There are places – spaces – in our past that exist in more than mere memory, that sink into our subconscious selves and become a part of the deep black bottomless pool of history and experience that swirls somewhere near the center of each of us. They may change over time as we move, or age, or simply shift into different stages of our lives, but they are always there, synedoches that contain in their small secret stretches the hidden warp that binds together the woven cords of our existence.
I can clearly recall several in my life.
One was a towering weeping willow in our back yard whose smooth-worn lower limbs attested to the bare feet that had trod along their lengths in search of hide-and-seek spots, or pirate’s crow’s nests, or better vantage points to watch the robins raising their young in the neighboring maple tree.
Another was the skeletal remains of an old half-burnt farmhouse and barn, where the pigeons and barn owls had taken the last odds and ends of lives abandoned or lost and woven them carefully into their nests. It was a vast cathedral of dust-filtered light and inscrutable loss, haunted and haunting and forever filled with both comfort and foreboding, and we, ten year-old boys who knew nothing of what had actually happened to the people and the animals who had lived there we-knew-not-how-long-ago, were mesmerized and terrified and dared each other to creep up into the charred and still – in our young imaginations – fire-filled bedrooms to share in the terror of the nighttime scramble to safety, or death.
I would spend hours, sometimes alone, at a nearby stream where the green-gold water threaded around mossy stones and dropped into a glassy pool where little brook trout darted among the shadows and crayfish scuttled along the gravel bottom. It was still and cool and quiet, but if you sat silently for a while, you’d soon realize that the the forest and the stream thrummed and pulsed with thin veins of sound.
But the most enduring and emblematic place for me is a jetty of stone, grey granite quarried inland and brought to the coast, that juts out into the blue-green water of the Gulf of Maine. There are twin jetties, in fact, one carefully laid in carved square blocks that holds a blinking beacon at the end, guiding ships into the protected waters of the port, but it is the other, the one that is a tumbled jumble of misshapen stone, that is mine.
You would lie face-down on its sun-warmed surface on a mid-summer afternoon, the waves rolling in, rising as they met resistance, swirling in the gaps and crevices, then retreating with a gurgle and a sigh. On these days, with the seagulls banking and squawking overhead and the lobster boats returning to the harbor with their catch, it was possible to believe that summer would never end, that a particular light-laden afternoon would stretch out into infinity, the slanting sunlight lingering forever above the horizon.
I would race with my brothers to the end, where the last stones pitched abruptly down into the sea. I knew every contour and treacherous tilt of those boulders, and my feet flew seemingly unguided, barely brushing some spots, bounding over yawning gaps, dodging and darting to avoid ledges that would leap up and threaten to send the unwary runner sprawling onto the uneven stone. I rarely won, being the youngest, but it didn’t really matter, since the race was an end unto itself, a race more against our own limitations and the vagaries of granite than each other. We would reach the end, laughing and winded, turn, shoot each other a look, and bolt back to do it all over again.
We fished from the jetty, casting our lines baited with sand worms into the steady pull of the tide, wedging the ends of our rods into the rocks and waiting for that telltale twitch at the tip that would signal a bite. On good days we would come home with a few flounder the size of serving platters, but even on days when the fish weren’t biting we would sit for hours, dangling our legs over the edge, watching the green crabs pick at invisible bits among the seaweed and the shoals of slim sand eels reel and spin, break ranks and regroup, occasionally harried by striped bass shooting up from below or slender terns divebombing from above. We talked about everything and nothing, and, as we got older, more and more about girls.
It was here that we would sometimes bring the girls we knew, girls with names like Jenny and Debbie and Molly and all the other ys and ies, stepping gingerly hand in hand over the rough path that, although we knew it so well that darkness made no difference, seemed to present so many difficulties that we would unaccountably feel the need to pull our dates more tightly to our sides. Lying on the end, staring up into a sky shot through with a billion starry holes, the Milky Way a smear of light and meteors occasionally streaking, we would try to work up the courage for an awkward kiss. It was here we desperately learned the little we knew about love, here we first attempted the tongue-tangled techniques of the French. The clouds would mercifully clothe the moon in a modest robe of white, leaving our red faces and sweaty palms gratefully hidden in the night.
The jetty was a different place in the winter, when powerful storms would sometimes sweep out of the north, punishing the coast with pounding surf and snow that would swirl blindingly about, blown into drifts that would bend the spruces at the river’s edge and pile up against the windward sides of houses, blocking doors and obscuring windows. Then the stones would groan in torment, grinding against each other as wave after wave tried tirelessly to pry them from their places. It was far too dangerous to venture out onto the ice-covered rock at times like this, and we would simply watch from the beach as the giant rollers would break over the jetty, sending out needles of icy spray that seemed to solidify in the air and fall to shatter against the frigid granite.
We need places like this, that moor us to ourselves and keep our bows pointed toward the incoming tide. My sons, I’m quite sure, don’t yet have such a place. The closest they come is a secret playroom below the level of the living room, accessed through a hidden panel in the wall that slides open to reveal a ladder down to a room filled with old mattresses and pillows and toys. They’re still too young to attach much personal meaning to this secret space, though – when we move our youngest won’t even remember it. I hope that they will find their own spaces, their own temporal anchors for their interior selves.
It’s the day after my father’s funeral, a brilliant, windswept October day, and our family walks down the beach, following the curve of sand that leads to the string of stone at the end. We clamber up to the top to see the familiar path leading out to the end. My brothers and I look at each other with a small smile, and start to run.
Perhaps the day after my own funeral, my sons and their families will come to this jetty, or to some place that has resonated and resounded in their own inner lives, and the rising tide will slowly obliterate their footprints in the hard-packed sand, they will glance at each other, smile, and race out into the sea. I could hope for nothing more.