New Beginning

After an unthinkable tragedy, a writer finds solace — and fertile ground — at a beloved Wells cottage.

The 800-square-foot cottage that has served as the Laurie O’Neill's refuge sits on a small lot in a densely packed Wells neighborhood.
The 800-square-foot cottage that has served as the author’s refuge sits on a small lot in a densely packed Wells neighborhood.
By Laurie O’Neill
Photos by Tristan Spinski
From the July/August 2019 issue of Maine Homes by Down East

The vintage post-and-beam cottage in the Moody area of Wells sat within a miniature forest of red and white pines and thick hemlocks. Among its charms were a cozy, 950-square-foot floor plan, claw-foot tub, potbellied woodstove, and pair of antique carriage house front doors. A faded blue-and-white bowl and pitcher served as a bathroom sink.

It was our first real home, though we would only be able to spend vacation time there. We were living in campus housing at a Connecticut boarding school, where my husband was an administrator and I taught part-time and worked as a freelance writer.

Right away, our son, Colin, was drawn to the water. I have photos of him as a toddler in a white sailor’s hat and baggy red trunks, splashing in a tidal pool, and as a boy riding the waves on his boogie board. And I would sometimes watch him stride into the sea as a teenager and college student, surfboard under his arm, wetsuit glistening in the sun.

I loved hearing the crunch of his footsteps on the gravel path, his bounding leap up the steps to the deck, and the sigh of the screen door closing behind him when he returned from the water or the Ogunquit restaurant where he worked on summer nights.

“Hey, Mom!” he would call out each time he stepped inside.

Fifteen years into owning the cottage, my marriage fell apart. I lived there year-round for a while, sleeping in long underwear and a ski hat when ice built up on the insides of the windows. Before going to bed in the loft, I would carry in cordwood from the shed, and then rise in the middle of the night to stoke the stove. More than once an exposed pipe froze, and I’d have to crouch, shivering, under the front deck, wielding a propane torch.

wells cottage, memorial
Inside the cottage, beach treasures mingle with a photograph of the author’s son, who loved the water from a young age.

But I found delightful company in the titmice and chickadees that jockeyed for position at the birdfeeder, joy in simple tasks like raking leaves and shoveling snow, and solace in the sound of the ebbing and flowing tides. In warm weather, I toiled in the small gardens, coaxing phlox and Russian sage, coreopsis and coneflowers from the damp earth. And on clear nights, I lay in the rope hammock on the deck, watching for shooting stars — something Colin always loved to do — and felt almost at peace.

That was, until one snowy night in February. I’d returned from choral practice and settled onto the sofa to read the Sunday paper, when the phone rang. The caller said that my son, who was spending the winter semester of his junior year in college working on a sustainable development project in Costa Rica, had gone to the beach with his surfboard, unaware of a deadly riptide there. He was still missing.

The next day, Colin’s father and I met in Maryland, where he was living, and flew to Central America. There we spent a surreal week during which Colin’s anguished classmates and teachers held an impromptu memorial service on the rustic farm that was their campus, reading poems and sharing stories about him. On the flight back, I cradled the simple white urn that contained my son’s ashes.

The little house in Moody wrapped me in its arms that winter and spring. I wept as I walked the empty beach while gulls screamed and wheeled overhead and tuxedoed eiders rode the icy waves through clouds of sea smoke. Then I returned to the snug cottage, where, paralyzed by grief, I would lie for hours on the wicker couch in front of the woodstove, my cat, Thisbe, curled up on my chest.

wells cottage, memorial
Beneath a paper birch, she has created a small memorial to her son.

That was 23 years ago. I wrote these words recently while sitting at an old drop-leaf cherry table in the same cottage. I come here whenever I can, for as long as possible. Over time, being in the place my son loved has provided comfort instead of pain.

Several houses have gone up in the neighborhood, some of them replacing small bungalows or filling previously wooded lots. A few boast thousands of square feet of living space, dwarfing my grayish-green clapboarded cottage with the purple trim and pine-needle–covered yard. Many of the trees that kept the house in shadow are now gone. Perennial beds bloom along the gravel walkway and fence and chipmunks compete with me for the low-bush blueberries. On a red pine near the road, a small sign depicts a golden shooting star and our surname. There is a real bathroom sink, a more efficient woodstove, and other creature comforts, but the claw-foot tub, carriage house doors, and rusted wind bells I’ve had for decades remain.

Not long after we scattered some of Colin’s ashes in the sea, I planted a slender paper birch in the yard. It was his favorite kind of tree, and mine too — we both loved Frost’s “Birches,” with its description of a small boy climbing on a supple tree that bends, then launches him skyward. How often have I pondered that metaphor — that birches can be bowed by burden, but not broken.

Every spring, I scrape away the pine needles and crinkled brown oak leaves that have collected at the base of the tree, uncovering clumps of crocus, their yellow blooms seeming to blink in the sunlight, and clusters of tiny, dusty-blue grape hyacinths. I note with pleasure the tight, reddish-brown buds that hug each branch and the thin sheets of gray bark that curl off the trunk, exposing clean white skin.

In summer, I like to read in an Adirondack chair on the deck until I hear the twilight calls of cardinals, those series of wind-up cries followed by a burst of joyful staccato notes. Every so often, I think I hear my son’s footsteps on the gravel path, and the sigh of the screen door, mingling with their song.

Not far from where I sit, Colin’s ashes are buried under the birch, below three smooth, engraved stones that read love, ALWAYS, and “Hey, Mom!”

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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