Where the Hat Is
Essay by Bill Roorbach | Photos by Lauryn Hottinger
Juliet wanted a place by the ocean. I wanted to be near Portland. We wouldn’t be leaving Farmington just yet, with Elysia still in high school at Mount Blue. We wouldn’t be leaving Western Maine at all, not really. We’d been there since 1991! But the old married couple had started to realize how much their lives would change when the girl went off to college, probably for acting and dance, very likely in California, holy moly! The formerly far-off fall of 2019 was creeping up on us. Juliet’s a painter, I’m a writer. Retirement isn’t one of our words. We don’t do things suddenly. We were together eight years before we got married, ten more before we had a kid. In morose conversation, we pictured a future of racketing around an empty house all day, and not like in the old days when we’d happily visit each other in our two studios, mine upstairs, soon to be baby’s room, hers downstairs, soon to be baby’s playroom: a billion Barbies, a dollhouse made by my elderly dad, dress-up clothes in the cabinets I’d made for art supplies.
Once when we were leaving for an extended trip, little Elysia got teary, said, “Won’t the house miss us?” We sent postcards home. Like, literally: Dear House, we love you.
So how could we abandon it? It was long paid off, scruffy and beloved, every single 19th-century surface repaired or replaced with our own hands. The original tiny bathroom with no windows, for example, found itself pushed through an old wall into a huge closet. A closet with big south-facing windows, go figure. Lion-foot tub from a farmer who’d used it for watering cows, seven bucks. Sink and antique faucet set from a salvage yard, five. Talked them both down from ten. Scorched moldings from the Waterville Marden’s. “Lumberyaaad fire down Connecticut way,” the canny salesman said: “Thirty bucks a pickup load, contractor like you.” When I said the moldings were for my own house, the Marden’s guy said, “Home is where the haaat is.” And dropped the price to twenty! Fast-forward a couple of decades, and all those early renovations now require new renovations: my heart, my hobby, my house.
We ski out the back door in winter, ski for miles. We walk down to the stream in summer, plenty of deep swimming holes. The place is literally for the birds! My multiple feeders are just the beginning; the woods are full of song, the fields throwing thermals for the hawks to ride, the water home to wood ducks, mergansers, kingfishers. Late at night after the crickets and peepers have gone to bed: true silence. Guests from our old haunts in Manhattan need the radio on. You can stand in the backyard naked—I mean, before your daughter gets too old, your daughter who won’t countenance any more of that hippie shit!
Well, we grew up with her.
And now we want to graduate with her.
Visiting a friend who’d rented at Higgins Beach years ago (a compact, mostly summer community just south of Portland, in Scarborough), I walked the low-low tide clear to the north end of the beach, the famous flats reaching out into the ocean along the shifting mouth of the Spurwink River. The dune back there so peaceful, the piping plovers nesting successfully behind twine barriers and dog fencing placed by state biologists. Looking inland over the marsh, a noncontiguous section of the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, I all but whispered that very great name, that heroic Maine name, Rachel! Back and forth to NYC for work and friends and family, and every trip, winter or summer, rain or shine, we’d stop in at one or another of the beaches. And on the way to the beaches, we’d notice the marsh back there, beautiful, ever-changing light.
I don’t think Juliet and I even discussed it much. Portland. Ocean. That was the extent of it. We’d sold an apartment in New York at long last, and HBO had blessed me with a couple years’ work, that tight ball of Hollywood money expanding shockingly in the fresh air of Maine. After speed-dating all the wrong suburban-style houses with our valiant agent, after exhausting every listing on the Internet, I noticed that a property on the Spurwink River marsh had gotten relisted. Five miles to the Casco Bay Bridge on pretty roads. A deal must have fallen through. The price was out of our range. But we had a look. Location: perfect, 5.3 acres high over the river and marsh, the tides in and out each day, snowy egrets and glossy ibis and loudmouthed seagulls and sturdy cormorants, house entirely hidden from the road and all neighbors by elaborate plantings gone wild, a yard to be naked in, a place to regress once the kid moved on. House: not perfect. Too big and in poor shape, built in the 1980s with a 1950s aesthetic, on and off the market for years, needing every sort of repair and renovation (horrendous carpeting on particle board throughout, for one example)—but wasn’t I just the man for the job? My late, acerbic mother once told us, “You can change the house, but you can’t change the location.” Our superlow lowball bid was accepted on the spot.
And so I made this marsh redoubt my sole art project for a year, didn’t write a thing, hired a helper, brought in a few pros (soapstone counters, maple floors, heating plant), camped in various rooms, back and forth to Farmington each week, family supportive, reverse gentrification: the Farmington hillbillies were in town!
That very fall, Elysia, trained solely upstate, auditioned for the Maine State Ballet’s Nutcracker, got a part. Now she needed to be near Portland, too, at least weekly, at least till Christmas. How could the house in Farmington be sad about that? Rehearsals were in Falmouth at the company’s headquarters, then at Merrill Auditorium in Portland, finally 12 sold-out shows across three late-autumn weekends. Our new place was a lifesaver, our pied-à-mer, and that time in the car with the kid? The relentless up and down to Farmington? That was no burden. That was talk time. That was quality time.
Like some kind of mad Drosselmeyer in his Nutcracker workshop, I renovated ahead of the performances, got a temporary kitchen in place in the laundry room (dorm fridge, hot plate, toaster oven, Weber Kettle on standby in the yard), carved out a couple of bedrooms, replaced a broken toilet so we’d have at least one (the toilets were all broken!), grouted a leaking shower, and we were in business.
Mornings, I walked down into the marsh, watched the tide, hermit crabs scuttling, periwinkles in procession, clams siphoning, Canada geese gathering, seagulls wheeling, songbirds and seabirds and hawks migrating, eagles lofting, flocks of starlings filling the sky at odd times, our new decks like bird theaters, IMAX at least, finally a non-storage-bin place for my spotting telescope to live.
And home to Farmington, weekly, and weekly back, like breathing in and breathing out, high school events, dance recitals, driving lessons, dance performances, the stuff of a teenager’s life, the compelling passage of time, those beautiful years, her life blooming into the world but always firmly centered in her girlhood house, her lifetime house, which will miss her, for sure, but which will always be home, and which, new place or no, Mom and Dad will keep, keep forever.