Fifteen summers ago, we built our first home in Maine. Our contractor would snort to hear me say that we built it, but Birch pounded nails and sanded floors and laid the hearth. We both scaled scaffolding and oiled the clapboards. My father came for six weeks, and he got up on a forty-foot ladder to paint the trim at the peak of the roof, and I had to go cry on the beach because I couldn't bear to think of him on nothing but a spindly-legged ladder so far up in the stratosphere. It was truly sweat (and tear) equity.
The house sat on a hooked finger of a peninsula. There was a beaver-and-blueberry bog to one side, and the lake opened into its beautiful blue stretches on the other. As a housewarming gift, my dad took us down to the local canoe shop and bought us a second-hand canoe that was wide and steady-as-she-goes. It had to be built that way because it was to be our chief means of picking blueberries. Daddy would paddle, and I would stand and pick. We paddled and picked for hours (though we only measured time by whether we had enough berries for pancakes or muffins or a whole pie). He whistled. He told me stories. We laughed. We listened to the birds.
Every August, Daddy would come for his visit. His favorite thing to do was get up early and go silently around all the coves in the canoe. Birch and I used the canoe year-round of course. We would paddle out to greet the water after the ice melted. On hot days, we went to a favorite island where the swimming was exquisite. We floated through the mirrored reflection of autumn leaves blazing. When Fern and Blossom came along, they dangled their fingers. They skinny-dipped off the sides. They practiced paddling the j-stroke Grandpa Hickory taught them. We took the girls out one unforgettable night to see Venus at its brightest.
Then we sold the house on the lake. We needed more sunshine and land to garden and grow. Now the canoe just sat in an outbuilding on the four green acres; the river here was just too filled with waterfalls. Grandpa Hickory would come in August and take walks instead of paddles. Somehow he and I never found a way to replace our blueberry-picking and paddling and storytelling and bird-watching. The canoe had been a contained world without distractions: My father took us where whim suggested, the girls played in the bottom of the boat, I scouted the next best bush. We felt a deep, peaceful synchronicity of purpose.
Last August, Grandpa Hickory announced that this was to be his last visit. He was done with travel. We kept hoping he would change his mind, but he didn't. So it was terrible this year when it was suddenly the first Tuesday of the month, the day he had always arrived, only this time he didn't arrive.
And in one of those terrible twists of fate: The canoe had vanished the day before. In the years since our move, it has given us pleasure to share the canoe with dear friends of ours who have a yearly vacation on a lake with many islands to explore. It always makes me so happy to think of the canoe out on the water with a family having fun.
But those poor kind friends had to come home without the canoe this year. A storm swept it away in the night. They cried telling us. How awful for them. We hated it for them as much as for ourselves. I lay awake at night and tried to think of the lost canoe as something like the little boats that are part of Asian water festivals. People who live along the rivers set candles afloat in the boats and let them drift away. It's a way of letting go of unhappiness and of welcoming renewal.
Still, my unhappiness clung. It has been a heavy summer in many ways. And losing the canoe felt like losing even the possibility of ever having another carefree summer where I floated with my father while he whistled and I picked blueberries. It felt final.
But while I was mourning the loss of the canoe, our friends were alerting every authority in the state of Maine: sheriffs and rangers and wardens. And, finally, one of those calls got returned with good news.
The canoe was found! And now the canoe is back home!
Rosie goes for a ride
Until we can get it back in the water, we take turns just sitting in it out there in the long grass. And I have to say that though many things about this summer are still all wrong, I can float free of my worries sometimes. I can imagine that there will come a day when Grandpa Hickory will decide to make his way here, and we will go out in the canoe, and he will whistle, and I will pick a pie's worth of blueberries.