Susan and Janet have invited Eleanor and me to their lake house in Norway, Maine (not far from Paris, Maine.) It’s hot and sticky as we head north. Normally a three-hour drive, we stretch it out by stopping for frozen custard ice cream, for a home-baked strawberry-rhubarb pie (be still my heart) and then to the big grocery store for supplies.
There’s a lot going on in our lives. Susan has just celebrated her 60th birthday with muted bewilderment. Eleanor has been at her second home on Cape Cod for over a month and needs to settle back into Boston. Janet’s been working hard to get this lake house in order. And I’ve been sorting and cleaning 24/7 as I pack to move apartments in town. My timing is execrable – after virtually eight months of bitter, paralyzing winter, I am watching summer pass me by through the distorting blisters of bubble-wrap.
Finally we pass through the town of Norway and start circling the large lake, Pennesseewassee. A small, steep unpaved road cuts down towards the edge of the lake and bam! We’re there. The house is handsome with its dark wood and green metal roof, and it sports that most sought-after accessory: the matching boathouse.
We nibble on cheese and fresh bread, taking in the views of the lake. Eleanor offers me the big guest room overlooking the lake while she takes the cozy little third bedroom. Our hosts take a dip in their lake, but a thunderstorm quickly brings them back. Once in my room I settle into reading Gina Ogden’s fabulous new book, The Return of Desire, which I have just reviewed here, until I steal a very rare late afternoon nap.
Eleanor’s grilled fish (dipped in pancake mix), fresh salad and hand-picked corn dinner motivates me out of bed and into my seat around the table. Janet and Susan insist we play a board game they consider fun and benign called Carcassonne, after a French medieval walled city. I hate games but do what I often do when I’m forced by good etiquette into them – I win big time. I am awarded for my participation with a large piece of that tangy strawberry-rhubarb pie and now I’ll say goodnight.
I definitely feel I am on vacation.
The pouring rain produces an all-night symphony on the metal roof and on the lake water below my bedroom windows. But in the morning, Eleanor has heard on the news that a couple chasing their dog outside in the storm to retrieve the eyeglasses of one of their three little children, which the dog had grabbed, were hit and fried by lightning. Sobering.
It takes four women with one bathroom a while to get organized, but soon we’re out tooting around Norway, Maine. First stop is Ordway Grove, one of the few remaining old growth forests in New England. We crank back our heads to try to see to the top of the astoundingly tall white pines, but the mosquitoes take such advantage of us that we must sprint back to the car. My elbow swells balloon-like from a bite and Eleanor nurses one on her scalp.
We pass a yard sale where, miracle of miracles, the one thing I am looking for is on prominent display: a white plastic table and chairs for the balcony of the apartment where I’m moving. It is a lightweight round table with two nice matching chairs for $20, but by the time Eleanor and I finish with the sellers, we walk away with the set for $13.
Next stop is the lovely McLaughlin Garden, known as “A Common Man’s Garden,” where we stroll among the blossoms. Built in increments by Bernard McLaughlin, at first a shipyard worker in Portland and then a grocer in Norway, his garden grew to 3 1/2 acres of self-taught flowering beauty. When McLaughlin died in 1995 at age 98, the townspeople formed a non-profit and bought the house, barn and garden to maintain it by volunteer labor. The barn is itself exquisite and hosts a restaurant and an art gallery – some unique photos are on display, while the house holds the store.
On the way to the indoor flea market – where I find a rare copy of The History of Henry Esmond by William Makepeace Thackeray for $1 – we stop so I can read the info plaque at The Weary Club of Norway. (The postcard on the left of the Weary Club is postmarked 1947.) Established in 1928 by a group of businessmen who wanted to meet for “cribbage, a little jackknife work and smoking,” my friends tell me it was a get-away for men “weary” of their wives. However, women have been members, not the least US Senator Margaret Chase Smith. Perhaps the club’s very New England subtitle tells it best: “Makers and Dealers in Cedar Shavings, Social Gossip, Political Wisdom and Yankee Philosophy.”
Back at the lake house by early afternoon, the water beckons and Susan convinces me to join her in slipping off my shorts and bra while in the water for a daylight skinny dip, just 10s of yards from the neighbors. What a giddy feeling, taking me back to the childhood I wish I had had. Swimming off my friends’ own private dock, in the homeowners’ waters gives me an unaccustomed sense of entitlement – albeit neither mine nor lasting past the weekend in my case. Class politics aside, I believe I could adjust to privilege were it to miraculously come my way, but the best I can do in the real world is accept invitations from generous friends.
Dinner is a rich vegetable pasta by Eleanor and then once again Susan insists that we all play a game – this time, Bananagram. It has something to do with a Scrabble/crossword variation and I don’t play either. I refuse to play. Janet refuses. Eleanor agrees. She’s such a good guest. I’m busy icing my dozen puffy mosquito bites. All day they’ve been zeroing in on Eleanor and me, but tonight I was out learning how to get water from the neighbor’s well hose when I was assaulted big-time, resulting in freaky swollen welts. I look a bit like a piece of bubble wrap myself. Luckily, when we climb down the dock with the aid of flashlights to view the full moon, the bugs have decided they’ve had enough of me for the night.
But back to Bananagram. As the two begin to play, I lean over to help Eleanor when I happen to see the perfect word and the next thing I know we’re playing collaboratively. Janet agrees to help Susan. Breathless hysteria ensues. We make up words – not the least “anakedkinsox”, something that, with Susan’s munificent agreement, started as naked, became joined to kin and then to sox and finally absorbed the article. Despite our creativity, we lose.
Did I mention a new pie? Raspberry-rhubarb this time. Stomachs satisfied, we take a yard-long sparkler out to the parking deck for our last endorphin rush of the night; it starts like a pink sparkler and morphs into a lime green firecracker. It’s midnight.
How hard can life be when the loons wake me up and fresh raspberry pancakes follow right behind? It is a relatively quiet lake as only one property per 200 feet of shorefront can be built and trees cannot be cut down although a third of them can be pruned annually. As my friends’ classic Victorian Maine camp was built in 1900, before such restrictions, they are much closer to the water than permitted today and their land has been nearly cleared down to the water. In short, they have a superior view of and access to the water.
I’m sitting on the house-length screened-in porch writing on my laptop, when a leak is identified. Looking up at the wood-planked roof, I’m startled to see a variety of thick metal hooks and eye-rings firmly embedded there. My friends deny knowledge of them and their placement rules out any porch swing or hammock. Is there a kinky past to this very private abode?
The rain never stops so it is a lazy day. I complete a bit of writing, pack and help clean up. We pile into the car for the return trip. This is the longest I have been offline in years – three whole days and nights. I’m curious if not anxious as to what I’ll find at home, but in fact, after a drive of several hours I discover that my town’s electricity is out due to a lightning storm. Somehow, roughing it in my hot, humid, crowded, crappy apartment is less amusing than life in the airy wooden house on sweet, warm Lake Pennesseewassee.