Letters from Camp Windsor Hill
Excerpts from letters to friends, 1998.
Camp Windsor Hill
Hope you had a fun Fourth of July. I drove from Washington to Portland on Friday -- more than 10 hours in the Jeep -- and then came up here Saturday, arriving just in time for rain that kept falling until early this afternoon. One doesn't drive 14 hours to sit around a lake in the rain, of course, but there is a silver lining: At night you fall asleep listening to the sound of raindrops pattering gently on the roof over your room, and I don't know of a more soothing sound than that. Now that it's cleared up some we're supposed to get several days of good weather.
Did I tell you about the house? It was built 75 years ago by my stepfather's grandparents, who owned a department store in Baltimore and came up on the through sleeper every summer, with an entourage consisting of a cook, a butler, an upstairs maid, and a nanny -- oh, and three children. The place is only a little altered now -- the icebox is gone, and the woodstove in the kitchen is purely ornamental, and a few summers ago the whole house got rewired. But basically is still just a big old summer house with no insulation, antique beds, a wonderful porch that stretches the length of the house, a dinner table that seats 12 or 14, and a floating dock on the lake. It's about as close to idyllic as a place can be.
There's not much to report in the way of news, of course. My brother and I went running this afternoon, after the sun came out, and we had a leg of lamb for dinner. Then my brother and my stepfather took my nephews mooseketeering -- searching for moose out along Route 16 -- while my sister-in-law and I cleaned up and sat around talking. Now there's a three-quarter moon whose reflection sparkles on the lake, and there are a million stars, easy.
Do I sound content? I think I am.
Only my second full day here and already I've eaten myself into a near-stupor. We had pasta with homemade tomato-and-vegetable sauce for dinner, along with a salad of wonderful fresh greens from a little farm outside of town, and homemade oatmeal-maple bread, and then ice cream with my brother's chocolate sauce. I was just barely breathing after the main course, and I thought I had made it clear I wasn't having dessert, but my brother said he'd take that as a personal insult and scooped me out a dish of ice cream nonetheless. I may not sleep for hours, even though I did take the bike out this afternoon, and even though the hills are steeper than I remembered. Much steeper.
Tradition dictates that you bathe off the dock here, so summers in which the water is relatively warm are much preferred over summers in which the lake is chilly. This is one of the warmer summers, for reasons we have debated at length. My sister-in-law says its because the winter was mild, so the ice melted earlier. I say it's because the weather has been fairly calm lately -- windy days cool the lake's upper levels pretty quickly. In any event, it's a good year for splashing around in the water with a bar of Ivory soap (having soap that floats is very important), and for trying to look nonchalant as you reach reach deep into your swimsuit with the soap to wash those hard-to-get-to places. If there's no one else on the dock, or at least no one you'd be embarrassed in front of, you can just shuck off the suit, which makes washing easier and also lends the process a certain kind of excitement -- this could be the year, after all, when two or three cute guys suddenly appear on the dock of the next camp over, strip down to nothing, and swim over to say Hi.
Until the new septic system was put in a few years back, no one was allowed to bathe in the house, even though it has three claw-foot bathtubs. It's a big place -- six bedrooms upstairs and three more downstairs, where the cook and the maids used to stay. (The butler stayed in a room on the second floor of the woodshed, a handsome little building whose eaves give it a vaguely Italianate air.) If the house was full and people took baths, the septic system would never have been able to keep up. So everyone -- from my stepfather's grandmother to the butler and the maids -- bathed in the lake. Now the rules have been relaxed, and you can bathe inside if you prefer; if the weather is cold or rainy, it's a nice option. But bathing in the lake is fun too. The dock has two ladders, one on the shore end, where the water is shallow, and the other on the lake end, where I can just stand for the first few feet. Washing my hair with Ivory soap and lake water makes it wonderfully soft, and drying in the sunshine, stretched out on a towel on the boards with wavelets lapping against the underside of the dock, is one of the finer opportunities the world offers.
The camp is 75 years old this summer, and it's still an interesting place, in part because it hasn't changed all that much since it was built. Downstairs are a living room, a dining room, and a big kitchen, along with the maids' bedrooms; upstairs are three regular bedrooms, two big rooms that were originally used almost as dormitories for kids, and one small bedroom, for a nanny. There's also a porch that runs the length of the house on the lake side. At either end bedrooms project out over it, but in the middle it's not covered. It's furnished with ten or so old, rustic rocking chairs with uncomfortable backs that no one complains much about, given how idyllic the setting is. A long-unused staircase connects the kitchen end of the porch to the hall outside the two dormitory rooms -- it let the maids get upstairs to make the beds without going through the dining room and up the front stairs.
Inside the house is full of old summer-cottage chairs (the pillows were reupholstered two years ago), and assorted tables, lamps, bookcases (there's a 1917 Encyclopaedia Britannica that makes for fun reading late at night), Navajo rugs, and ancient toy boxes. There's a fireplace in the living room, but it's been warm enough so far this year that we haven't had to light a fire. Wall decorations include many maps of the surrounding area -- a Geological Survey map that covers a whole wall in the dining room -- and antique photographs of turn-of-the-century tourist fishing camps with names like "Angler's Retreat." The dining room has a table that can be extended to seat 16 or so, and there are probably that many chairs. The silverware drawer in the built-in sideboard has service for 18, with smaller knives and forks provided for use at breakfast and lunch. There are plates and cups and bowls in every conceivable size, and there are even finger bowls -- just because they were coming to a faux-rustic "camp" in the woods where you had to bathe in a lake didn't mean anyone had to start dessert with sticky hands.
The bedrooms are plainly furnished -- single beds (which of course you can push together, but there's always that gap), and plain dressers, and rugs and chairs. The house is very lightly constructed, with walls only one board thick, so you can hear breathing and snoring and whispers from one room to the next. If you get up in the night to pee, you wake up everyone: The nights are unbelievably still here, and the floors creak loudly. (The house is entirely made of wood, and it sits on a few concrete blocks sunk into the hillside, but the blocks shift every winter, and the floors are never anything close to level. Every few years the caretaker, Eddie, brings in railroad jacks and tries to even things out some by putting shims under the various legs of the house, but it's an endless cycle of shimming and shifting. This year the door to my bedroom won't close all the way, and the bed slopes from one side to the other at a 10-degree angle, but that's not at all unusual.)
Nowadays, of course, there are no maids, and breakfast is no longer served in the dining room at 8:30, and lunch is a free-for-all of leftovers spread across the kitchen table. (There's a whole calzone left from last night, for instance, which even as I write is being cut into slices and heated up in tinfoil in the toaster oven.) The old woodstove in the kitchen has been covered with a big piece of butcher block and serves as a counter; the stovepipe was taken down several years ago, and this past winter the kitchen chimney was removed, probably because all the shifting and shimming had made it unstable (the bricks are piled up below the tennis court). The woodshed now holds old inner tubes, and fittings for various boats long since vanished (there are two canoes and a motorboat down at the dock), and the upstairs room where the butler used to stay contains only a couple of broken chairs and an iron bed without a mattress. (The firewood is kept in a smaller building beside the woodshed that was once an icehouse.)
As you can tell, I'm pretty fond of the place, even though I didn't grow up coming here. Every time I come now I feel like I ought to write as much down as possible, against the day when the camp is no longer here, or when I'm not on the list of people who can rent it. (It belongs now to cousins of my ex-stepfather, so in a way it's kind of extraordinary that my family is here at all.)
Anyhow, I'm not spending too much time on my laptop, I promise. Yesterday I went running with my brother, and baked bread and cooked dinner, and went in the lake, and started a novel called Pryor Rendering that Ižd been meaning to get to for months. Even so, it feels like a great privilege to have time to write letters to friends, and to have something to fill the letters with, since when I'm at home my life seems ordinary and dull. Here everything seems worth recording.
I'm writing from the porch, where a hyperactive fly is doing kamikaze loops around my head. The kids have been taken to Rangeley on various shopping expeditions -- for goat cheese, salad ingredients, newspapers, and a schedule at the Lakeside, which screens movies for one or two nights each. Also, my mother -- Gram, as the kids call her -- wants to visit the Alpine Shop and Alpine Too, because she's been here almost 20 hours without checking on this season's merchandise. The Alpine Shop sells fancy Woolrich flannel shirts, pricey outdoor "gear," and the like; Alpine Too is for what didn't sell at the main store. Rangeley also has a grocery (the IGA), a pharmacy (Riddle's), a hardware store, a bookstore, three or four gas stations, Fitzy's doughnut shop, the Pine Tree Frosty (an outdoor stand that sells hot dogs, ice cream, &c.), Doc Grant's restaurant, the Red Onion (a pizza place), a post office, a laundromat with wash-and-fold service, and several gift shops full of t-shirts and mugs with moose on them. I think the year-round population is about 800. At the other end of the lake, nearer to the house, is Oquossoc, which has a smaller grocery, a farm stand, the Mooselook In (a restaurant formerly known as the Oquossoc Inn; the lake on the other side of Oquossoc is Mooselookmeguntic); the Gingerbread House (which used to be a soda fountain but has just gone upscale), another post office, and Koob's Garage, which started out as a garage but is now mostly a boat-service operation, with boats stacked three high in giant sheds.
If you were here right now, this is what you'd be listening to: The breeze rustling the birch leaves, waves lapping on the rocks and under the dock, the rope slapping gently against the flagpole, a few birds chirping off in the trees, and, far away at the other end of the lake, the drone of a seaplane. The sky is gray and I think it's going to rain again, but here even the rain is relaxing, so I won't complain too much if it does.
Mom thinks there are bats in Grandma's bedroom, which is where she and Jack and sleeping. She says she hears scratching noises at night. But scratching noises are more likely to be mice, or just birch branches scraping the roof. Bats, as John and I have reminded her, make a soft phffffft-phffffft-phffffft noise as they circle your bedroom in the dark, and you feel the air moving against your face after they have passed. Mom does not like bats, although of course she doesn't much care for mice, either. Birch branches she's okay with.
From the other end of the house, John reports that racoons tried to get into the garbage last night. They succeeded in turning one of the cans on its side, causing a racket on the kitchen porch, but they failed to untie the knot with which the lid is secured.
It is wonderfully quiet here right now. Mom and Jack went to visit antique stores, and John and Linda took the kids off to Kingfield. I have three loaves of gruyere bread rising in the kitchen, so I'm not going anywhere for another hour or so, except possibly the dock. After the bread bakes I need to go buy something for dinner, which I think may end up being shrimp and veggies sauteed with garlic and served over pasta. In the meantime, I'm sitting on the open section of the porch in warm sunshine.
Did I mention that the camp has a large contingent of spiders? There are two living on the window next to the desk, one guarding the top pane of the lower sash, and the other waiting patiently on a web on the bottom. Probably the window is prime real estate, because the desk light stays on all night, attracting the attention of all kinds of savory insects. In the kitchen this morning, though, I noticed a spider with less sense -- a tiny spot of a thing building a dime-sized web on a wooden fish hanging from the cord that turns on the light over the stove. The spider was about six inches from my face as I was kneading dough, but it seemed completely oblivious to my presence. I let it alone, but the light must have been turned on and off half a dozen times since then -- no doubt with unhappy consequences for the spider. There are also spiders hard at work on webs strung between my Jeep and the icehouse, and of course on the posts that support the porch overhangs. I'm fond of spiders, myself, and have been ever since I read E. B. White's book Charlotte's Web. And they do eat other insects that would bother me far more.
The kids have been in bed for an hour, and everyone else is reading here in the living room. Over by the fireplace Mom is looking through real-estate brochures, and stopping occasionally to ask Jack questions like, "Did you see the house on Toothacre Island?" She always gets this way up here, talking about a house of her own here. Except she wants a house just like this one, a nifty big place on a perfect piece of land that no one could afford today. Now she's up grabbing a handful of M&M's from the M&M jar on the library table behind the sofa. (Me, I keep away from the M&M's, preferring lamb sandwiches on homemade bread.)
I have a few drops of lakewater sloshing around in my ear from bathing after John and I went running. And I'm very tired, so I think I'll call it a night and go up to bed. Loons are calling out in the distance, and the house is creaking gently as people settle into their rooms. Much later, in the silent hours of the morning, the moon will rise and sparkle silently on the water and on the white trunks of the birches and on the foot of my bed, by the open window...
Turns out there is a bat here after all, just as Mom has suspected. My brother noticed a flicker of darkness in a corner of the living room Friday night, and then another, and after several minutes of general nervousness the beam of a flashlight discovered a tiny patch of brown and black hanging upside down between a joist and a wallboard above the card table, where no one could reach. One or twice it moved in the flashlight's glare, as though disturbed by the light, but otherwise it has stayed put, as far as we can tell. We've been leaving the light over the card table on all night, in hopes of keeping the bat in where he should be, but of course he can't stay there forever. Sooner or later he's going to get hungry, and I don't think he's got a way out of his hiding place except up through the house.
My brother spent the rest of the evening humming the Batman theme below his breath. Mom is horribly afraid of bats, although we've never known one to fly into anything -- except, of course, a tennis racket, which is the weapon of choice for bats. Even so Mom is worried, and that keeps me on edge. Not so much because I think a bat is actually going to attack anyone, but because at any moment -- well, any moment after dark -- it could appear and it would have to be dealt with immediately, no matter whether the meat was ready to come out of the oven or what. You may not have much experience dealing with bats, but I can assure you that it's not all that much fun, the bat zig-zagging though the house at high speed, Mom screaming from behind the closed door of the kitchen, other people carrying on and generally making the situation ten times worse than it would be otherwise. And I have no skill at tennis at the best of times...
Anyhow, that hasn't happened yet.
In other news here, I got cruised to filth Friday afternoon -- in at Oquossoc grocery, of all places. I was stopping to get a paper and found standing on the porch a good-looking guy in jeans that fit him very, very nicely. He eyed me as I walked up the steps, and I eyed him, and he turned around to look at me from the other direction as I walked to the paper racks. It was the kind of stare you'd call steamy, or out and out lewd. I went inside to pay for the paper, and when I came back out he was climbing into the passenger door of a pickup truck that had pulled up at the side of the road. "Blunt Construction," it said. I've checked the phone book, but there's no listing for such a company. In any case, I might have to nose around Oquossoc in the Jeep a little Monday afternoon, just in case he and the Blunt Construction truck are back. It's possible that they're doing some kind of work there -- it was just after 4 when I picked up the paper, so it might have been quitting time. Or it's possible that they just stopped in to get gas at Koob's, or to pick up a part, or to get mail at the Oquossoc post office. In any case, I wouldn't mind a little adventure ...
A cold front came through Friday afternoon, and we've had fires in the fireplace since (which means lots of trekking up to the old icehouse, where the wood is kept, and returning with armloads of logs to pile on the porch outside the living room). Last thing at night, when everyone else has gone to bed, I lie on the sofa in front of the fireplace with the book I'm reading, enjoying the warmth and the quiet and the story, but keeping a wary eye on the shadows by the card table, in case the bat should appear. When I finally head upstairs the whole house creaks in the silence -- last night I found I had left a window open in my room, and closing it caused the ancient counterweights to rattle and bounce in their loose tracks, and the unoiled pulleys to shriek so loudly I'm sure they could be heard all over Bonney Point. After that I pulled the covers up against the chill, and noticed as I did that moonlight was flooding in through the window and spilling across top the blanket.
... This is the last quiet morning here. This evening my ex-stepfather arrives, along with my stepbrother and his family, so we'll have 11 for dinner, and we'll fill all the bedrooms, maybe even one of the maid's rooms off the kitchen. And tomorrow I have to pack up and leave, which will be depressing -- there's nothing less appealling than leaving the cool mountains of Maine to make a long, unpleasant drive back to Washington, where it's still July. At least on the drive up you've got Maine as your reward; on the drive back, you get a succession of booby-prizes instead -- the Jersey Turnpike on a summer weekend, then a long session in the laundry room, followed by a return to the office and a day spent wading through piles of mail.
At least it's a lovely morning. A front of some sort came through last night, while we were cooking a pork tenderloin on the grill -- a gust of wind blew through the screen door and across the kitchen, and lightening flashed in the distance, beyond Elephant Mountain, and finally the house began to cool off. Much later it began to rain, gently, as it had the first nights I was here.