Wednesday, November 25, 2009


On Thursday we drove to Maine for Thanksgiving dinner at my parent's house. It's a familiar drive. The familiar drive, in fact--the drive that the car practically does on its own. Up dreary I-95, through the two tolls only 17 miles apart (my dad calls the New Hampshire turnpike "the most expensive 17 miles in the country", though I'm sure he hasn't backed this up with research), over the bridge--
"We're in Maine"!

--off the turnpike at the Wells exit. Past the Wells House of Pizza and Roast Beef, past the Maine Diner, where my father, as a teenager newly without a mom, ate most of his meals, cooked by Louis and delivered by Millie, who threw all the silverware down in a bunch on the table with a cheerfully aggressive clatter. Down the long, straight, wooded stretch of Route 9, where my son, at two years old, once astutely observed, "There sure is a lot of sticks in Maine".

And then--vista!

Just past the turn to Parson's beach, the road crosses a tiny bridge at the mouth of the Mousam river. Misty, pungent marsh, river bordered by woods, and far off to the right, a glimpse of ocean--all understated, polite New England beauty; part scenery, part pathos. The beauty of the scene is half in its familiarity, and the relief of homecoming it signals--the long drive is over; we are almost home.

This was our last Thankgiving in the house where I grew up. After living there for 30 years, my parents have sold it, and bought a new house in Kennebunk, not very far away. Their new place is beautiful, conveniently situated, and full of possibilities. I'm ok with the move, I really am. I'm writing this not to scold them for moving, but to remember, and give thanks: for the old house and its comforts; for the town to which I feel deeply connected; and for my parents, who have, by example, taught me the meaning and importance of home.

Kennebunkport is a famous town--it was a summering place for the New England upper-crust back in the 1800's, long before the Bushes arrived. The old shingle-style summer "cottages" they built, bigger and grander than most people's year-round houses, are at once beautiful and infuriating to us locals of humbler origins. When I tell people I grew up in Kennebunkport, I feel I need to quickly qualify our position there: we are not fancy River Club summer people, but true locals: my father, the first in his family to go to college, taught elementary school there, his father--among other things--built boats and pulled lobster traps, his father's father was the local blacksmith, and so on, back through 5 generations to the first immigrant Hoff, a sailor about whom we know very little, except the old family legend that he jumped ship after killing a shipmate with a belaying pin.

It's a small village, and almost as soon as we moved there from Kennebunk, when I was 10, I was given the freedom to roam around the town and the ocean. Every so often, I like to bore my husband as we walk around by telling him how many of the houses in town I have been inside, and why--friend's houses, relative's houses, houses on my paper route, houses I babysat in, houses I cleaned as a summer job. There are a lot of them, enough to make my husband beg me to stop before I'm nearly finished.

I can also bore him with family landmarks. At the end of our street is a small stone grotto built by my great uncle Benjamin, who was a stone mason.
Down that same road, near the river, there's a condominium in the spot where my great-grandfather's blacksmith shop once stood. The antique fire engine he built is still maintained by the fire department and trotted out every few years for the Memorial Day parade, "C. Hoff" painted in gold on the side. Across the river are shops where my grandfather's boatyard used to be. My father remembers, as a boy, helping his other grandfather, an electrician, to rewire the house in which they now live.

My parent's house sits on a road that winds alongside a small tidal creek. The house itself was probably nothing special when it was built in 1911--a solid, middle-sized house, for solid, middle-income people. It has a narrow, well-loved porch, front and side. In front is a tall ash tree, where my father built a tiny treehouse, a perch, really, for my sister when she was little. When my own children were small, my parents hung a swing from a long rope on one of its branches. In the fall, my dad would rake a huge pile of leaves right in front of the swing, and let the kids go crashing through the pile. The house is cozy, welcoming, sufficient. It's almost impossible to see it as it is, rather, I see the house as it was, and myself in it, as I was.

This is the kitchen where my father rustled around before dawn every morning for 4 years, to make me breakfast before high school. This is where my mother nursed me through bronchitises and mono, and my sister and I created hilarious-only-to-us poems and photo essays. This is the house where I brought my husband 18 years ago, to hasten the job of explaining my previous life to him. Here, I dressed for my wedding, and brought my newborn sons to meet the family. Here we have eaten a hundred big family dinners-- the recipes, and smells, and progression of the day always the same, the cast of characters always slightly different, children growing up, adults growing older.

As a young woman, I was transient, as young people often are now. I've lived in 15 different apartments and houses since I left for college in 1986. My older son moved six times in his first six years of life. The house in Kennebunkport, with my parents in it, was the constant through all those moves, the anchor that allowed me the luxury of drifting. When I think of myself in all of those different places, it's nearly impossible to see my life and self as a single, linear story, unfractured. With each invigorating, depleting move, I gained something, and shed something of myself. But I had a lingering sense that my original self was still stored away in that house, the street, the town. When I carry the last box of my things that are stored there to my own house, maybe that will be my final step into adulthood, after an absurdly protracted and spoiled adolescence.

On Friday afternoon, as we were getting ready to leave, I told my son he might want to go through the house and take some pictures, as it was likely to be the last time he would be there, at least with everything in its place. He insisted he would remember it all perfectly, that it was unnecessary to take pictures. I still made him photograph the fold-down ironing board in the kitchen, and the china cabinet I painted one summer, with its familiar bric-a-brac.

He took some pictures on his own, too, that I hope he will find in 10 or 40 years, and be glad to have. When it was time to go, we said goodbye quickly, got into the dark car, and, like good New Englanders, cried only when we were pretty sure nobody could see.

For all my sentimentality, I realize that this is a relatively small loss, and a common one. None of us is sick, destitute, or miserable. My parents, the core of that house's importance, are fine--wonderful even!--rejuvenated by this change, at a time in their lives they'd almost given up on big new adventures. I have roots in Kennebunk, too--it's where I was born, where I went to high school, and where my mother grew up--I can easily bore my husband with stories about this new old place. And I really am a grown-up now, with a home of my own, and some shallow, delicate roots, but roots nonetheless, starting to grow in my new place. I'll be fine.

And I'll remember.

Thanks, house.


thelittlethings said...

I'm pretty sure no one's looking, so I'll shed a tear, too. You've made me terribly homesick for a place I've spent more years away from than living in; it still pulls me, though, having spent those school-age years. The impressions that were made went deep. I remember your parents' house well and it is one of the landmarks in my increasingly foggy memory of a life I lived several lifetimes ago.

Thanks for the stroll down memory lane.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. A warm, savory blog, with a warm fire, a favorite dog, and a great book.

My parents are moving for the third time. It reminded me that I have become attached to the second place; which surprised me.

Thank you for sharing this poignant story. KellyM

Sara Padrusch said...

That was so lovely Amy, I really enjoyed it! I love that house. You will have dreams about that house, so it only seems that you will never visit it again. I suspect that the dreams you have of your sister and parents, your boys and Sean, will bring you back many times.

Thanks for writing. I loved it!

anne57 said...

Oh Amy. This is lovely. Really and truly. Thank you for writing it and sharing it.