letterhead detail

The Memories That Matter
From Many Summers
in a Maine Cottage

By Lawrence Biemiller

CAMP WINDSOR HILL, RANGELEY LAKE, MAINE -- It's been a cool, wet year here in the mountains of western Maine. At the little farm out past town where we buy vegetables and herbs, they've had to plow some fields under because crops were rotting in the rain-soaked earth. What's still alive is late, because of the cold and the damp. On our hillside an impromptu spring has appeared in the middle of the grass, making the path from the house down to the dock so mushy that the flagstones slip from their assigned places when you step on them. But along the road the wild lupine -- pronounced lu-pin -- are more spectacular than anyone in my family can remember, crowding against the gravel and spreading thick up the embankment to the edge of the woods. Each stalk carries a long, elegant cluster of flowers -- mostly blue, with some white mixed in. Their profusion makes us feel as rich as Vanderbilts.

Stopping over in Amherst, Mass., on my way up here, I wandered into a bookstore and came out owning a book called Daily Life in Ancient Rome. It describes how the Romans shaped their cities, organized their days, ate their meals, ordered their relationships, even how they arranged their funerals. Written by Florence Dupont, a professor of Latin at the University of Nice, the book offers details about Roman life that you don't read in grander histories preoccupied with politics and wars. ("Roman cooks excelled in the kinds of cooking that totally transformed their raw materials and they were particularly expert in producing stuffings. One famous recipe was known as 'Trojan pig,' because it was full of other creatures stuffed inside it, just as the famous Trojan horse had been full of armed men.")

As much detail as Ms. Dupont manages to include -- the English edition runs almost to 300 pages -- she has no choice but to omit far more, and also to generalize wildly. ("The Romans thrived in company and were happiest away from home.") Sitting in one of the old wooden chairs out on the porch, reading about the Romans' banquets and sexual habits, I start wondering how history will remember us. Will schoolchildren a century from now learn about anyone besides our politicians and our soldiers? Will teachers convey anything of how we lived, how we loved, what we did for fun?

The history of this camp, for instance, is nowhere recorded. I can't guarantee that some scholar, centuries hence, will be interested in it the way Ms. Dupont is fascinated by the Roman Republic, but you never know. As I fix dinner, I can see just by looking around that the artifact record is badly jumbled already -- the kitchen contains everything from the original sinks and the wood stove to a microwave oven, along with ricers and aspic molds and utensils I don't even know the names of. Ms. Dupont, I note, draws on accounts of Roman life by Cato and Cicero and Ovid, whose words make sense of what excavations reveal. I offer the following notes to supplement whatever nails, shards, doorknobs, and lost coins the archaeologists and historians of the future unearth out here on Bonney Point:

There is no cornerstone to say so, but the house was built in 1923 by a well-to-do couple from Baltimore -- my stepfather's grandparents. They had three children. A cookie tin that might survive (dig for it just to the right of the hearth) holds hundreds of post cards mailed here in the '20s and '30s, from friends in Atlantic City, from relatives touring Austria and Switzerland, from my step-grandmother when she went to her first sleep-away summer camp (she's now in her 80s). In case it turns up somewhere, the painting of a man in rumpled hat is a portrait of my stepfather's grandfather.

In the early years, people came up by train and were brought across the lake in steam launches. The steep, switchback driveway had not yet been built, but there was a garage up on the road, of which I can now find no trace. A path (check for flagstones in front of the house) linked all the camps on Bonney Point.

The smaller of the two outbuildings up the hill from the house has sheltered firewood for years, but it was originally an ice house. Ice was cut from the lake in the winter and packed away in the icehouse in sawdust, and it would last out the summer cooling butter and milk. The larger outbuilding is a two-story structure with an unexpectedly handsome Italianate profile. It's still called the woodshed, but now it's used to store canoe paddles and old life preservers. (The aluminum mast and the sail, if any nylon tatters survive, belong to Fudge, a temperamental dinghy that has spent the past few summers upside-down in tall grass by the pump house at the edge of the lake.) The woodshed has a bathroom because the male "help" who came with the family from Baltimore slept upstairs. Three dusty iron bedsteads are about all that's up there now.

Wallace was probably the last person to stay in the woodshed, says my stepfather, who has been coming here for 58 summers. Wallace's successor, a gentle man named Emmanuel whom everyone liked, stayed in one of the bedrooms off the kitchen that were originally reserved for a cook and a maid. The conceit of the camp, which may confound historians, was its rusticity: A well-off family came to Maine to spend one month of each summer in a house with plain furniture, unpainted walls, and bare bulbs hanging from the ceilings. But they brought with them people to do the actual work of living here -- to bring drinking water from the old Mingo Spring, to heat up the wood stove in the morning because a set of serpentine pipes on its back was the only water heater. Rusticity was relative: The china cabinet in the dining room still has finger bowls, and the sideboard holds not only salad forks and dinner forks but also luncheon forks and luncheon knives (smaller than those used for dinner -- look for all these toward the middle of the site).

It's been years since people lived like that here. Archaeologists will find no artifacts suggesting it, but now everyone helps with the cooking and the dishes, with carrying firewood and getting water from the new spring out on Route 16. None of this seems to interfere with enjoying ourselves -- basking in sunshine on the dock, taking a new generation of kids to Small's Falls, driving out the Straton Road after dinner to look for moose, and especially reading. An old television antenna has clung for years to the porch outside the kitchen (it might turn up near the graters), but there hasn't been a workingTV in the house in at least two decades. Here people read, on the porch and in the living room and in the bedrooms. The bookshelves prove it: Tom Swift and His Electric Runabout, Black Beauty, The Last of the Mohicans, The Thurber Carnival, poems by Burns and Tennyson, paperbacks by Tom Clancy and Danielle Steel. (This summer, potboilers were eclipsed by Scott Adams's The Dilbert Principle, a splendid send-up of dysfunctional organizations. Don't bother digging for it -- it was too hot a property to leave behind.)

Thinking about the camp like this gives me a new appreciation for the intricacies of the historian's job, as well as for the discipline's shortcomings. What excavations cannot unearth, what history so rarely accounts for, are the memories people cherish together of places like this -- of family farms in Minnesota, rambling old apartments on the Upper West Side, small Texas towns, family reunions in North Carolina. Here we laugh year after year about the night my stepbrother woke everyone up because he'd heard a bear in the kitchen (it was a raccoon in the garbage on the side porch). We remember my stepsister's chocolate pies and bathing in the chilly lake in the rain (the new septic system is big enough that we can use the bathtubs). You can argue that none of this has anything to do with history -- neither the bats nor the baths changed the course of world events. But it's the memories we share with others that define who we are as people, as members of communities -- memories of blizzards and barbecues, of weddings and wars, of summer days on a porch. They can unite us, and they can make us feel as rich as Vanderbilts. They are the history that matters most, I realize now, and the history that is most easily lost. I guess that's why we keep coming back here, to refresh those memories every summer. I don't know how else we would keep them alive.

Copyright (c) 1996 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc. http://chronicle.com Title: The Memories That Matter From Many Summers in a Maine Cottage Published: 96/08/09

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