Down East 2013 ©
Excerpted from Robert McCloskey: A Private Life in Words and Pictures (Seapoint Books, Kittery Point, Maine; 2011; hardcover; $24.95) by Jane McCloskey.
Images used with permission of the Robert McCloskey Family
When I was eight, around 1956, my father bought what he called an old jalopy, a grey Dodge coupe. My parents decided that year that [my dad] Bob and I would go ahead to Maine in the jalopy, and Mom and Sal would follow a few days later with the family station wagon.
Bob and I left after lunch. Before we left the driveway, my father gave me a lesson in map reading, showing me the blue and red roads, the circles for towns and cities, the numbers showing the miles between points, the route numbers, and the distance scale at the bottom of the map. The map kept me amused as I learned how to direct my father onto the correct route. In the beginning, he knew the way, but as the trip went on, I was really able to help with directions. Occasionally, when I couldn’t understand the map, my father had to pull over to look at it himself. There were no interstates.
I believe that we spent the second night somewhere on Route 1 in Maine. The next morning, we ate breakfast at Moody’s Diner, which is a Maine landmark. I had pancakes and sausages. We also stopped at Perry’s Nut House, where we saw a life-size wooden elephant and giraffe. We looked at ourselves in the funhouse mirrors and bought pistachio nuts.
We stopped to buy groceries, and then on the homestretch, we passed the peat moss farm, Mechanical Albert’s, David’s Folly, the earthworm farm, and the Grange. Finally we came to Weir Cove and the home of our caretakers, the Cliffords.
There my father conferred with Ferd about how the island and our boat had survived the winter. Mrs. Clifford caught us up on gossip of people my parents knew, but meant nothing to me. Then we went to our garage, where we parked the car and transferred our luggage and groceries down the path and dock and runway to our powerboat, which Ferd had tied to the Cliffords’ dock.
My father started the engine, and we steamed across the bay to the island. Even at that young age, I felt I was coming home.
My father slowed the boat, approached the float at an angle, and reduced our speed to a glide. At the last second, he put the engine into reverse, gave her some gas and the wheel a spin, and the boat, on a collision course with the float, backed off just as nice as you please, and we came to a stop in perfect parallel to the float. I had the bowline in my hand, and stepped onto the float with panache. Then I went to the head of the float to wait for Bob. He picked up the stern and spring lines lying on the float, and made a turn around the stern cleat of the powerboat. I tied up the bow with the double half hitch I had down pat. We were home.
We transferred our luggage off the boat, onto the float, and up the runway to the pier. My father loaded our stuff onto the waiting red wheelbarrow, and I carried what I could.
We had to make several trips. We dropped Bob’s easel, his portfolio with his big canvases and sketch pads, and the suitcase for his paints off at the studio in the boathouse. We continued up to the house with our groceries and luggage.
Then we went to the pump house, where my father started the pump to give us water pressure, and made sure that the generator would start. Ferd said he had been able to start it, but it had been temperamental (he always said that), so when it started, we were relieved. We were always relieved. I took the wheelbarrow to the woodshed behind the pump house, and filled it with wood the Cliffords had cut and split. I made a couple of trips to the house, one with short wood for the stove in the kitchen, and one with longer wood for the fireplace in the living room.
Bob lit a fire in the kitchen stove. It was cold and damp, so we closed off the doors to the rest of the house until the kitchen warmed up. Bob went into the living room to light the temperamental floor furnace. I took my suitcase upstairs.
Sal and I had been taking turns making our parents’ beds along with our own for the past year, so I took some sheets from the linen closet and made the beds. I brought towels and washcloths to the bathroom. Bob turned on the gas tank and lit the pilot lights for the refrigerator, hot water heater, and stove. He turned on the generator.
It had gotten dark, but with the generator running, we had lights. We met in the kitchen, which was now toasty warm. My father had unpacked the groceries. Now he showed me how he fried hot dogs and heated up the buns under the broiler. B&M baked beans simmered in a saucepan. Bob broke up some iceberg lettuce for salad and put some orange “French” dressing on it. The hot dogs and toasted buns and baked beans were excellent. The French dressing was pretty terrible and made me miss my mother’s salads. It was my first experience of preferring Better Food. I can’t remember if we had dessert. Then Bob washed the dishes while I dried and put them away.
In the morning after breakfast and washing the dishes, my father asked, “Will you be all right by yourself?” And I said I would.
“Maybe you can sweep the floor?” And I said I would.
He took off for the studio. I swept the kitchen floor and then went into the playroom, where Sal’s and my books were kept. We had a pretty good library, several long shelves. Every year at Christmas, my father’s editor, May, sent Sal and me each five or six children’s books that Viking Press had published that year. My parents also gave us books. The summer before, when my grandparents sold their home in Hancock, my grandmother gave us most of her books of folk tales and fairy tales and books on Norse and Greek mythology.
So, I went and looked over the books. I read some of my old favorite picture books: maybe Polly’s Oats, The Story of Ferdinand, Andy and the Lion, and Journey Cake, Ho! Then I settled with one of the longer books. Toro of the Little People? The Princess and the Goblin? Or maybe my all-time favorite: Jungle Book, with Mowgli and Bagheera and the Wolf Pack family.
When it warmed up outside later in the morning, I explored the island. I went out to the point, around the island on the beach, and visited the gazey beau. That’s what the Cliffords called our gazebo, and our family adopted the pronunciation from them. Later I went down on the beach and turned over rocks to find the small green crabs underneath.
My father and I spent a couple of days together with just the two of us. Bob showed me how to cook scrambled and fried eggs and bacon and hamburgers. He cooked spaghetti, and said that when he and Marc were in art school in New York, they used to eat a pound of spaghetti apiece.
Just when I began to miss my mother and my sister, they arrived, and we resumed our normal course of family life.