One summer, when my twin boys were three, we loaded up the car with pull-ups, crayons, plastic toys and, oh yes, clothing and swimsuits, and headed north on a seven-hour drive to Maine. Our destination was a lakeside resort, called Quisisana, in Southern Maine, where I’d worked one summer as a chambermaid when I was 19.
I was, it must be said, a lousy chambermaid, overly sensitive to cleaning products, dreamy and slow, inclined to “skim,” for far too long, any novel that happened to be lying on a pillow when I was supposed to be making the bed. And yet the sensory experience of the place, after nine weeks, was deep inside me: the carpet of pine needles along the pathways; the bright, fresh smell of the wood cabins; the sound of the bells that rang out, announcing the start of a meal, like someone’s mother hollering down the street, only more melodic. And there was the lake, with its small, sandy beach, a showcase for sunsets, a reliable provider of breezes. I had felt connected to the resort when I was cleaning other people’s toilets; I was fairly sure I would like it more as a guest.
On the way up, I wondered how much the resort would have changed: If there would be Wi-Fi in the cabins, or, God forbid, flat screens; if the Sunday night buffet had been consigned to the annals of gluttony; if the assembled dining room staff, on the Fourth of July (at the close of lunch), still sang “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”
E.B. White once wrote about his return to a lake in Maine where he’d spent many childhood summers: It was as if “the years were a mirage, and there had been no years.” When we arrived, it was all just as I’d remembered: the crunch of the gravel in the driveway, the immediate sweet smell of sap and pine that hits when you first step outside the car, the print newspapers lined up for guests in the Main Lodge, their owners’ last names scrawled, always, in green markers. There was no Wi-Fi in the cabins; the water was still spring fed. Jane — the resort’s formidable owner, Jane Orans — “does not like change,” a fellow guest reminded me.
Neither does my family, it turns out. Every year for the past 10 years, summer after summer, we have packed up the car, debated whether to take the scenic route or the faster one, and driven all the way back to Quisisana, where we know, once we arrive, we will eat oatmeal cookies at the counter in the main lodge; the kids will peel off while my husband and I nap; and we will eventually wander over to the cabins of old friends who always come the week we do, to ask how their drive went. There will be time, plenty of time, to catch up on more important matters, and on even less important ones, on long days by the lake. There will be Maine lobster on Thursday night and blueberry pie on Saturday. All will be as it should be.
The vacation is, by now, an annual summer rite, its traditions and smells so familiar that I sometimes feel my current self blurring into the one who was there the year earlier, or the year before, or even some 30 years earlier. By the halfway point of vacation, I can fall asleep on a grassy finger that juts into the lake and wake, an hour later, disoriented: Which me am I? Am I late for laundry duty or, oh, right, maybe I should be finding my kids?
My kids, maybe especially, regard as sacrosanct this one-week vacation, which promises a freedom and independence that also has a throwback appeal. The children who come with their families the same week every summer tend to travel as a pack, readily absorbing new ones into the fold. The older ones look after the younger, all of them keeping busy with chipmunk-chasing, elaborate games of tag, highly engineered sand excavations that they manage on the beach.
At night, the children, along with the grown-ups, attend performances put on by the staff, who are mostly professional and student musicians and performers: Guests see, for example, chamber music Sunday night, a musical the next. The children want to be included in all of it, which is why seventh graders who ordinarily resist high culture with Maoist zeal have been overheard comparing notes on the performance of the soprano in “L’elisir d’Amore.” After the shows, the tweens and teens stay out as late as we’ll let them; sometimes they lie by the lake, stare at the stars and confide to each other the kinds of things you can tell friends you have known for years — but only see once a year.
My friends, I know, sometimes think that we are crazy to go, time after time, to the same vacation spot. There is an opportunity cost to returning to the same place every summer — adventures forsaken, new tastes that go untried. But there is also something emotionally reassuring about returning to a beautiful benchmark with punctual regularity. We don’t measure the boys’ height on the inside of a closet; but amid the blur of family life we can measure their progress by the lake and recall it distinctly. There was the summer a sweet member of the beach staff coaxed the boys, as toddlers, to dunk their heads underwater for the first time; the summer they believed the older girls really were mermaids; the summer they first jumped off the dock, first swam, first kept an eye out for the smaller swimmers.
The people who run Quisisana would be the first to say that what makes the experience stand out — as much as the music, as much as the setting — are the people we see there, that same week every year, old friends who share the same experience. To me, they also provide a kind of poignant benchmark. There was that first summer when we heard that the charming older man with the walker was too frail to come back; the year the brilliant older woman came back with a cane. In conversations by the lake, as we hear each others’ stories of the past 12 months, we are reminded that a year is the blink of an eye, and yet long enough for a life to change dramatically — with the loss of maybe a job or, so much worse, a loved one.
As we talk, we feel the sun on our skin and we watch our strong kids swim, and by Thursday we mourn the inevitable end that’s coming — how could Saturday come so fast? — and we promise, fervently, that we will see each other next summer, just like we did this summer. And we think, when we leave, that next summer can’t come soon enough.
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