Finding the Beautiful

It was our last Big Adventure as a family, though we didn’t know it at the time.  Perhaps only Mama had some premonition of the changes that lay in wait for us upon our return from the trip to Boston, Bar Harbor and Prince Edward Island.  Of course, she couldn’t have forseen that I would meet the man who would eventually become my husband only two days after we got home, but the difference that Elizabeth and Zach starting to college in the fall would make was plain enough.  What was not plain was that the age of gold in which the whole world spread itself from our front door was coming to an end.  One by one we would soon step forth over that threshold, figuratively, if not literally—I into love, Elizabeth into art, Zach into engineering—and find that our own worlds awaited us in the Great World beyond.  But that summer we were untroubled by any portent of revolution in our midst.  I have always preferred my lasts to steal up behind me like that—when they have center stage they take some of the reality from the moments that we most want to realize.  Firsts can be flamboyant and fair-haired, but lasts are always at their best when demure and unassuming.

We flew out of Atlanta on a Wednesday morning.  Our friend Frank agreed to drive us to the airport on the condition that we go by way of The Dwarf House in Hapeville for a few unforgettable fried pies and some coffee, but I confess that the charms of this novelty were completely lost on me, transfixed as I was with the cold apprehension of my entire family boarding an airplane.  I had flown four times across continents and oceans, but had not yet abandoned my horror of take-offs and landings. 

Despite my forebodings, however, we were deposited without incident at Logan International, five people and fourteen suitcases, at the mercy of the ‘T’ at rush hour.  Daddy had been to Boston before, and while the rest of our carefully mapped vacation was Mama’s realm, this strange, frantic city where American history and intellectual loftiness lifted their heads as high as any skyscraper was his.  He talked like he had laid out the subway himself as he steered us through the jostling crowd, cheerfully pontificating on the ease with which one might whisk from one corner of this dizzying metropolis to the next.  And such is the case for a man traveling alone with a garment bag and maybe a brief case in tow, but the effortlessness begins to unravel a bit as you add an additional four people each bearing an average of three bags a piece.  The great daily exodus from the city had made a mighty chaos of an orderly system, and Mama called out frenzied instructions to her scattered brood as Daddy leapt without warning from a stopped train or raced down the side of the tracks to board another. 

I comforted myself with the fact that our hotel in Cambridge was ‘only steps’ from the subway as work-weary Bostonians looked down their noses at the goods and chattels assembled at my feet.  But as any seasoned traveler can attest, the use of the word ‘steps’ in the travel industry has a very dubious denotation.  We stumbled out into daylight, blinking like some newly emerged underground creatures, and stared at the sloping hill of pavement that rose before us alongside a coursing thoroughfare.  Heaving bags onto shoulders and pulling rolling suitcases behind, we set forth, trudging along in the August heat, ignoring as best we could the gaping bewilderment of residents stopped in traffic to our left.  A tribe of itinerant nomads we must have seemed, carrying all of our worldly goods on our backs, seeking a place to make camp for the night.  Eventually we all began to disregard Daddy’s optimistic assertions that the hotel was just ahead, only another block or two, and Mama turned to me with a grimace and panted, “This is the kind of thing that people get a divorce over.”

Our first evening in the city was given to Harvard.  Daddy could hardly wait to show us the ancient yard with its cool green solemnity encased in sturdy red brick walls.  So much of it we recognized from his photographs of when he had studied there at a judicial seminar a few summers before, but his enthusiasm in sharing it all with us gave his recollections a boyish slant.  How much more is something ours, even our own memory, when we can impart it to those we love.  I still remember his glowing and lucid descriptions of the famous paintings in the Art Museum depicting Rossetti’s Blessed Damosel and feeling that his viewing had been my own experience; though we were unable to see them for ourselves that week it seemed to me no great loss.  I had already seen them.     

I adored the high-brow feel of the bookshops and the brownstones, the aristocratic archness of the swans in the Public Gardens, the dingy feistiness of the North End.  And we saw it all, au pied.  That illustrious ‘Freedom Trail’ which has led tourists of all tribes and nations scrambling over the hallowed spots of America’s infancy became a thing of notoriety to us as we tramped along in the wake of Daddy’s purposeful stride, and by the end of the first day we had re-christened it ‘The Trail of Tears’.  How bitterly I lamented the decision in favor of fashion over comfort which had bade me turn up my nose at a perfectly respectable pair of tennis shoes in favor of the tiny, ill-suited sandals which were my lot for the entire trip.

We covered in two days what Daddy had perused in two weeks—we saw tea from the Boston tea party and ate clams at Legal’s Seafood; we visited the Old North Church, Copp’s Hill, and the ‘Cheers’ tavern; we shopped at Quincy Market and (some of us) went to a game at Fenway Park.  In the end, I couldn’t have taken another day of it, exciting as it all was.  But Elizabeth was in her element.

            “Someday I’m going to come back and live among the Italians in the North End,” she declared.

            “Not me,” I thought. “Give me a bit of earth and a house o’ dreams.”

           

On Saturday morning we stood outside of Hertz gazing in silent dismay at the Ford Taurus, dwarfed by our mountain of luggage piled beside it, which would take us to Maine and on to Canada.  By some amazing feat of nature we were able to squeeze everyone in, an achievement which required that the three of us in the back each hold a bag with another stuffed at our feet, while Mama ran a crude sort of canteen out of the front seat.  The nightmarish quality of the drive was broken at intervals by a pleasant stop at one or another of Maine’s idyllic coastal towns.  We would extricate ourselves from the painful positions we had assumed—at Ogunquit for lunch at a sandwich shop which hadn’t been altered since the 1950’s, at Camden for a visit with the statue of Edna St. Vincent Milay which was beloved of Liz and me by long association with Victoria magazine, at some hamlet in the middle of nowhere for McLobsters beneath a pair of golden arches.  But the journey must resume, for much as we might wish it otherwise, Bar Harbor was not coming to us.  And lest there be any mistake about it, it is a long, long drive from Boston to the tip of Maine. 

Bar Harbor itself would have bee
n worth twice such a trek, however.  We were little prepared, I believe for the exuberance with which Maine folk welcome their short season of warmth and sun, and were dazzled at every turn by grateful displays of floral profusion.  Borders of snapdragons and marigolds and impatiens and begonias before every house and along every fence; bushy ferns as high as a porch railing and window boxes spilling over with petunias; and where there was no earth planters and baskets overflowing with violas, dusty miller and ageratum.  All of this abundance, with a backdrop of impeccably tidy shingle ‘cottages’, snapping American flags, and the blue of the harbor shimmering in the distance was enough to wring ecstasies of poetic sentiment from the most prosaic of hearts. 

Our hotel was on the water, and every morning we ate our breakfast on a stone terrace watching the busy little harbor awaken for the day.  A walk to the shore was the next order of business, and the three of us would climb down the steep wooden steps to a beach that was unlike any we had ever seen before with smooth grey stones instead of sand and funny little mussels and clams for shells.  Liz and I would settle ourselves on boulders close to the water to sketch and write, respectively, and Zach would make daring forays down the rocky shore to see what lay beyond the bend in this strange new country.  But most often I would just sit in the breezy morning warmth with my head thrown back and let the peace and the quietness and the love of God in all the loveliness I saw restore my soul. 

On evening ventures into the little village we felt our Southern-ness most keenly when some idiosyncrasy of Northern speech or behavior in the natives we met puzzled us.  Shopkeepers and waiters spoke in a foreign tongue, and perfectly respectable, everyday words became snares and confusion when handled in this odd nasal accent.   It was then that one or another of us might remark to the rest in dark tones, reminiscent of Cooper’s Mogwa, ‘These are the ways of the Yang-ees’.  I found myself emphasizing my accent most shamelessly as if in compensation for frequent quandaries over what had just been said to me, and smiling a wicked inward smile when asked to repeat myself.           

The strolling night-life was winsome in its innocent sense of leisure.  Whole families wandered about enjoying ice cream cones, musicians got up concerts in little courtyards, and lovers sat on green painted benches overlooking the velvety water beneath the firs and the stars.  We had our own favorite coffee shop, whence we would wander nightly, and it gave us a sense of belonging, a bit of home.  The proprietor would be playing a haunting album by the yet unheard-of Sarah McLaughlin, and we would smile at each other over steaming mugs and say perhaps we could find it when we went back to Atlanta. 

At home, Zach always seemed to have a penchant for anything that read ‘market price’ on a menu, and it was, I believe, with a sense of relief that Mama and Daddy were able to satisfy this appreciation for the finer things in life by several visits to the waterfront shanties where lobster could be had for a mere pittance a pound.  My first experience was rather alarming, requiring detailed instructions and, much to my chagrin, one of those tacky plastic bibs, and I endeavored with all my might and main to banish the thought of Miss Hewitt’s biology class.  But by the end of the week we were all performing the rite with casual confidence, talking but little and laughing a bit between succulent mouthfuls at the thoroughness with which Zach approached his task. 

The wilds of Acadia were ours during the day.  There among pines and brooding firs and blue waves crashing upon a red-bouldered shore we found the heart of Maine in all its rugged simplicity.  One afternoon, leaving Liz with her sketchbook at a breathtaking vista, and Zach at the foot of a rocky slope that was just asking to be hiked, Mama and I took a carriage ride through the park, savoring the more refined of its rustic charms.  It was a lovely drive, but most of my enjoyment lay in beholding my mother’s pleasure as we ambled through the trees, the horses’ hooves ringing on the gravel drive. We stopped at the Jordan Pond House for tea, served on the lawn in Adirondack chairs since the late eighteen-hundreds.  I won’t admit how many warm popovers with fresh strawberry jam were consumed between us—it remains a closely guarded secret to this day.  I dream of them yet, right down to the butter running indecorously down my chin. 

Every night we watched a ferry enter the wharf just next to our hotel, and every morning we’d watch it chug out again bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia.  The mere fact that Halifax was close enough to Prince Edward Island to attain even the slightest mention in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s books leant enchantment to this hulking, noisy monster of commerce; Liz and I would stand on the balcony as it went and confer upon what we would do first when we finally reached The Island.  Wispy fears fluttered unspoken between us—would it be all that we had dreamt of?

           
To my dying day I will never forget my first sight of Prince Edward’s shore.  In a mad rush of joy Liz and I scrambled over the dunes, halting in silent amazement as the red sand and blue St. Lawrence gulf came into view.  Then we laughed—laughed out loud together for sheer delight.  It was too beautiful to be true.  And there we were in the midst of it, as if we belonged.  Lucy Maud had given us our passage long ago, and so with the uncanny sense of ownership that one assumes so readily in a dream we set forth upon the solitary beach.  We strolled far, speaking little, the waves lapping our feet and the wind, wild and happy, grabbing our skirts and tossing our hair.  I was filled with such unutterable joy—it seemed to me as if some mystic veil had been drawn aside revealing God’s pleasure in our maiden bliss.

We were staying across the road at none other than the White Sands Hotel—Dalvay-by-the-Sea in real life.  Dark and richly-paneled, with wide verandahs, deep armchairs and fires crackling in every grate, it had the feel of an English country house.  There was a wide front hall, which Liz and I made a point of promenading very carefully in our Victorian clothes.  In the afternoons we took tea with scones and Devonshire cream and dainty assortments of sandwiches and cakes.  In the evenings after dinner we would sit in the library or in the hall by the great fireplace, with our journals and books of poetry.  And afterwards perhaps a stroll under a silver moon that seemed to shed its radiance abroad just for us.  In short, the very portals of heaven for two very romantic girls who had not the slightest trouble imagining themselves heroines in a gilded age novel.      

All was not polish and elegance, however, for one must keep in mind that the Adams family as a whole is a rather lively band.  This compounded with the fact that we had spent two weeks sleeping in the same hotel rooms, there will be found some justifiable cause for the hilarity that erupted one night over Zach’s trundle bed which simply would not lay flat.  There he sat with his legs straight out before him and his back like a ramrod, till he threw his weight against the bed, reversing his situation so that his head was in the proper position but his feet pointed up towards the ceiling. &nb
sp;The more we laughed the more he rocked to and fro, falling each time with a resounding thump on the polished wood floor.  At length the matter was sorted out to a satisfactory conclusion, and Daddy had just turned out the light when there was an imperious knock at the door.

            “We must ask you to keep quiet—other guests are trying to sleep,” came the discreet whisper of the desk clerk, and with it some indistinguishable mutterings from a disgruntled neighbor in the hall.  Pillows were employed to stifle giggles as Daddy apologized through the door and the mutterings stiffly replied.  The next morning at breakfast we were keenly conscious of the glares pointed in our direction from the table to our left.

            “Why, I thought you were in room two!” their server exclaimed genially as she took the check. 

            “We were, until late last night,” the gentleman replied.  “We were compelled to move to another part of the hotel.”  This he said with his eyes fixed on us so piercingly that only a sheer force of will held another explosion at bay until he and his wife had left the room.         

Green Gables was nice, and owing to a slight drizzle most amiably deserted.  But it was at Park Corner, the home of Lucy Maud’s beloved Aunt Sallie and her rollicking cousins, that we really found the essence of her world.  This house, with a whispering spruce wood behind and a golden sweep of meadow before, was Silver Bush in every particular.  I half-expected Judy Plum to amble down those steep attic stairs into the kitchen and offer us a ‘leedle bite’ at any moment.  Lucy Maud spent some of the happiest days of her life in that house, and her love of it is evident, not only in her portrayal of it specifically, but in the tender handling in her writings of what any true home should be.      

One of the very best moments came, oddly enough, just as we were leaving the Island.  Liz and I had our hearts set on seeing ‘Gus’ lighthouse’, endeared to our souls by familiar association with the Avonlea series.  Far from the traditional tourist route, a sketchy little paragraph in the back of a brochure one of us had chanced to pick up was all that we could offer by way of directions, but Daddy was confident. 

            “Leave it to me—we’ll find it!” he cheerfully asserted.

Mama groaned and scrutinized the map spread across her knees.  She had known Daddy’s navigational skills of old. 

The road wound past fields and through birches and poplars and became a ribbon of red between the rows of rich green.  A misting rain began to fall and each twist and turn deepened our growing conviction that this lane knew how to hold its own counsel.  But just as we began to lose hope a red turret broke above the spruces and suddenly we were at its foot.  Liz and I tumbled out of the car before Daddy even had it stopped and ran about with little shrieks of glee.  Fortunately there was none but ourselves to see the spectacle the two of us made: umbrellas blowing inside-out in our wild circuit, clapping and squealing, dropping to our knees on the step and gazing up adoringly with clasped hands.  Daddy remarked that the keeper on that lone point must have stroked his grizzled beard and wondered to himself at these strange American lighthouse-worshippers!     

It was situated on the edge of those dear red cliffs, fringed beyond with weathered spruces and, farther on, a secret field of waving golden grass.  Liz and I stood there in the wind and misty sunshine, rapt with happiness, our arms about each other.  To this day I am deeply moved by this token of the Lord’s tenderness towards the dreams that we carry.  This little spot, the tossing sea below, the very caress of the wind represented more to me than I could articulate—a host of lovely girlhood fancies; a glittering ideal of the future; an indelible impression that God meant life to be beautiful…

           
I carried many tokens and treasures home with me: a book of Handel’s arias from a music shop in Boston, a tiny sterling lobster for my charm bracelet, pressed wildflowers from the sea cliffs beyond the lighthouse.  But the very best, I believe, of all that I brought back was one cherished thought—simple, yet startlingly vital.  It was the realization that I lived in my very favorite place on all the earth.  I belonged there, and it belonged to me.  Lucy Maud Montgomery’s capable pen captured Prince Edward Island in all its pastoral beauty and immortalized its varied moods and seasons; but it was her deep love for it that shed glory on the everyday and endeared it to her readers.  I looked about at my oaks and pines with new eyes; I felt the warm sweet Southern breeze on my cheek and saw the molten gold of sunset sparkling through the verdant arms of trees in summer dress and thought, Out of the whole world God has given me this place to love.  Its particular beauty was mine to value, to commend to others if I might.  It was my own charge, this sweet search for splendor in the commonplace.  Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it within us, or we find it not, wrote Emerson.  But perhaps it is the greatest fortune of all to find it where we have been all along.

3 Responses to “Finding the Beautiful”

  1. Claudia says:

    What a lovely reminescence of a truly golden time. Thank you for recapturing it …my heart is bursting with memories also.

  2. Wendy says:

    I’ve been pampering myself, on this overcast, Sunday afternoon, with the indulgence of lounging in bed with my laptop, enchanted with your stories section.
    I had never read of your trip to Prince Edward Island although I know we’ve talked about it on several occasions. As I read about you and Liz, standing on the lighthouse cliffs, with the mist and spray, I felt as if I were there with you. Thank you for such a lovely reminder of all the things “Anne” and for the truth
    of finding just what we desire in our own backyard.

  3. Judi Hayes says:

    I loved reading this post. “Firsts can be flamboyant and fair-haired, but lasts are always at their best when demure and unassuming.” So true. And “Out of the whole world God has given me this place to love.” What a wonderful epiphany!

    I have been searching for a post I read a long time ago about how your mom decided to home school you and your siblings. I cannot find it. Can you help me find where it is? I would be so appreciative!

    Thank you.

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