For perhaps the third time in the past few months, I received a letter in today’s mail from a young family hoping to buy a lakefront property in Oxford County. They are, they explained, “seeking more solitude and quality family time,” a place to make memories. They are “well qualified and may be able to do a quick cash closing.”
I know, from speaking with local realtors, as well as from the dizzying speed with which two of our kids recently sold their homes here, that real estate in rural Maine has become an extremely hot commodity during the pandemic. Whether it’s a year-round home or a vacation condo, nothing stays on the market for long these days, and I can only imagine how hard it is to find waterfront property. Prospective buyers have taken matters into their own hands, obtaining the names and addresses of camp-owners from local town offices and mailing out a barrage of hopeful letters.
Thanks to the foresight, careful planning, and hard work of our parents, our family has owned just such a property on North Pond in Woodstock for more than 65 years, but if you know anything about me at all, you already know that. You probably also know that our family camp is the center of my universe, and it is emphatically not for sale. So I won’t be replying to any of these inquiries, but, if I were to respond, I might say something like this.
Dear Hopeful Young Family:
Thank you for your letter. You certainly sound enthusiastic and wholesome, and I hope you are able to find the perfect lakeside camp for your family to enjoy, but I’m afraid it won’t be ours.
Here, in no particular order, are ten of the many reasons I won’t be selling our camp to you, or anyone else:
- Constancy: I was brought to camp for the first time at the age of three and a half months, and while I don’t claim to remember anything about that first summer, when my mother placed me on a blanket in the center of the old oak dining table so that I could lift my head and look out at the lake, I am certain that it shaped me. All of my 62 summers have been spent at camp, and whether I have ten, or twenty, or forty summers left, camp is where I plan to spend them.
- Memories: Camp is the repository for memorabilia that ranges from my dad’s old suede jacket (last worn by him in 1958) to Twinkles, the shabby stuffed dog I was given for my third birthday; from my great-grandparents’ wicker chairs to the antique hand-crank party line telephone (in use until 1983). My parents’ University of Maine yearbooks are there, and the volumes of poetry my mother used to read to me, and the wagon-wheel lamp my brother Greg made for her when he was in his early twenties. But more important than any of those things are the memories our family and friends have made there over more than 65 years—early-morning fishing expeditions; hot, lazy afternoons in the lake; evenings of popcorn and Scrabble, with the crackly radio pulling in the Red Sox game from some far-away AM station.
- Grandchildren: My mother loved nothing more than having every seat at the table and every bed in the loft filled with grandchildren. She loved watching them reenact the adventures of their parents—motorboat trips to the store for penny candy; picnics on Rock Island; learning to row the old wooden boat, safely attached by a length of clothesline to a tree on the shore. I have one grandchild, and I want her summer days to be filled with the magic of camp, from rising early to pick blueberries for pancakes from the bush at the water’s edge, to long afternoons in the water, to bedtime stories after sunset.
- Sunsets: A picture really is worth a thousand words. I’m sure you understand why I won’t be giving this up.
- Friendship: Just as my mom watched three generations of her own offspring experience the joy of being at camp, she also reveled in seeing their friends experience it for the first time. When our kids’ friends bring their own kids for a day at the lake, I bake cookies and pies and put out an inordinate amount of sandwich fixings and think about how much she would love to be there with us. And, in a way, she is. Some of my mom’s favorite times at camp were when one of her close friends would visit, when she would have the rare pleasure of long afternoons of adult conversation. My own lifelong best friend years ago ceased to be a guest during her stays at camp—every other weekend, all summer—and is as much a part of the family as another sibling.
- Magic: High up on the unfinished pine wall of one of the tiny bedrooms of our camp, there is the print of a boot. It is there from a time, in 1955 or 1956, when the camp was still being built, when someone stepped, with a muddy—or maybe greasy—work boot, onto a pile of pine boards that would later be used to panel the bedroom. I am certain the footprint is my father’s. When I wake up in the morning and see it in the dim light, I imagine my mother awakening alone in that same room for 45 summers, looking up and seeing that same footprint, and I imagine I know what she thought and felt.
- Promises: On the night that my father died—suddenly, leaving my mother a young widow with four children, not even yet aware that there would soon be a fifth—my three brothers sat with her at the kitchen table after the stunned neighbors had left, after my sister had been put to bed. My oldest brother, who at fourteen had just been told (by their well-meaning pastor) that he was now the man of the family, said shakily, “I guess now we’ll have to sell the camp.” My mother spread her hands on the table and looked at each of the boys in turn and said, “We are never selling the camp.”
- Proximity: When I was growing up in exile in suburban Connecticut for ten months of the year, I longed constantly for camp. Very early on, I vowed that I would never live anywhere but Oxford County, Maine, and I’ve been right here for nearly 45 years now. Best of all, for the past 32 years, I’ve lived just three miles from camp, close enough to walk or bike, close enough to go there in all seasons. “Some year,” my mother would say, as we were packing to leave camp on Labor Day weekend, “I’m going to sit right here in the fall and watch the leaves turn color.” Later on in life, she did, and now I do, too.
- Wonder: Once, when I was in about the middle of my sullen adolescence, my mother climbed the stairs to the loft and woke me in the middle of the night and said, “Come see the Northern Lights.” We made our way to the beach, climbed into our old canoe, and pushed it off the sand, out into the still, dark water. We paddled until we had a clear view of the northwest sky. For a long time I had forgotten what it meant to experience such a pure sense of wonder, and that night, the feeling was restored to me. Decades later, I remembered everything, and wrote a poem:
One night you woke me late
And said, Come see
The Northern Lights. I feigned sleep;
I was so snug—
and smug. But then I thought,
Why not? And I came barefoot
Down the narrow stairs.
We pushed the canoe off—
Skritch—over the sand.
The hem of my nightgown brushed the water
As I climbed in the bow.
(You were in charge:
You took the stern.)
The lake was black.
The trees were black.
The sky was black,
Pricked with stars—
Our paddles dipped, and dripped,
Not silent as the Indians’, but hushed
Enough to hear the bats
And the crackle of someone’s campfire
Down the lake.
And they were there, in the northwest sky—
Green, yellow, and red
(Just like Robert Service said).
- Sweat equity vs. instant gratification: I realize that this may be a tough one, but if you really want to make memories with your family, the thing to do is to find yourself a little piece of land and set to work clearing brush, pulling stumps, and leveling a building spot. From the photos you included in your letter, I can see that your boys are hearty-looking; they clearly like being outdoors and will probably enjoy sleeping in a tent for a few summers while you get your camp built. At six and eight, they’re old enough to learn to swing a hammer, and in a year or two, they should be able to use a Skil saw with some supervision. Your camp will always have a few quirky characteristics that come from being built by a family with no real idea of what they were doing, but, trust me, it will feel more like yours that way.
I wish you the best of luck with your search!