Sitting right here, watching the leaves turn color


I wrote this three years ago on Columbus Day, when we were pushing back hard against the end of summer, and stayed at camp until mid-October. This year, we moved home three weeks earlier, on September 21. We had fall projects to tackle, and the nights were turning cold; a few mornings in the 20s have convinced us it was the right decision. But yesterday afternoon, with the temperature reaching 70 degrees, the sun shining, and the fall foliage as beautiful as I’ve ever seen it, I couldn’t resist spending a little time at camp. I went for a last kayak paddle around the lake, then I sat on Sunny Rock for a while…just sat right there and watched the leaves turn color.    

October 8, 2012

One year, when I was about thirteen or fourteen, on the evening before we were to leave to return to Connecticut from Maine at the end of the summer, as we ate our last camp supper on the screened porch, my mother looked out at the lake and said, in an almost defiant tone, “Some year, I’m going to sit right here and watch the leaves turn color.

I was a teenager—self-absorbed, unsympathetic, dismissive. I wasn’t thrilled about leaving camp, either, but hey—at least I’d get to see my friends, and school might not be too bad this year, and there would probably be some boy on whom to develop an unrequited crush. It was the end of the summer, not the end of the world.Leaves_2012_2

A year or two later, as we were packing up to leave again at the end of another summer, my mother sighed. “This year was going to be the year when I would get to sit right here and watch the leaves turn color.” It must have been 1974, the year my father would have turned 62, the year he would have planned to retire and move back to Maine. They would have stayed on at camp as long as they wanted to that fall—sitting right there, watching the leaves turn color—then relocated for the winter to the snug little year-round home “on a hill in Bethel” that they had always talked about.

Fate, in the form of unexpected widowhood, then my (equally unexpected) arrival, intervened. My mother eventually did retire to Bethel, in 1982, but I don’t think she ever really did get to “sit right here and watch the leaves turn color.” She plunged directly into a hectic retirement schedule that included volunteering, church activities, bridge club, and babysitting (she was “Gramma Wight” to half the families in Bethel), and by Labor Day it was time to get back to her house in town before things fell completely apart without her.

Now that I live three miles away from camp, I’ve been pushing back against the end of summer just a little harder every year. Last year we moved home from camp on September 29th, and we’ve already beaten that by over a week this year. Of course, we’ve had a fire going in the woodstove almost steadily for several weeks, and we’ve probably burned at least two cords of wood that should probably have been earmarked for heating our “real” house during the “real” heating season. But when you’re married to a logger, wood seems cheap and plentiful (it’s not, really) and it doesn’t seem like such a big deal to heat a drafty, uninsulated summer camp in order to squeeze a couple more weeks from the season. (Next year, we’re thinking, with some insulation in the roof and walls, we could target November first. In the more distant future, with new windows, and some heat tape on the water line, could we make it to Thanksgiving?)


We’re planning to move home this coming weekend—really! I know I’ve been saying that for the past two or three weeks, but every day I see something—a sunset, a flock of noisy geese, the full moon reflected in a lake that’s as still as a mirror—that makes me think, if we had moved home yesterday, we’d have missed this. Life is so much simpler here that it’s hard to think about leaving.

Besides, I’m doing it for Mom…sitting right here, watching the sun set. And the moon shimmer on the water. And the leaves turn color.


Camp turns 60


Camp, c. 1957

Sixty years ago today, on August 27, 1954, my mother signed her name as the “Grantee” on a warranty deed in a South Paris attorney’s office, handed over $200 to Earle Palmer, who represented the Mann Company (the “Grantor”), and became the owner of “a certain lot or parcel of land situated in Woodstock, in said County of Oxford and State of Maine.”

I’m not sure why it was my mother, and not my father, or both of them, who signed the deed, and no one else seems to know, either. So I’ve made up my own story about it, some of which I can be pretty sure is true, thanks to the fairly reliable memories of my four older siblings, especially those of my two oldest brothers, who, although they may not agree on all of the details (did the family later buy a used Rangeley boat, or was it a Casco Bay boat? And what, exactly, is a Casco Bay boat, anyway?) generally agree on important things, like where the family went on vacation in 1954 (North Pond), whether it was a rainy two weeks (it was) and which kid most often got stuck riding in the way-back of the station wagon on that trip (Andy).

The story I’ve made up goes like this:

In early August of 1954, my parents and their four kids, for the second year in a row, rent a camp from Ada Balentine, a friend of my grandmother’s, at the far end of North Pond, for their annual two-week vacation. It rains a lot of the time they’re there, but the kids have a blast at the lake anyway, and my father, to keep from getting antsy, uses the rainy days to build and install kitchen cupboards in Ada’s log cabin, which is only a couple of years old. (Ada’s cabin, and the cupboards, are still there.)

Camp lots have just been offered for sale along the undeveloped east shore of North Pond, and, on one of the few days that it doesn’t rain, my parents, who are native Mainers, but living in exile in Connecticut, go over to take a look. They are both longing for a little piece of their home state to call their own, and as soon as they lay eyes on “Lot #10, in Mann Camp Lots Hamlin Grant #13,” with its pine and hemlock trees and wild high-bush blueberries and, especially, the enormous flat-topped boulder perched on the water’s edge, they know they’ve found it.

They take the kids along the shore in Ada’s boat to show them the lot, and surprise them with the news that next summer, they’ll be camping on the lake on their very own lot. Not only that, but my mother and the kids will spend the whole summer there, with my father joining them on weekends and during his vacation.

In my story, my father meets with Earle Palmer the next day, pulls a $20 bill from his wallet and hands it over to secure the deal. The closing is set for August 27th.

The kids, of course, are beside themselves with excitement. Leslie christens the boulder “Sunny Rock,” and it becomes their touchstone. Driving out the Gore Road as they leave Ada’s camp to head home to Connecticut at the end of their vacation, my father stops for a moment where the road comes closest to the lake. They all get out and look across to the unbroken east shore, where, even in the rain and fog, they can easily pick out their lot—“It’s the one with Sunny Rock!” Leslie says.

My father has used up all of his vacation time, so a couple of weeks later, on August 27, 1954, a Friday, my mother drives back to Maine, taking Leslie along for company. They stop in South Paris and my mother signs the necessary papers, the hand holding the pen shaking slightly with excitement.

They’ll stay overnight in Bethel with my grandmother, then drive back to Connecticut the next day. Although she hasn’t planned to drive in the road to the camp lot on this trip—there’s not much there to see, really—my mother can’t resist taking the right turn off of Route 26 when they get to it. They bounce over the muddy mile of new dirt track, twigs scraping against the car windows, and park in the road at the top of the lot. They get out and clamber over the brush left behind by the logging operation that cut all the marketable timber off the lots before they were placed up for sale.

The lot slopes steeply down from the road and is littered with discarded treetops and limbs. Stumps, with roots like bony knees where the water has rushed down from Moody Mountain, which looms over the east shore, and eroded the dirt around them, poke up from the uneven ground. There isn’t a level place to be found big enough to pitch a tent on. My mother has a brief but intense what-have-we-done? moment.

Then Leslie takes her hand. “Come on, Mommy,” she says. “I’ll help you jump across the moat to Sunny Rock so we can look at our lake.”

They stand together on the sun-warmed boulder and look out at North Pond, which, on this cloudless, not-quite-fall day, is an improbable cobalt blue.

Just as it will be on another cloudless, not-quite-fall day, sixty years later.

CAMP 2014 2014-08-27 003

The view from Sunny Rock on August 27, 2014.