Island Idyll

My grandparents’ cabin taught me to appreciate what is simple, sturdy, and beautiful.


When my grandmother was a young bride picnicking with her husband, she strolled onto this piece of land on a working harbor where fishing boats swung with wind and tide, and she wanted it. She walked in thick moss through the woods to the neighbor’s house to inquire. He, it turned out, owned the land, and had driven her father in his coffin to the grave a few months before. So he sold the plucky young woman the land for the thousand dollars her father had just left her.

When my mother was a young girl, she and her family lived in a canvas tent in these woods the summer my grandfather felled the trees, stripped bark and limbs, notched, and began the slow build up of a cabin, log upon log. While he built, my grandmother and her mother cooked over an open fire, washed laundry in a pot, and hung the clothes to dry on a line. And while they cooked and washed, my mother and uncle roamed the woods, gathered berries and mussels, carried water from the well up the road, swam themselves numb and blue in the ocean, and rowed the dory out among the moored boats to catch fish.

The walls rose. My grandfather cut openings for entry, exit, and views. He placed the ridgepole, nailed rafters, roofing boards, and shingles. He hung front and back doors with hinged windows and lift latches. He built a loft and ascending split-log stairs and installed an iron sink with a simple inside-to-out drain, and an iron cook stove and its pipe. And then he hammered a bed together for him and his wife.

The new cabin glowed golden as afternoon sunlight. The women polished the floor, stitched pillows, curtains, and spreads. They lined kitchen shelves with fancy paper and set out dishes, pots and pans, tins of tea and coffee, flour, sugar, and salt. They hung a broom and dustpan on the wall, filled the wood box, and fed the stove. Then baked biscuits and beans, steamed clams, made chowder, and boiled water for washing and dishes.

When I was a girl, my parents and brothers and I spent one week here each summer. I slept in the loft on a cot by a low window. Mornings I hung my head over the loft’s edge to watch my sleeping parents, then lay listening to crows cawing and flapping through the woods until it was time to get up. Sunny days my brothers and I ate breakfast on the porch steps, facing in so our legs dangled out of sight, the next step up our table. We sailed toy boats in the tide pools and built heavy rafts that floated beneath the water’s surface. We caught pollack and flounder off the wharf across the cove, gutted, then fried them in a buttered pan, and picked the sweet flesh from between the tiny bones. We dreamed inside the moan of the foghorn and the wash of tide rising and falling.

On picnic days, my great-grandmother, grandparents, great aunts, aunts, uncles, and cousins arrived in big cars and parked up in the woods. They carried wicker baskets and blankets down to the shore where the grown-ups told stories and we kids wandered in and out of sight, then settled in to roast corn and hot dogs over a fire, and see what came out of those deep baskets. Sometimes chocolate cake with white icing. Blueberry pie.

This cabin tucked back from the granite shore became the structure happiness was built on — those few weeks of a life becoming a near entirety of childhood, holding what I love best: smell of seaweed and salt, wooing of foghorn and wind, hot burn of sunned granite, cold burn of ocean, and a small cabin eighteen miles from home. Here I learned to trim a wick, build a fire, row a boat, and bathe with a cup of water. Here I learned that time was what I would build my life from, that what endured was simple, sturdy, beautiful. That what I touched, watched, and listened to mattered.

My grandfather had broad fingers, strong hands, and could build anything: shelf above the window I look out now, bed I’ll dream in, bookcase filled with puzzles and books, and the stone wall beyond the shore rugosas. My grandmother could make much out of little: potholders from a torn dress, doilies from string, rich pudding from cocoa, stale bread, and a bit of milk. The two of them together made this.