sisters and I grew up spending that coveted week on Cape Cod
every summer. The lower Cape, out near Truro, sometimes up
as far as Eastham and once, in February, on the sandy moors
That winter trip was my father’s last visit to the Cape.
It had been his dream to buy a house there, to retire there.
But he died before he was fifty. The house he loved, a cedar-shake
bungalow near Coast Guard Beach was taken down after a rough
winter ruined its foundations.
As I grew older I tried to keep going to the Cape—such a magical
place, the place where I could envision my father still alive.
But as a student I didn’t have money to spend on a week at
the beach. As a young mother, I had still less.
The last time I was on Cape Cod was 2002. The whole extended
family (a small family, actually) was there. We waited until
after the bathers and picnickers had left Race Point Beach
and the waning sun had made the water grey. Then we opened
the urn and scattered my mother’s ashes across the water—the
wind blowing them back against our knees and faces: surely
either Mom’s joke or reassurance that we couldn’t be rid of
her so easily.
As a single mother of two daughters, the real Cape
just seemed too far. Too long a drive with too many opportunities
for car sickness, quarrels and the universal child question:
are we there yet?
Instead, I found Cape Ann.
It’s north of Boston just under an hour. It’s smaller, less
majestic, less crowded, less renowned than the Cape. And for
a few years I felt I was depriving my girls of a real vacation
experience: at first I could only swing a few nights in a
bed-and-breakfast. Eventually I managed week-long rentals.
But even so, wasn’t this second-rate? What kinds of formative
experiences could they have here? There aren’t big mini-golf
courses on Cape Ann, no seashores that stretch on for miles,
no P-town—the Atlantis of my little-girl imagination.
Yet, after a while, we began to notice other things: the Twin
Lights of Thacher Island. The quarry (and the bullfrogs) at
Halibut Point State Park. The Gloucester Fishermen’s Memorial
(and I have yearly snapshots of my girls in front of it).
The low-tide trek to Milk Island off Good Harbor Beach. The
ice cream shop on Bearskin Neck. Eden Road with its magnificent
views and cratered roadway.
Over time I began to feel a kind of homing instinct each time
I crossed the tall draw-bridge over the Annisquam River.
I still do.
I still come to Cape Ann.
Sometimes one of the girls comes up for a few days, though
never both at once. The three of us haven’t been here together
in a half-dozen years.
I have developed my own patterns, some of them variations
on what I used to do with the girls, though most of them are
different. I’ve discovered a different beach than Good Harbor
(which is hard for me to visit, anyway, since it evokes the
childhoods that are forever lost to me). The new—actually,
“old”—beach is a short walk from where I like to stay and
I don’t have to pay the hefty parking fee for Good Harbor.
Now I make a ritual visit to the Lanesville Package store
instead of the ice cream shack on Bearskin Neck—though I do
make nostalgic pilgrimages up and down Bearskin Neck.
I also don’t bother spending any time at all trying to do
cartwheels in the flower gardens of wherever it is we’re staying,
as my girls and I once did. Instead, I sit in the garden or
on the beach and read news on my Blackberry, news I usually
wish I hadn’t been able to read until the next morning’s breakfast
when I could crib a copy of some restaurant’s Boston
Globe. You know, a real newspaper, with pages on which
to spill coffee and articles to skip because somebody across
the table from you said something interesting and you looked
up the way nobody ever does from their Blackberry or laptop.
Newspapers are a more social engine.
There are two capes. I will probably always envy my sister’s
Cape. We grew up there—well, at least those single summer
weeks there. Also, it’s the Cape of Edward Hopper, Robert
Motherwell, Norman Mailer, Mary Oliver—oh, how many others?
It’s where I will always want to return. I will always want
to stand at dusk on Race Point and remember my mother’s—or
the winds’—final, fabulous joke.
But my cape is Cape Ann. It’s a rocky, contradictory place
in some ways: Gloucester with its history of fishing and hi-jinx,
Rockport with its history of artfulness and abstinence. In
many ways the cultures remain—though the liquor laws change,
Nevertheless, the coast doesn’t change. At least not much.
And this is the coast I know. I can hear the surf scour the
shore from where I’m writing right now. I don’t really think
it will let me go. Nor will I want it to.