Some books shake us, make us tremble, hold us in their fierce grip, force a reckoning. I finish Sarah Blake’s The Guest Book on the settee of our wide porch on this brilliant July day facing the lake that feels like a part of me, like a muscle or a bone or a ligament that connects one part of me to another. I loved this story and the writing, which is breathtaking, and the hurts and secrets and linen closet in an island cottage full of the detritus of generations. It is a New York story, an island in Maine story—those are not my plot lines. We do not have lobster much in Eagles Mere. And yet. And yet, I recognize the people--the women playing particular roles, the summer rituals persisting from one generation to the next, the water—for us, a lake, not the ocean. I recognize Evie’s fierce desire to protect a house, to claim it as a part of my identity, to keep it safe for children my children have not yet had. I recognize her reluctance to be practical or to share, the pull a place can have.
Reg and Len are outsiders, and I recognize them, too, as I consider the ways in which we exclude and include in this house, in this town, in our family, in our country—different versions of a history that feels too familiar.
“I never need to write my own memoir about Eagles Mere,” I tell my sister. “Sarah Blake has already written it much better than I ever could.” I am melancholy, sad to have missed the opportunity to write such a luminous novel.
“But you will write your own story, our story” my sister offers, just as if she were giving me a hand up as we used to scramble up the steep incline from a hike to Haystacks. There she stands, smiling--my older sister, the image of our mother, elegant and confident, more certain of herself than I have ever known her. She lives here all the time, not just summers. We have changed, the two of us, shifted the way we interact. It’s as if, when our mother died, we realized it was time to lay down squabbling that had comfortably defined our dynamic, separated by seven years. Without our mother as referee, we realized we had been on the same side all along, tucked into our pew at church each Sunday, our mother in between us in the prayers. She is here in birdsong, in the doe that steps neatly into my sister’s yard this morning as I print a document, in the hummingbirds that visit our feeders, in the glorious mountain sunsets.. Our mother did not like to referee. We, my sister and I, are conscious of how lucky we are to have each other, to have this place we love, this place that connects us to our past and future.
We are here, all of us, in Eagles Mere, generations of ghosts knocking about, contentedly and less contentedly, in this house, on this lake. Our brother. Our mother’s brothers. Our grandparents. Our children, my sister’s grand children. We are all here walking to the Sweet Shop for ice cream cones—mint chocolate chip. We are playing Pinball, ping pong, tennis, breathing in the smell of ashes in the fire place, walking softly on the emerald moss along the Laurel Path, the sound of the water lapping at the dock in the fog. “Mist before seven; clear by eleven,” intones my sister, her voice an echo of our mother’s.
On the way into the house to write this at my mother’s desk, which was once my brother’s desk, I stop at Grannie’s desk—even my children who never knew their great-grandmother—call it Grannie’s desk. The green leather guestbook lies on the ancient blotter underneath the Book of Common Prayer that I, by accident, purloined from our church last week and must return tomorrow. In between the guest book—my mother’s quavery hand unmistakable in blue Flair, noting who came and went each season—are four hankies I am pressing like flowers I used to press with Mommy to make books each summer. Carefully, I would glue the pressed flowers or feathers to construction paper, and together, we would label each page and attach the pages with brass brads she always seemed to have a store of. If I look hard enough, I would not be surprised to come upon those little albums tucked into a drawer or shelved between books no one has opened for fifty years. And a trove of brads, themselves, may lurk in an unopened drawer.
This summer, we have had three bedrooms painted, have thrown away a lot of old clothes, have swept and dusted and arranged for new carpet to be installed and to fix the pinball machine. Our daughter will be married here next summer, thirty-five Augusts after her father and I were married here. What to keep and what to toss? I am in the middle, looking forward and back, full of love.
And when I am tired of ministering to this old house, there is the porch waiting full of rockers and a settee and a hammock, and a book like The Guest House, which makes me weep and murmur, “I know them. I know them all.”