realize now looking back, that this night was the beginning of a gradual letting go of what I had tightly held onto as solely my own.
The night was deep and dark. A slivered moon hung low on the horizon. Resisting the urge to describe everything to Matt before he experienced it himself I simply kept quiet and listened to him ramble on, taken by the silhouette of the scrub oak trees whose twisted growth was unfamiliar to him. We walked together crunching our mud-crusted boots on the thin ice. As we crested the dune the expanse of Lambert’s Cove lay in front of us. Standing there next to Matt, the wind blowing strong off shore, I felt like I was giving it all to him. I knew what it meant to me and the essence of that would never change, but from this moment on I would take great joy in sharing. Matt could not understand this, nor did I try to explain. It was not that he needed what Lambert’s Cove had to offer, but rather that I needed it less and had more to give. Very slowly, my own life was beginning to make more sense. I still had no idea what I wanted from it or how to go about figuring that out, but mentally the gears had shifted down slightly and I felt better prepared to face the unanswered questions. It was because of people like Matt who offered me a place, usually the cab of his truck, where I felt I belonged.
We walked to the right towards the Splitrock that lies just offshore past Makoniky Head. The night was remarkably still, little movement of wind and water. The lighthouse flashed red on the tip of the mainland and everything else was quiet. I delighted in his delight and for the first time since the summer days on rafts with my brother, this experience was not my own.
Later that spring my mother officially quit her job and moved into the old farmhouse on Lambert’s Cove alone. She spent that first summer transforming a house full of scattered memorabilia into her home. She painted the walls of the den red, the living room yellow, and covered the Pink Floyd mural my brother painted in the “bunk room” with lavender. Furniture came in a truck from the mainland and replaced the sun bleached, torn and stained couches and chairs that had been sufficient since 1980. Old art projects, batik tapestries, and children’s books were packed or thrown away. By the fall it did not resemble the house that had provided me with the best of my childhood memories, nor the house I later learned to look to when I was in need of comfort and grounding. I struggled with this change as I was slowly losing the only place that held any representation of my past. I resisted each renovation as it happened, but gradually as my mom became more comfortable I realized “the house” had become somebody’s home, my mother’s home. It hurt me more to resist than to accept this. I paused the first time I said I’m going to “my mom’s.” It was a reference I was not familiar with, but was welcoming into my vocabulary.
In October of that year I moved in temporarily with my mother. I would live there, saving money, until after the holidays when I would travel to Italy for an extended stay. We learned to live together again, still as mother and daughter, but this time as friends and as women. With the landslide of divorce still freshly sliding down us both, we were adjusting to a different idea of family. It was not always easy and still comes with its complications, but this is not a story about divorce, but rather about a place and its presence during a time of significant change.
Gradually my New Yorker mother began to slow down and enjoy the pace of life a small island in the off-season had to offer her. She sat in her robe and slippers in her kitchen, drank tea, and watered her orchids. She listened to Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra and made herself the martini she could never before enjoy without a headache. She built fires in the fireplace and fell asleep to BBC television. And, she took walks with me on Lambert’s Cove. In the morning before I would head off to work she and I took her car down to the lot and parked next to the overgrown rhododendron bush. At first, like I felt with Matt Breuer, I gave it all to her. I watched her absorb this familiar place with new eyes. I took her on walks she had never been on, to vantage points of the Sound she had never seen. We would meander down private dirt roads that eventually turned to all sand and stand on the top of a wooden staircase whose support beams had buckled from the pounding of the last big storm. Intimidated by my refusal to acknowledge NO TRESPASSING signs, she followed quietly behind me. Always however, the destination was worth breaking the rules that in the middle of winter on an island full of summer homes, are really meant to be broken. Standing there we followed the whole stretch of the north shore coastline with our eyes. An osprey flew over its nest on the cliff to our right and a ferry pushed towards the mainland. We were both thankful we were not on it.
My mother was gaining an understanding of the beach I had grown to call my own and gradually, the more I gave, the less I felt like the experience belonged only to me. For a time in my life I needed this place; it was the only place that made me feel whole. I could hardly afford to share it with others, for that meant sharing a piece of myself. I did not have enough of an understanding of what that meant to let it go. My mom learned to appreciate what that time was like for me, and the difference I felt between the rest of the world and Lambert’s Cove Beach. She was getting to know that difference herself.
That year I found another home in Italy. I discovered a piece of myself that seemed to be waiting over there for me. I found a rhythm I felt at ease with, a language I loved to learn, a landscape that felt familiar, and family members I’d never known. Full of stories for another time, it was a period in which I settled in even more to the ever- evolving person I am meant to be. When I came home I felt I stood on firmer ground, knowing myself more intimately than ever. When I returned to Lambert’s Cove I could tell that my mom had done the same. For her it was not the exploration of an ancestral connection, but rather sinking in and creating on her own, what she will for a long time call home. On her hands and knees digging with a trowel in the soil, I watched her as she planted zinnias and peonies in her garden. I knew I had come home to my mom’s house and I knew it was no longer a representation of what was, but rather what was to come.
Walking on the beach together on a late August morning, my mom showed me what the beach had done for her. She walked with confidence down the path and kicked off her sandals by the split rail fence. We walked to the right towards the Splitrock and dropped our things. After warming up in the sun on her towel in the sand, she stood up and walked slowly towards the water. I watched her tiptoe cautiously over the stones that littered the shoreline and dive under a small wave. Slowly she swam across the cove, stroke after deliberate stroke. She knew where she was. She was home on the beach in a way that in the last decade, I had not seen her be at home anywhere.
During that summer I received a postcard from Matt Breuer. It was sent from Alaska during the end of his guiding season.
How’s it going? Alaska is good. The fishing is great
and I’m working my ass off as usual. I hope you’re
having a good summer. When I get back in October I
want to come down to the island and hang out with you
and your mom.
I was touched that my mom’s house was a place Matt thought of far away from home. He had told me once that it was one of his favorite places to visit. When he did make it back from Alaska I unfortunately could not get away. But for Matt, going to my mom’s felt enough like going home that he went without me. He called me one night while sharing a dinner of wild Alaskan salmon with my mother and said he planned to take a walk on the beach when they were through. I was sorry I wasn’t there but happy he was. I said goodbye and made him promise he would come up to Boston to see me on his way home.
As my mom’s life had moved away from the rumble of the city and slowed down to a pace with more breathing room, my life did the opposite. I have learned somehow to thrive on this lack of breathing room in a way I never before thought possible. In the city my schedule is packed academically, professionally, and socially. I hardly have enough time to think about what I am missing elsewhere, and for the first time in a while I feel like I have a true home, one that I am not overly eager to leave. Rarely these days do I cross the boarder of Massachusetts, and my trips across the Vineyard Sound have become something I do on special occasions. Hanging on the bulletin board in my kitchen where I pass numerous times a day is a picture of Lambert’s Cove. It was taken on New Years Day a few years ago. The quality of color does not match the quality present on that winter day, but it is a reminder of the clarity I have always found there. At times while I’m standing in front of the stove waiting for my espresso I gaze at the photograph somewhat longingly. It is still my home and it still defines me, but the difference is, I no longer need it. It is enough that it exists. Inevitably my clock’s minute hand moves and I too must move on, out of the house and into my day which rarely consists of a solitary walk on the beach.
On brilliant days in any season it is not unheard of to get a phone message from my mom saying that she is just back from a walk on the beach. She is calling of course not to make me jealous, but because she knows that we share the same appreciation for what the experience means. On days when I am underground riding the subway, or classroom bound I cannot help but be a little jealous. But more so I am happy for her, happy that she has what she needs, understands that she needs it, and knows that I once needed it too.
Last summer I shuffled though a basket of note cards on sale in a gift shop. On the cover of one was a reprinted painting of a woman near water. It was not so much the painting that drew me in, but rather the words. We go to the sea to find ourselves again. I bought it for my mom and on the inside wrote a note of thanks.
I will return to Lambert’s Cove this year on Christmas Eve with my brother. My mom will be waiting for us. In the late afternoon just before the sun goes down I will head off to the beach alone. My mom will be in town selling last minute Christmas presents to her best customers, and my brother will be too cold and opt to putter about the house making preparations for dinner. Alone on the beach on Christmas Eve I will walk, perhaps out past Paul’s Point, making the most of my visit. The wind will blow and the waves will crash as they have on a hundred winter walks. I will be greeted by smiles and Christmas wishes from other walkers home for the holidays. I do not anticipate my mind rinsing through my complicated life, because as it seems right now, it is not that complicated. Full and challenging yes, but complicated? Not as it was.
Instead of relief I will be overcome with a feeling of gratitude for all that has been given to me, and all that I have been able to let go. I will notice, as I have learned to do, that each time I return here it looks different than the last time. This very fact will remind me again that everything, everyone is forever changing. Before turning back I will stand on the top of the dune and look out over the Sound, James’ Pond, and the tip of the mainland. I will try to take it all in and hold it, but I will know that it’s already there. I will turn and lunge down the other side of the dune. The oppressive sound of the wind will ease as I enter the woods. I will walk back along the path of scrub oak and pine to my truck where the keys will dangle in the ignition where I left them. Back at my mom’s house, my brother and I will open a bottle of Montepulciano and wait for our mother to join us.