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summer rituals


Of all the places I've ever been, of all the terrains and landscapes I've ever seen, it's on the island of North Haven amid the dark blue summer water of the Penobscot Bay that my soul rises up to meet myself, where I am home. Nine miles long and three miles at its widest, North Haven is a place full of broad things meeting: The oceanjoins the sky at the horizon in a long blue line. The silhouettes of the spruce trees huddled on the islands (there are more than 200 in this bay) pierce the sky like bouquets of the arrowheads that can be found along these coasts. Gold-green fields swoop toward the water's edge.

Every summer of my life, I've headed to North Haven to the house that my grandparents bought in the 1940's. It's an old warehouse, converted into a boardinghouse by the previous owners. Built on the wharf, next to the Casino Yacht Club, it's stilted safely above the water and the dramatic 10-foot tides. My family is big—I have six siblings, and many of us now have more than one kid; I myself have a son who's four, a daughter who's two, and another daughter born last August. With our parents dead and our main home long ago sold, our house and North Haven itself are like a shrine to our childhoods, our family, our parents, and our lives.

Each of us and our clans make the annual visit—after much deliberation about who's able to go when. We pack into the house, every room bunked up, cherishing the bustle of being together under the same roof. Thirteen children ranging in age from a few months to 15 yearsbumble about, the toddlers giving you heart attacks as they teeter next to a partially open window with the water below, the older kids taking off for hours on their bikes to buy penny candy and splash at a swimming hole.

North Haven is separated from the larger neighboring Vinalhaven by a lovely, narrow strait, the Fox Island Thoroughfare, upon which lies North Haven's modest town: there'sa fantastic community center, a marina, two restaurants, a few galleries, a post office, a library, and the Legion Hall. The off-season population here is about 350. A century ago, Boston Brahmin families began to frequent the island in summer. Now, the warm-weather population swells to more than 1,200, with people coming from Boston, New York, Portland, and as far away as Hawaii. Some families stay for the entire season, some for part of a month (August's Community Days are rich with parades, sailing races, and an art show), some for a week, while day-trippers take the ferry over to do some hiking and biking.

My family's days are largely spent in boats, buzzing in outboards to nearby islands with nothing built on them: Burnt Island, with its screaming ospreys, or Calderwood, with its knobbed green hill. Or we go to tidal Mill River, actually part of Vinalhaven, where the water's warmer. Once there, we sit together like seagulls, sifting through the rocks at our feet for sea glass and carved flint as we eat our picnic lunch. But most of the time is spent looking out, staring at the wide blue bay, letting the summer magic of it penetrate like a giant tranquilizer.

The wondrousness of childhood never leaves this place. It's in the spray that hits your face as you sway over waves. It's in the fog that socks you in for a day or two, completely obscuring the end of a dock. It's in the textures underfoot (barefoot): the weathered planks of floats and wharves, the soft tar baked in the sun on Main Street, the smooth, round stones of volcanic Brimstone Island, the crushed-shell beaches of Merchant's Row. It's in the freezing dunks, the tidal rivers and coves, the stillness of the abandoned granite quarries on Vinalhaven filled with fresh rainwater for perfect swims. It's watching the crabs scuttle under rocks, the wind feather across the water like a school of fish, the sea shimmer ecstatic with light as the sun starts to go down over the Camden hills. It's seeing the many islands dappling the bay like clouds that have been set down on the water from the sky, waiting to be explored.

ELIZA MINOT is the author of the novel The Tiny One. Her second novel, The Brambles, will be published in early 2006 by Knopf.


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