Issue Thirteen - September 2008

A Northwest Passage

By Lorna Reese

My favorite book when I was eight was the Bobbsey Twins at the Seashore. Into my teen years, the memory of that tale conjured up long stretches of sand whiter than I’d ever seen and enormous, deep blue waves that curled up and over and heaved themselves down onto the shore and out again. I lived in a small town in central Minnesota. There were lakes aplenty, but I wanted to live near the ocean.

I grew up and forgot about that wish until a friend coaxed me into joining him, right after college, in an automobile trip down to Florida, then up the coast to New York City, and finally to Cape Cod. I fell completely in love with the Cape — cream-colored sand dunes, sage-tinted dune grass, all that sea and sky and that incredible light. That spare, elemental landscape struck a chord that resonates still. The tip of the Cape, where you are almost surrounded by water, is still one of my very favorite places on earth.

Six years after first sticking my toe into salty water, I was living and working in Boston. Which was a good thing, because that’s where I was “supposed” to meet my husband, Len, who later introduced me to islands in Maine and the Caribbean, and eventually to the San Juan islands which he already loved.

Len’s infatuation with the San Juans began in 1975 BL (Before Lorna). His response then was visceral: it was as though a hand reached through the car window, he told me, clutched his gut and said “this is where you are supposed to be.” Impulsively, he bought 20 acres of forest and built a small, crude cabin. Serendipitously, the year he fell in love with Lopez was the year I moved to Boston. We met four years later in the city and soon made a life together in Len’s house in Weston, outside of Boston, where he had raised three sons.

Every September, we set aside our suits and brief cases. We packed jeans, sweaters, tennis shoes, a pile of books and Len’s harmonica and flew to the other side of the country. We’d drive straight from the airport to Anacortes and our version of a magic carpet, the Washington State Ferry System. Instead of skyscrapers and cacophonous city sounds, we spent our days surrounded by towering conifers, expanses of salt water and rolling farmland. Snow-touched mountains rose to the east and south. It was a distinct change from the frenzy of our East Coast life. We felt tranquil, indolent and free.

We spent hours at the water’s edge, looking for sea glass on stony beaches, watching fat sea lions loll in the sun at Shark Reef, taking naps on a grassy slope at Iceberg Point, riding bicycles along the shimmering bay. We walked down wooded country roads, getting stained and tattered fingers picking blackberries. We sat on our sunny deck, feet up on the railing, enjoying a cup of English Breakfast tea and a treat from Holly B’s Bakery, listening to ravens talk to each other. Hawks and eagles soared overhead. Len mused about what I thought of as a highly-romantic notion: living on Lopez full time. He wanted to wear faded chambray shirts every day and grow our own food.

“What do you think,” he’d ask every year. “Want to move to Lopez?” This made me nervous. Lopez was beautiful, but there wasn’t even a movie theater or pizza place or shoe store. What would it be like if we had to work at jobs, do the shopping and laundry and pay bills. “I don’t think so, Honey,” I’d say every time. “This is our escape hatch. Where would we retreat to if we lived here?”

Besides, Weston was a beautiful and comfortable place to live. We both worked from home then at businesses we were good at, and told ourselves we enjoyed. We indulged our passion for tennis at a club five minutes from our house. We saw movies every week and jazz or classical music whenever we wanted. We ate Thai or Chinese or Middle Eastern or Japanese or, yes, pizza, whenever I didn’t feel like cooking. Two of Len’s kids and numerous acquaintances lived nearby.

But these things came with a price tag: After ten years in Weston, no one at the supermarket or bank — where I went every single week — knew me by name. Our lives were so filled with work, we hardly ever got further than the tennis club and very occasionally to the Charles Hotel in Cambridge to hear Dave McKenna play his amazing jazz piano. My closest friend was an hour’s drive away. So were the Atlantic Ocean beaches which first drew me to the East Coast.

Over the years, it got harder to get on the ferry to leave Lopez. I actually started picturing my life in a house on the water where I would have time to learn to make soup and bread, how to knit, to meditate. I wanted to belong somewhere. We were having a languid picnic on the beach at Otis Perkins Park on a gorgeous afternoon in 1989. We were the only people there, and without realizing I was speaking out loud, I said, “Let’s move to Lopez.”

Len almost fell off the log he was sitting on. After waiting years for me to come around, the urge to be here came from me! We bought a turquoise spiral notebook in the village supermarket that day, titled it “Northwest Passage” and began writing our thoughts and plans, our dreams and fears. There were so many things to consider. Could we afford to live on Lopez? What would we do with our Massachusetts businesses? How would we earn money? Would Len ever find a piano teacher as good as Carol who had him playing jazz rags. How would we replace Dr. Neisuler, Dr. Thomas and Dr. Dorris and Syd, the accountant Len had known for decades. Would our cats, Daisy and Harrytoes, adjust to a new home? Could we really leave family and friends in Massachusetts?

But when we returned that September to our comfortable lives in Weston, we fell into the habits of years, and more immediate, pressing concerns pushed aside the magic and allure of our decision. After a couple months, we stopped talking about it; the notebook was buried under piles of current files, and the dream faded away. I think now that we were scared but didn’t know it.

It was our vacation four years later that surprisingly exploded into a flurry of activity, culminating in our actually moving the following summer. Neither Len nor I remembered exactly how it happened but, this time, we were in real accord, and there was an urgency about it. In 1989, we’d discussed a three-year plan. In 1993, our strategy was to move into the cabin the following summer and live there while building a new house on the front part of our property. A financial planner told us we could afford it if we lived modestly.

Other forces urged us forward, too. Len had had thyroid cancer, a disease with a 98% cure rate, and he was grateful for a second chance at life. “I’ve got to do something different,” he said to me. “I don’t want to blow my chance a second time.” For two years before the move, he stuck post-it notes on our bedroom wall listing alternatives to our East Coast life. “Take a year off.” “Sail around the world.” “Move to Lopez.”

I had a wake-up call, too, right after we put ourselves on a fast track to be on Lopez. A lump in my right breast turned out to be a low-grade malignancy and a rare kind of cancer that doesn’t mestasticize. After one more surgery, I was cancer free and looking at my second chance at life.

Still, it was difficult to commit. Our hearts told us one thing — go to Lopez! But our heads said, “Are you crazy? Look what you’d give up! A home of 40 years, two good businesses and, most of all, family.”

Most of my life, I’d reacted to what others around me did. I did not decide. Now, I convinced myself I could be happy in Boston or on Lopez, and I thought it was the truth. Ultimately — and unfairly — I left the decision to Len, who was equally ambivalent. Finally he began noting his feelings each day in his calendar: just one word –“stay” or “go.” A few weeks later, when there was still no clear answer, something — call it fate; call it our guardian angel — inspired him to say one night at dinner, “Why don’t we just go.”

We did. We turned our lives inside out and upside down to get here in five months, though we hedged our bets by not putting our Weston house on the market. When we finally arrived on Lopez on July 12, 1994, it took me twenty minutes to say “I live here, now,” and mean it. But when I asked Len to repeat those words after me, he’d say, “you live here now.” This went on for three months and then, one day, he turned to me and said, “Let’s sell the Weston house.”

I still can’t knit but have been meditating sporadically since Len died in 2003. The garden where Len grew vegetables is home now to cutting flowers, and my freezer is stocked with strawberries, also from those beds. When I run errands in the village, I double the amount of time it should take, knowing I will have at least one good chat with someone over the tomatoes in the supermarket produce department. I’m in two book groups, two writing groups, a marimba group and have good friends just minutes away. Between us, Len and I served on six local boards doing work that helped us feel we were giving something back to the community we love.

Best of all, we made space for ourselves and one another here. I still walk regularly along the road we so often walked together, with water on both sides and that huge bowl of sky overhead. The long chats we used to have on the deck over lunch or tea I have now with my cat Theo. Now he and I watch clouds alternately reveal and conceal the blue, snow-topped mountains in the distance. Len and I began unfolding here, opening up and lifting our faces to the light, as flowers do to the sun. Our lives were full to the brim with riches we didn’t know were waiting for us, all this time. Len and I were finally at home and here, where his ashes are scattered in the flower beds and along the shore, is where I truly belong.

Copyright Reese 2008