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Posts Tagged ‘Isles of Shoals’

About ten days ago, Ben and I returned from a stay at our last best place in the world, Star Island.  Pretty much we’ve been going there since before we can remember, and so it’s been part of our individual and combined family traditions forever.  I first arrived there at the age of eighteen months;  Ben was conceived there, and we are pretty sure we met there when we were four years old.  Our older child, Emily, went when she was a preschooler for the first time — thus securing the same kind of memory that we both held in our heads — and Abby’s first trip came when she was about nine months old, for an open up weekend in May.

My father-in-law helped build many of the buildings on the island and had a huge (now, forgotten by many) role in reopening Star Island after the second world war.  My mother-in-law came along with the kids, helping wherever she could, and making sure that her children had a great experience on this rocky, remote (and, in the 1950s) very rustic island with few services, drinking water imported by boat from Portsmouth, and one ship-to-shore radio telephone.

Over the years, generations of our family have had the same experience, and have gone to Star Island to spend a summer or an extended period of time working on what we call The Rock.  You really can’t go unless you can deal with seagulls, a couple of showers a week only, no cars, no televisions or media save what you might get from the wireless networks that can be up or down, and boat service that is sometimes subject to weather and engine failure.

And yet, we all pretty much remember it as the best time of our lives.  Where else can you spend the summer with just under 100 other young adults in a naturally pristine setting, feeling completely away from the rest of the world, working hard, playing hard, and drinking in the salt air and the starlight?  The shooting stars are better seen from the grass in front of the Star Island summerhouse or near the summer house; the swimming’s better in Smuttynose cove; the lime rickeys taste like nowhere else when they come from the Star Island Snack Bar.  It’s just the way it is.

And now, Abby.  Our second child is in the middle of that unparalleled experience and she is having the summer she, and we, always dreamed of.  She’s the fourteenth member of our family to spend a summer this way, and from all reports, it’s as magical as it ever was, as amazing as we dreamed it would be.  She’s sailing, trying out new jobs and helping out her friends, sun tanning and swimming, spending long days both working hard and celebrating summer in the perfect New Hampshire sea air.  And how bad can life be if you get up in the morning, gaze out the window, and see a sunrise and sailboats that look like a Childe Hassam painting every day?  Hassam, along with John Greenleaf Whittier and many of the top writers and artists of their day, flocked to the Isles of Shoals in the summer.  And we are fortunate enough to know why.

Photo of Abby on Star Island

A life like no other: Abby on Star Island, 2013

Before she went to Star this summer, Abby worried (as she has a tendency to do).  About whether she would have friends.  About whether she would like it. About (I think) whether she would disappoint us if she didn’t, given her family pedigree with the place.  About six hours after she left the dock in Portsmouth, bound for Star, I got a text:  “Made friends :>) ” And that was the start of this magical summer…the same one we’ve had, the same one our older daughter, Emily, had, and the same one we hope for the next generation of Soule…my nephew, Gabriel, now five months old.

With ongoing care and love, Star Island has endured, with its fishing cottages — dating to the early nineteenth century — and the grand hotel, built in the mid-1800s, preserved and still open for business.  The harbor’s the same, the scarlett pimpernel still blooms in the rocks.  The stars are still gorgeous at night, the water clear and pure, and the air brisk and clean.  Life is still very, very good on Star Island, thank heaven and earth.

And Number Fourteen’s on The Rock, working hard and having the summer of her life.  These gifts — given and received again — keeps bringing us blessings to celebrate, and to share.

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It was a perfect day, I remember.  I got up, sent Abby off to second grade that morning, kissed Ben goodbye, and went to work.  I kept looking at the sky as I commuted on Storrow Drive with my car pool buddies.  It was gorgeous, sunny, warm, skies clear.  Folks were out on the Esplanade along the Charles, and summer was hanging on and holding us in her embrace.  I was determined to take a walk at lunch time across the Common, at least, just to drink in the richness of the moment.

Then, it all happened.  All the tragedy, the unspeakable disaster, the terror of ten years ago.  Perfection, and innocence, vanished in moments.  We were told to go home, be with our families, be safe, get away from the State House and Beacon Hill.  And as I drove back home to Lexington, I kept wondering how such a beautiful day had turned into such a hideous catastrophe.  More than that, I really did wonder if, as T.S. Eliot suggested, the world were ending, “Not with a bang but with a whimper.”

My mother called, wanting to take us out to dinner at a really nice restaurant.  “If we’re going to blow up, we might as well have a good meal first,” she proclaimed.  Sure enough, I remember ordering Duck a l’orange for my entree, with escargots for a first course.  “What the hell,” I thought, my dad was right:  “When you’re on the Titanic, go first class.”  As we left the restaurant, we could hear the military planes taking off and landing from Hanscom Field nearby.

When we got home and had tucked Abby into bed and talked to our older daughter, Emily, at college, we went outside and stood on the steps and looked up at the night sky.  It was so…eerily…quiet.  No other aircraft, of course, just military planes circling Boston and other major cities, trying to protect us from a danger no one really knew.  We went to bed, held each other, cried, and hoped, for our children’s sake, we’d all live to see the next day.

I remember asking Ben whether we should try to get to Star Island.  Star, a place we had both grown up spending summers on, is only seven miles from Rye, New Hampshire.  Yet it feels like a million miles…like safety…like a refuge.  It’s an illusion, of course.  If major catastrophic damage struck the East Coast, it would almost assuredly hit the Isles of Shoals too.  But the feeling of being away from the madness was so strong, and my need to find somewhere safe to be was so palpable, that I was seriously thinking about running away with everyone to hide on Star.

All these thoughts came sweeping back into my mind because we were, last weekend, on Star Island on another beautiful, perfect day.  Ten years later, we were blessed to have both our daughters with us.  The sun shone, it was warm and the sky was deep blue.  I officiated at a Service of Remembrance for those who have helped to shape Star Island into the iconic and magical conference and retreat center that it has become.  Standing in the new Memorial Courtyard, leading worship as memorial stones were laid to honor our ‘ancestors,’ I could hear the waves crashing on the rocks, the cry of the gulls, feel the breezes, smell the salt tang in the air.

Later our family members helped Ben run an amazing treasure/trivia/scavenger hunt for our friends – an activity fun and fascinating.  We drank Lime Rickeys on the old hotel porch, Ben and Abby painted, Emily napped, I caught up with people I’ve known since childhood.  We ate lobster together, sang songs we learned when we were in college and working on Star, played board games with our niece and nephew.  And we posed for pictures which a dear friend (and professional photographer) offered to take of us.  All of us there, together, on an absolutely beautiful day.

Ben and I remarked that night at how fortunate we were, to have been blessed with that day, to have had our children and loved ones with us, to have been on Star, our own best place on earth.  Another beautiful day, ten years later than one that had begun so similarly and ended so differently.

May there be more beautiful days, more simplicity, more opportunities for all of us to revel in the ordinary beauty that comes from appreciating the gifts life holds and the family we so cherish.

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