"a real agreement that you're part of this community and you're going to operate that way was beautiful."
My name is Susan Minot and I am 61 years old, much to my surprise. I grew up in Manchester-by-the-Sea. I first went to North Haven, probably, when I was a baby. My family have gone there, growing up, every summer of my life. We'd go for the month of August and my father's parents had a house there.
You feel like your heart stays there, you know? I mean, you talk about this with summer people and one has a romantic association with this island. Most of the associations there are of, kind of, beauty and nature and familiarity and, sort of, recognizing things–you know all those things can be bad, too much familiarity or whatever. But in this case, it’s–it was pretty good, you know? Pretty sweet and pretty strong and it turns out in my life, it's been a very, very strong association because I ended up moving there and living there for nine, ten years.
We would leave for August and come to Maine. That long drive up in the two station wagons with the cats meowing and it was epic. I mean, it must have taken longer in those days, you know? And we didn't spend that much time driving around, so it was always like the big trip and then you got to North Haven and it was fantastic.
We lived in this sort of magical place on the Casino dock. It's like an old wharf house. And there were three connected buildings with three different units. And my grandparents lived in one and we lived in another and at some point, our cousins were living next door.
And we could just go up as young children and run around barefoot and practically not need to tell our parents where we were going and the sort of freedom and running along the dock and feeling the tar on your feet and seeing the friends every year. It was truly like a paradise.
Of course, Waterman's was major and the penny candy place. We were young, it was exciting. You could go with ten cents and get ten pieces of candy and then you’d sit on the wall.
I think they had, like very early, they had movies at Calderwood. I think they were still doing that when I was young. Another important thing was just sort of wander and let's go up to the ball field or let's go down to ferry beach or–and when we were old enough we could use the putt-putt to go to Mill River or just to go out and sort of spin around all that was just like, wow! We can drive ourselves! And particularly, being barefoot, like, just being able to be barefoot. It was so important. And the tar I think is different now than it used to be. But the tar then, when it would get hot on a summer day, it would sometimes bubble. Like if it was new, it would bubble and we'd pop the tar. The smell of tar was a very important summer smell.
August is a pretty nice month for young people, and you're not in school and it's this sensuous place of wonderful smells and the fresh air and the clicking of the water and the boats and picnics and all that is so heavenly, looking in the tide pools and getting your feet muddy and all that. And then that ends after a month and you go back and you can't wait to be back there again. You think about when we're in North Haven.
So, that was a very important part of North Haven, which was we lived in Manchester-by-the-Sea, but after 8th grade each of us went away to boarding school and even the school we went to, it was a private school. We didn't go to the public school in town. And so, town wasn't a place where we knew everyone and all the shop owners and the– you know it was sort of–we passed it lightly.
But North Haven wasn't like that. That was a place where you actually knew the plumber and you knew who all the people were. Even if, as a summer person when I was younger I would feel like, I’m kind of an interloper here. And I'm not quite sure I'm welcome or not, or I'm a little extra shy because I'm not used to going to places on my own and in that way, it was the place that I first ventured out into the world, really. Because at nine you didn't need to say drop me off downtown at–which we would do at home but, North Haven you just go. I mean we lived in town.
Part of the venturing away on my own, the flip side of that was there were some scary things that I’m encountering on my own. Again, nothing that was dangerous really, but to me it was, like older people, or even kind of walking down the street as a summer person. And I remember walking downtown sometimes just by myself to go to Waterman’s and the teenagers used to hang out on the wall there. It was like a hangout spot in kind of the sixties. And walking by and just feeling so scared, you know? Like, I don’t know what to say–instead of, hi, or, you know.
Well, I think that when those happen you become a little more oriented to what life is like. And I have to say, I think, looking back on it now, that there was a safety about North Haven that I didn't know then, that I see now. And so, that probably made those moments of first encountering, like, worry, a little less traumatic than they might have been. So, in that way, what a nice, gentle way to start encountering things on your own.
I remember also the plays that were put on in the gym there. I remember Carousel was one of them and I still remember every word and again David Cooper was, "My boy Bill!" Those were fantastic–and sometimes there were variety shows there. There’d be different people doing little different skits. And I remember that, kind of, skit thing as being–partially you knew the people who were in it, but the fact that it was in a place we knew. It was different than like going to see it in a theater somewhere else. It made it sort of within reach. And they were sort of funny and remember in those days we didn't–there were three channels on TV and there was just–you didn't have as much exposure to things. The community aspect of it was really fun and you could see everyone getting a kick out of the fact that they knew the people and had this extra energy to it.
I mean, I'm only thinking of this now just in terms of little storytelling or telling little things in short bits that for me as a writer, I think, was very formative.
So, in 2000 I moved there. I moved in with Charlie and we were married in the next couple of years. But that first year that I was living there year-round, I felt like I was being let in on a secret. Because here was this place that was so special to me and now I was getting to see, like, what really went on here. And again, just seasonally that was one thing, with the people was another. Being a summer person there's a gulf between you and people who live there year-round and if you start to live there year-round even though you're a summer person and there's still a little gulf you–it can be narrowed a bit. And so that was all fascinating to me because it was a place I loved so much and so I only loved it more.
There were things challenging for me, but it was one of the reasons why I wanted to live there and that is, I had been, particularly in the 15 to 20 years before that, I had been traveling around a lot. And I had my apartment here in New York, but right before I met Charlie, it was really to drop my suitcase, plan where I was going next, and pack it up again and go. So, I was interested in seeing the world. I could bring my work with me. I did travel stories. And I really liked that a lot. But I also wanted to have a child. And I thought, this doesn't match, this nomadic life, with having a child. And well, when I fell in love with Charlie I thought, well this really matches kind of a having a child life. And so, the challenge for me was, I looked around and I saw people just operating in this, like, this is what it's like to just live in a place and be here year after year, and year after year, and year after year. And that was, not so much challenging to me, as just fascinating. Or I think it was fascinating first and then it became challenging.
I, of course, didn't understand everything it entailed. But the things that I saw it did entail about being, sort of, open and interactive with the people around you. And seeing a much smaller group of people all the time, all that was–I thought that was really good. I really liked that because I had spent too much time seeing too many new people and I thought, wow, this is incredible. You just–you know these people are–you know your friends are there. This is what I was, sort of, observing.
And the kind of slowed down way that people interacted with each other there, is something that I really admire. And, even if the flip side of it is lack of stimulation and newness, that sort of almost automatic kindness and respect for people and kind of immediate response of helping and a real sort of agreement that you're part of this community and you're going to operate that way was beautiful.
I loved it and I was happy to do it. But I sensed that I was still a bit of a fish out of water and my feeling had been, I'd love this to be the place where I always come back to. But part of the island way of living is you don't use it as a place to come back to. It's, this is the only game in town and that was a challenge for me.
While I was there, I focused on the things that were suited to me, which was the quiet and the lack of stimulation in terms of work. You know, raising a child there with the chickens and the going down to the beach and being near the water. Like, some days, even on snowy days inside, before cooking supper I’d just run down to the beach and I'd just feel the rocks. And I love that and I loved it so much that I even go there in my mind here. Right before, I just think of Bank’s Cove and going down and what it was like when you could breathe in the air there. And so, I get–I can still get a hit from it, even not being there.
Nothing compares to North Haven. Part of the reason is, I think people can say that about the place that they went for the summer because that’s their–it's like an annual place that they visit. And slowly but surely their history deepens with it and stuff. But also, because I haven't, in my worldwide travels, come across anywhere that's like it. Even in other summer communities on the coast of Maine. There's a different thing going on, you know?
And I think that with islands there's less cross-pollination, so they develop more unique character. And every place is unique but I wonder if there, environmentally, if there's another, whatever it is, 12-mile stretch of island that's actually exactly like North Haven.
There may–it may just be a combination of the flowers and the trees and the birds that are there, you know? And the smells and that added to this continual, repeated contact, you feel like you're connected at every turn. This is a place that I know and love. There’s no comparison.
Photos courtesy of the Minot family