Published in the NY Times, July 12, 2002
HAVENS; In Summer, You Can Go Home Again
By SARA RIMER
THE windows of the old farmhouse had been opened once again to the sea air. Peggy Bowditch and her husband, Nat, had made the beds and piled the beach towels in the drawer. Mrs. Bowditch had stocked the kitchen with local strawberries and turkey potpies, a family favorite bought from a local store. All was ready for the annual arrival of the grandchildren at Hancock Point, Me.
Days before, Mrs. Bowditch was taking an anticipatory walk through the house, where she has spent summers for half a century. She strolled past her prize-winning garden, up the steps to the white wraparound porch and into the living room, with its dark-paneled walls hung with old photographs of the family on vacation. One showed a 16-year-old Peggy Bowditch: a willowy blonde in shorts and a halter top reclining on a rock at Acadia National Park.
Mrs. Bowditch led the way through the five small, low-ceilinged upstairs bedrooms. ''Being the older daughter, I had the front bedroom near my
mother,'' she explained. ''I had friends who would sleep over and we would talk all night, which would bother my mother. As soon as I could, I moved to the back of the house, to get away from my mother knowing what we were talking about.'' She walked down the short hallway. ''It was sometimes pressed into service as an extra room for babies quiet babies,'' she said and into the bathroom. She paused, pointing to the ancient metal mirror propped on the porcelain sink.
''I remember looking in that mirror one summer when I was a teenager and thinking, 'It doesn't get better than this,' '' she said. Suddenly, she was not a graying, 67-year-old grandmother, but a 16-year-old girl the girl in the photograph downstairs with a tan that made her blue eyes bluer and long hair bleached by the sun during afternoons spent sailing on Frenchman Bay.
For many Americans, summer is the season of escape and nostalgia, a cherished three-month period of discovery and renewal. ''Summertime, oh summertime,'' E. B. White wrote in his essay ''Once More to the Lake.'' ''Pattern of life indelible, the fade-proof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweet fern and the juniper forever and ever. Summer without end.''
Some, like the Bowditches and the 100 or so families who have come to Hancock Point generation after generation, spend their summers returning to a familiar place: a house in the country, a bungalow at the beach, a cabin in the woods, a picnic spot in the wilderness. Others explore new, unchartered territory. The open road -- and America -- beckon. When, like the far-flung Bowditches (the four adult children live in four
different states), you return to the same place season after season in this case, a five-mile long peninsula jutting into Frenchman Bay, about four hours north of Portland each summer is seen through the refracted memory of summers past.
There was the summer Mrs. Bowditch was 11 and discovered the Nancy Drew section at the Hancock Point Library. (''I'd always be sad that I was a fast reader because I loved the book, and would finish it quickly.'') The summer, in her early 20's, when she had Nat, her colicky second baby. (''We were exiled to the back end of the farmhouse so the rest of the family could sleep.'') The summer her husband mistook a neighbor's 6-month-old for his own 3-month-old after a dinner party and placed him in the back seat of the car for the journey home. (''I told him I didn't bring the baby. I had hired a baby sitter.'') All becomes part of the family lore.
The first summer people began arriving in Hancock Point in the late 19th century, traveling on the Bar Harbor Express from Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Many were academics, from Harvard, Yale and Vassar, with summers off. Wealthy lumber and paper mill owners came from nearby Bangor. They built shingle houses large enough to accommodate growing families and houseguests on the ledge beside the water, with spectacular views of the mountains of Acadia National Park, or farther inland.
Young people courted over picnics, sailing races and tennis matches, with many of the romances ending in marriage. ''This is an old WASP breeding ground,'' said the elder Nat Bowditch, a 70-year-old retired banker from Pennsylvania whose prominent New England maritime family summered on the nearby Isle au Haut. His wife's great-grandfather William T. Sampson, a Navy admiral, took his ships to Bar Harbor after the Spanish-American War, then went to Hancock Point to have lunch with missionaries he had known while serving in China. After lunch the admiral bought a barn.
Summer after summer the same fragrance, wild roses mixing with sea air, wafts over Hancock Point, down the road from Hancock, population 2,400. There are no town house developments, no traffic lights, no traffic jams. The only commercial establishment is the 11-room Crocker House Country Inn. It still costs only a few hundred dollars to join the sailing club, and no yachts are moored there. The big money (and the tourists) are in the better-known resorts on Mount Desert Island Northeast Harbor, Seal Harbor and Bar Harbor.
For summer residents, a mix of college professors and retired nurses as well as doctors and lawyers, all in the uniform of shorts and moccasins, the rituals still unfold as they have for decades. Sailing. Picking berries. Hikes up Cadillac Mountain. Braving the 57-degree waters of Frenchman Bay. Saturday night dinner at Crocker House. And yet time has marked Hancock Point as it has other towns. The summer people no longer arrive by train. Fewer and fewer stay for the entire summer. Either they can't afford it, or they are working. Even the children, with their busy schedules revolving around organized sports and specialized camps, are cutting their time on Hancock Point short these days.
The oceanfront houses are starting to sell for $1 million. S.U.V.'s are appearing on the country roads along with the station wagons and Volvos. On Peggy Bowditch's road, an art gallery owner from New York is building a big house with lots of glass that is nothing like the traditional seaside cottages. And home delivery of the mail has come to Hancock Point, alienating some of the regulars, who feel it's downright unsociable not to make the daily trip to the post office.
From his front porch on the other side of the point from Mrs. Bowditch, Fred Stetson, who at 86 is spending his 87th summer there, surveys the bay through binoculars and grumbles about the changes. ''In 1952 my father built the second house on our road,'' he said. ''Now I count 22.'' For Bill Hammond, summer begins on Route 1, right about the time he and his family drive through bustling Ellsworth, past the strip malls and tourist motels, past the L. L. Bean factory outlet and Jordan's Snack Bar, and Mr. Hammond gets the white steeple of the Congregational church in Hancock in his sights.
They're getting close. Mr. Hammond makes the turn onto Hancock Point Road, passing the town hall at the corner, the open fields dotted with wildflowers, the gray and white frame houses spaced far apart, and the weathered, 100-year-old gray shingle Hancock Point chapel, where his family joins the other summer residents on Sunday's. He turns onto the dirt road beside the water, and finally they are at the dark gray house with the white trim and the red doors.
His sons Churchill, 18, and Brooks, 15, jump out of the Jeep and fly down the grassy hill and the wooden steps to the beach. Mr. Hammond is 54. He has been coming to Hancock Point since he was 11, and his grandparents lived in the house where he summers now. Watching his sons, he remembers his own boyhood dash to the beach, remembers the summer his youngest son, Harrison, then 4, missed the steps, fell and broke his arm. They had to turn around and drive back to the hospital in Ellsworth.
''There's always one big accident every summer,'' Churchill said. ''Last summer I was cutting wood with an axe, and I split my ankle open. There was blood everywhere.'' Ten stitches were required.
The day after their arrival, Mr. Hammond and his sons sailed their 20-foot boat, the Quickstep, to Bar Harbor and back in a brisk 15-knot wind. ''Spray was coming over the bow,'' Mr. Hammond said. ''Churchill and Brooks were with me. It was my fantasy.''
Mr. Hammond, a publishing consultant, has moved his family from Kansas City to Washington to Boston to suburban Minneapolis, where they have lived since 1995. Hancock Point, he says, is the anchor, ''the one refuge,'' the reason he still drives for three straight days every July.
On a clear day, he can look across the bay from his house and see Cadillac Mountain. He knows all his neighbors, the Bowditches, the Melchers, the Crosbys. His children are friends with the children of people he played with during his boyhood summers. The taxes are steep, but this is the one house, he says, that he would never sell. ''It would be selling my soul,'' he said. For one full-time resident, Sandy Phippen, 60, Hancock Point represents more than just a summer retreat. It was his first window into the world beyond his own, one that seemed almost impossibly romantic to him when he was growing up in the adjoining town of Hancock, and he would tag along with his mother when she cleaned the summer cottages. As he got older, he delivered milk to those cottages and mowed lawns.
''My uncle said, 'Sandy, don't get involved with those people, they'll break your heart,' '' he recalled.
And so, says Sandy, they did. ''A couple people said, 'You're smart, you should go to college, maybe we can help you,' '' he said. ''But it was just talk.'' The scholarship he imagined never materialized.
But he was grateful for the help he did get from summer people, who gave him books, clothes, record albums, a sense of the possibilities beyond Hancock, where the natives scraped by as fishermen, farmers and railroad workers. The visitors helped the town, too, making generous donations, inviting the children to join the sailing program.
Mr. Phippen made it to Syracuse University, earning a master's degree in English. He has since gone on to write 11 books, including a two-volume history of Hancock Point. But when he returned to Hancock at age 36, to help out his aging mother after his father died, he discovered he was still the boy from town. ''One woman said to me, 'Sandy, do you still mow lawns?' '' Recently, Mr. Phippen, who now teaches at the high school in Orono, 50 miles from Hancock, sat down to dinner at 5:30 with his 86-year-old mother in a nearly empty dining room at the Crocker House. They gossiped about the locals, complained about the oppressively steamy weather and lamented the fact that Mr. Phippen would soon be going to three memorial services for summer residents who had died over the winter.
By 8 p.m., when Mr. Phippen was finishing his lemon cream sherbet, the summer people started arriving for dinner, the clatter of their conversations suddenly filling the room. Mr. Phippen's face brightened as he looked across the room and talked about how he looked forward to the renewal of summer and the arrival of old friends like the Bowditches and the Hammonds.
Later, back at the weathered farmhouse that he has lived in since he was a child, sitting in the book-lined library, the door open to the field beyond, the summer night air cooling the room, a wistfulness crept into the conversation as Mr. Phippen reflected on his summers at Hancock Point. As with Peggy Bowditch, the years seemed to melt away as he spoke, and it was not hard to imagine this aging man as a vibrant youth tantalized by the glimpse of lives so different from his own. ''You know, I did want to be a summer person,'' he said. ''They seemed so glamorous to me. They ran the world.''
This article is the first in a series of reports on how Americans spend their summers.
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