If there is a picture of homecoming that is etched on my heart, it’s the sun setting over Belfast harbor on an August evening. I see one set of lights like the ones you see when you come around the bend in a road and catch sight of your city, illuminated, and your heart lifts up, but then I see another set of lights in the trembling reflections in the water, bursting as we pass and disappearing in our wake.
If I have an anthem, it is the thrum of a motor, the seashell swish of the murky water (quieting for the evening as the wind lies down) rushing by the hull. It is the deep clanging of the red bell buoy by the ledge as it rocks in our wake.
Happiness tastes like salt on my skin, in my hair, in the warm shore breeze, in the very fabric of the comforter wrapped around my shoulders.
It’s a sunburn, the rocking of the earth when you come ashore after days on the water, salt ocean stinging a barnacle-cut foot, a three-strand dock line passing over a palm.
We spent last week in Maine with my family, mostly on the boat. Dad said my eyes got bluer with every passing day, and I could feel the cotton clearing from my chest cavity, the fog clearing from my mind. Summer in Maine is a pure shot of light.
Incidentally, as my father was snapping the above picture from the bridge, he was running the boat aground on a sandbar. The tide was outgoing, and it was a bit of a disaster.
Bre, Tim, Sean and I invited my folks to join us for dinner, and we had a spare tent set up for them in no time. We wrapped potatoes and corn in foil and roasted hot dogs over the fire. Bre played her ukulele and we sang along. The sunset, the smoke, and the sound of waves on the beach were soothing, and we soon retired to our tent. Mom and dad didn’t sleep: they spent an anxious night hoping Islander wouldn’t roll and then waiting for the tide to come back in to float her again.
I woke in our tent at midnight to the sound of the waves of the incoming tide burping through the swim platform. I unzipped the door and looked out at the great hull, glittering in the moonlight. Dad was rowing the dinghy around on captain’s business, and mom stood on the beach, watching. I threw some wood on the embers of the fire and walked down to the water. Glowing algae was spilling off dad’s oars like smoke. I splashed my hands in the water and they glittered.
We dragged the kayak down the beach, and I woke Sean up to paddle around a bit. It was eerie, coasting behind the beached trawler, lit only by the helm LEDS. It felt like a ghostly shipwreck: the only sound was the slapping of wavelets against the hull and the swish of the kayak pushing aside the water. It was beautiful though: the campfire glittered at the high tide line, the wake and every dip of a paddle lit with bioluminescence, and the sky was full of sparkle. I stood on the beach with my mom and watched for shooting stars. We saw a few, and before long the tide had lifted the boat back to a float and my parents took off to anchor nearby for the night. I sat by the fire and watched for a few more shooting stars.
In the morning, we had breakfast tacos, which consisted of scrambled eggs and bacon stuffed in pancakes. No plates needed! It’s been a while since I’ve been luxury camping. How delightful to have a frying pan and a cooler! We went swimming and paddling and gathered sand dollars on the sandbar, and in the afternoon we said goodbye to our friends in Buck’s Harbor.
For the next few days, we explored Merchant’s Row. Sean and I dinghied into Stonington for a few more jugs of water and some lobsters, and we anchored off of McGlathery, which is reputed to have a wild sheep population. We didn’t run across any woolies, but the island was beautiful, and Hell’s Half Acre, our next anchorage, was, if anything, more beautiful still.
On our last night, I stepped out on deck to brush my teeth. The tintype moon hung in a fog sky, and my heart cracked. Maine is my native country, and it’s beautiful, and I will go back someday to my home by the sea.
I’m writing from the upstairs balcony of the beach house that Sean’s family has rented for the week. Sean’s Granny turned 90 years old today, and her seven children and their children are here to celebrate. There is a warm breeze blowing across my bare toes and I can hear waves crashing on the beach and younger cousins giggling down below. If it were daytime, I’d be on the lookout for pelicans and sailors on the horizon, but for now I’m just enjoying the dark and letting the salt in the air and the starched ruffle sound of the surf heal my long homesickness for the Atlantic.
There are thirty of us here, all of them Sean’s aunts, uncles, cousins, and inlaws, with a few outlaws like me for flavor. I’m still working on getting the names and relationships straight, though I’ve met most of them before. The aunts have done a tremendous job at the helm of this operation: with thirty in one house, organization is key. There is a schedule for cooking duty and cleanup crew, and everyone was assigned a sleeping-spot before we arrived. A pullout couch in the basement was designated for Sean and me, but last night we dragged our mattress off of the uncomfortable frame and laid it out on the pool deck. We crashed quickly, exhausted from a long sunburnt day of swimming and reading and bocce on the beach. Our eyelids fell closed on stars that glittered like mica in the sky, while to our drifting-off ears the hush and whisper of waves on the beach fell silent.
The sunrise woke us – I love sleeping out! – and we dozed and woke and watched the sky brighten and dozed off again. Some of the uncles and cousins went surf fishing this morning, and rumor has it that someone caught a small shark. Sean has promised to take me tomorrow. I can’t wait to leap out of bed and get salty first thing
Because today was the big birthday and Sean was on dinner-duty, we spent much of the day in the kitchen making cupcakes. There was a respite in the afternoon, so we played in the water for a while and then constructed what became easily the best sandcastle I’ve had a part in for ten years. Sean built a bridge over a river and made sure to have farms for food security and huts for the peasants, while his cousin Matt built gorgeous crenellations along the exterior wall and I erected a tower for the inner keep.
Sean’s Granny is an astonishing lady, and it is a pleasure to know her. She’s more alive at 90 than many elders are at 70, and, although I have met her only once or twice before, she has taught me essential lessons about pinochle, which is a foundational life skill. More importantly, I have her to thank for the man who has become my partner.
She and Sean have been talking for nearly an hour now. The birthday feast was laid out on the deck, and I can look down to where they’re still sitting side by side. The dishes, and now the tables and chairs, have been cleared away around them, but they still have their heads bent in, their shoulders a hair’s breadth apart, for all the world as if they haven’t yet realized that the party has burned down to the ember of their conversation. I can’t hear their voices over the waves, but their hands are talking, each gesturing in turn. It’s lovely to see, so I think I’m going to perch up here for a while longer, drinking in this sweet, warm, North Carolina night.