By Matt Mittan
Every once in a while, I think back to when I would spend summers at my grandparents’ Maine home. It was a beautiful old house with a big red barn and vast field in the back, extending into the distance. The hard blue of Frenchman’s Bay peeked in through the tall pines that lined the shore. Over to the right, across the bay, were the mammoth mountains of Mt Desert Island. Her windswept rocky crests stood tall above the cold waters of the North Atlantic, with lush New England forests serving as the backdrop of her rugged shoreline. I go back to that place often in my mind, whenever I need an escape, a safe place that offers me peace and tranquility.
Many ‘firsts’ took place there. My first solo adventure, absent parental supervision and protection. My first genuine responsibilities that required physical effort. My first time sailing. My first memory of being taught real discipline. My first love. And my first broken heart. I also first started to grasp the bigger picture of family and devotion, sacrifice and loyalty, compassion and firmness, compromise and taking a stand.
These lessons and life experiences obviously developed and occurred in many places and circumstances other than at the home in Maine. There was just something magic about being there. I absorbed and truly understood things more clearly after spending time there. Even at an early age, I can remember sitting alone atop a rock cliff shore, just down the hill from my grandparents’ house, and having significant epiphanies. I remember gazing out upon the mountainous shoreline, seeing a couple of porpoises swim by, breaking the surface in unison, or a lonely harbor seal poke his head up, with his thick whiskers and large dark eyes surveying what I was doing. The cool salty breeze tickling the pores of my skin, the sound of waves crashing onto the crushed seashell and worn stone shore. The fresh smell of old pines, mixed with the tidal wash. The early morning calm, where the ancient bay resembled a sturdy sheet of glass stretching into the horizon. A wall of fog rolling in from the sea so dense and white that you thought it might have solid mass behind its edge. These moments were not rare, they were the norm. Comprehension and discernment of life events came easily to me in these settings.
The countless hours our family spent picking wild blueberries, so that Nannie could cook up her famous muffins, pancakes or jam. The latenight games of cribbage, UNO and Monopoly around the dining room table with my cousins, aunts and uncles. (We didn’t have TV or Radio readily available there.) The feast or famine joy of Mackerel fishing off the pier. Skipping flat, sea worn stones out at Bennett’s Point. The old duck pond, with its miniature duck church. Digging through the mud flats, uncovered by the outgoing tide. The pure shock, disgust and awe I felt the first time I saw my Grandfather shuck and swallow a raw clam. The collective family effort to maintain the large old house and barn, garden and landscaping. Collecting baskets full of chestnuts at the end of each season to sell to the craft folks in town. Sneaking into my Aunt Dottie’s unbelievable Raspberry patch that sat under the ever-watchful glance of Cadillac Mountain. The old ghost stories about Capt. Winterbothem, the seaman who built our home in the mid 1800’s, and whose penciled messages still adorn the interior walls of the old barn, along with each subsequent generation’s family autographs since – including my own as a child. All these singular events and routines, combined with the whole, helped shape who I am, how I look at life and how I relate with others.
I will soon make the trip northward again with my youngest son, for the first time in five years, and this will be the first time there for my Partner Michele and my 14-year-old step-daughter. I’ve played a thousand scenarios in my head of what I want them to see, where I want to take them, the stories I want them to hear. Will they be interested? Will they grow bored with my sentimental reflections?
There’s a sense of urgency on my part to introduce them to the splendors of the place that served up so much joy to me through the years. The settings and the spirit of the area and the people seem to be fading. The bonds of family seem to be thinning. The sense of neighborly bonding seems to be burdensome to newcomers. I worry that, as each year passes, so do the opportunities to share with them the experiences that were so magical to me. The AirBnB roster is filled with pictures from inside homes that I knew as family homes and neighbors houses as a child, now owned by investors from far away. Has that changed the vibe of the area?
That is the weight I have troubled myself with. Whether I’m being frivolous, or my fears are just, only time will tell. But my heart tells me that it is approaching the time where I will have one last dance with this pristine area, capturing its image in my family’s mind and then saying goodbye.
And there persists a feeling that the unity that helped to build and sustain this precious home through the last 160+ years may not survive the passing of the torch through the next generation either. The fear of the change that is occurring all around the area has paralyzed some from letting the next generation take a hold and help. That is unfortunate. As a great, great grandchild of this legacy, now about to be a grandfather myself, I have little more I can do than to quietly reflect and appreciate the heavenly nature of the place and to offer up thanks that I had the opportunity to enjoy its blessings. I hope to pass that warmth along to my own posterity so that they may gain a respect for such natural treasures and so that they can feel the pride of being a part of something much bigger, deeper, and lasting, than what they see in the fast-paced world we live in today.
I first journeyed there as an infant. I was held in the laps of many family members long since gone. My great-Grandmother, of whom I still have sweet memories, was born in the late 1800’s. She shared countless stories, hugs, and kisses with us at this place and about this place. My own mother, who spent her youth traveling to this northern home, now returns as a great grandmother herself. So now, my turn has come to make the trip as my Line is set to initiate another generation, it would be the seventh generation in my 50-year lifetime to sleep within our homes’ hallowed walls.
I pray that we might enjoy, together, watching the sun set on this, my heart’s home, before it is gone. With a little bit of effort and some old-fashioned caring, the magical tales of splendor that this home has witnessed and authored will not be surrendered to what Lincoln called ‘the silent artillery of time’, as so many other family treasures have before now.
Each family has memories, traditions and tales that they abandon for a thousand separate reasons. Which of those do you have that you don’t want to die with you? Pass them along to your children and grandchildren. Dig deep for your vaguest recollections and start there. The kids you tell today will remember and appreciate the stories later in life. It means more than just the simple telling of the story itself. It’s family. It’s heritage. It offers a personal history. It’s the very foundation that a hearts’ home is built upon.
Matt Mittan is the owner of Biz Radio Asheville and Co-Host of the Matt & Michele Outdoors program. Visit www.MattMittan.com for more information and to contact him.