Home Means Never Second-Guessing


At the end of this particular shoulder of land is a little plot big enough for a house or a cottage. The for-sale sign stuck in the ground itself is news, something to stand still and look at, imagine and consider. Later today I might try to find out from a neighbor or someone in town how much it’s going for, and think about what it might be like to live there, on that slice of sandstone cliff that is a decent size to make a home on, like two-thirds of a pie. It’s only feet from another house, of course, and most people would talk themselves out of buying the land for that reason. But the view is a million-dollar view: a huge expanse of beach covered twice daily by a deep tide, with a view exactly northwest of the sunset to your left and to the right, the little opening through which the Bay of Fundy surges to create those deep tides.

Today the view from this spot, which I was too afraid to trespass until this year, is a memorable one. The tide is high and perfectly flat. No waves churning up fish, no birds swooping down to catch them. The land across the basin is covered in fog, though the CBC weather report on the radio a few minutes ago claimed “the fog will have lifted by now.” But the sun hasn’t broken through enough to burn it off. It’s always surprising to come down here and suddenly hear the water rolling in against the sand. It’s like stepping through a giant doorway with no door. The cavernous pine-lined dirt road just suddenly ends, and opens up to the sea, and a cornfield to the left. This little patch of beach, which we usually have to walk down the beach a third of a mile to get to, is already here, accessible and peaceful and wide open.

It’s hard not to feel some surge of possessive emotion, a kind of motherly love, for the whole scene: cliff, beach, tide, fog, even though technically speaking it is mother to all of us. But when you witness something happen for so many years, how the tide keeps to its moon-governed routine but is bolder now, through no fault of its own, egged on only by extreme winter weather and higher water temperatures, you feel as if mothers must continually feel watching their children become confused and weary adolescents and then, hopefully, independent adults: love manifesting as concern and pride.

Technically this plot of land is the very end of the row, the farthest you can go before the cliff juts inland, descends to a beach and then rises up again. On that distant rise is a dwelling all on its own, an old railroad station that is now a cottage, but big enough to be deemed a house, and which has helped to drive up real estate prices down the row, even if it’s off on its own and bigger than the others. To the east of here the cottages are only spitting distance apart, ten feet or so, and no one minds because there’s nothing that can be done about that now. Most of us have been a part of this legacy of close-knit dwellings since 1920, when the first ones were built. It takes a certain kind of person — ideally a descendent of a cottage-builder, and one who was taught the ways of summer cottage living as a child — to live so close to one another that your floors sometimes vibrate from the movements of other people in neighboring cottages. They feel as if they are all invisibly connected, strung up on a line.

And it makes my head feel like a radio tower sometimes, and I wonder if anyone else’s does, like in choosing to live here we must accept a role to poorly but earnestly try to keep track of each of the conversations that have happened here since 1920. My forebears discussing the film adaptation of Dr. Zhivago “for days afterward,” as my father put it, or the many after-dinner conversations about a fatal car accident that took many of our family members, often stirred up by a bottle of my grandfather’s favorite Chilean wine. The tears shed here alone, I think, adding some of my own to the bucket every time I stay, and remembering how easily my grandmother could bring tears, and information, and secrets, out of anybody. I think I must come here to cry, or rather, come here to feel too much, tears being a good indicator of emotional overload. It has something to do with all those past messages still traveling on their appointed frequencies in my mind’s ear, but also the feelings and events that people here brought out of me: the self they brought out of me.

It’s tempting to diagnose this as nostalgia, but it isn’t. Life now is a continuation, not a guilt-ridden remembrance. The passing of the older generations can cause the younger ones to feel not only abandoned — unready to, as it were, host the party themselves. And guilty. But the greatest gift is to be left not only with memories but a modest-sized, manageable place in which to store them, in which to be reminded of them. Because we have to go on. Because they’d want us to, and because it might actually be enjoyable to. At times the cottage feels like a stage set, empty of its principle players. But it is mostly a monument to what happened here, and what happens now, and what will happen.

Back inside after my walk to the end of the land, I hear Margaret Atwood on the radio. “The technology,” she says, in an interview about her latest novel, “is never the problem. It’s what we decide to do with it.” So too our worldly possessions: money, real estate, belongings sentimental and otherwise. So too the things that happen to us: tragedies, relationships, good memories that we’d sometimes rather replay than try to replicate. It is somewhere in the middle of this radio show, when the fog has finally melted or coasted out to sea and I’ve had enough cups of tea that I feel a strange swell that I recognize only from the many other times I’ve felt it here. It’s assurance, I suppose. The absence of doubt, the absence of questions, the absence of assessments and reassessments, as if my mind has been spring-cleaned, freed of all those existential worries disguised as thoughts.

image – Kevin Dooley