THE STORY begins, of course, with real estate. The heady days of 2003. Maine. Pond Point, the old Victorian cottage tied together, it seemed, with twine, standing as it does before the dunes with a swath of sea grass like a moat, sweet pea shoots, their blue flowers dancing in a late-afternoon breeze blowing offshore. The beach. Miles of sand, flanked by rivers, one large, one small, spilling into the Atlantic. Little islands floating just offshore, connected at low tide by sandbars that reach to them like arms.
Those wonderful July days, as Emma Chapman declared with that fierce enthusiasm of hers that spoke of a desire to appreciate every chance life gives to her. July—each day’s weather a mystery, a surprise. Storms blow in from nowhere to entertain the day. From an immaculate sky, fog settles down thick as cotton while sandpipers and plovers dart about. Thunderheads in the afternoon, towering cumulus, then a crack of thunder. Heart-shattering sunsets. Or simply the stillness of early morning in high season, a scorcher in the offing, but for now, an hour past dawn, towels and bathing suits still damp on the clothesline, the sun rising over the river, heating the woods, bringing the strong smell of pine sap into the kitchen where coffee brewed. On the porch, Emma, squarely facing the ocean in a golden bar of sunlight, seemed to have everything in life, and the only thing more she wanted, it seemed to me, was to own this—the salt air and gratifying geometries of the sea, all that came with this house.
I did not like the house at first. The wind blew right through the walls, and chipmunks and mice had made it (even our beds) their home. It was wet and cold. The screen door banged with an alarming thud. The neighbor’s house was occupied by a family of Bostonians—you could tell this by the big B for the Boston Red Sox that appeared everywhere: on their hats, their barbecue aprons, the kites their children sent upward to broadcast their allegiance to the heavens. They greeted us and smiled stiffly in a way that seemed to register a conviction that there would be no further need to continue down the path of fellow feeling.
The Bostonians’ cottage was a bit too close. They weeded their flower beds and assiduously mowed a “lawn” that was mostly sand. They prosecuted a passion for golf by purchasing tiny plastic golf sets for their boys, who whacked little golf-ball-sized Wiffle balls across the lot, and when an errant ball landed on the side of the Chapmans’ rundown summer rental, the Bostonian boys sat sullenly staring across the lot at our girls, unable to ask for help. Our girls seemed to enjoy their discomfort, but took pity on them, tossing the balls back, which the boys accepted without thanks, and moved their game farther away. “By their fruits you shall know them,” my husband, Theodor, noted. “Yeah,” I said. But I admired, actually came to envy, Emma’s passion for the house, despite the frosty neighbors, and wanted to see it with her eyes since it gave her so much pleasure. The views took in the open Atlantic, sailboats leaning into the breeze, cormorants and seagulls and, on occasion, even seals, their dog-like heads bobbing in the surf.
Emma and Will had been renting the house for six years, driving up from New York for the month with their two daughters, Will commuting back and forth. Emma had found the house. Strolling the beach, she had asked various sunbathers camped beneath umbrellas if they rented their homes, the cottages in the dunes behind them. The elderly couple she eventually found did not rent, but they were charmed by her determination: Oh, that’s your house? That one there? The red one with the turret? It’s right out of a Hopper painting. No, no, a Wyeth. It’s pure Wyeth. It’s from the 1880s? Oh, how I’d love to spend a week there, absorbing all that history.
The couple took her up to the house, showed her around. Every window framed a spectacular view. She could see through the mess of all the guests, the children of nieces and nephews with names like Sacagawea—I kid you not—overrunning the place. The couple had no children of their own. “A view from every window,” Emma said. She was exuberant. It was the quality I loved best about her. Emma complimented the children (diapered, juice-stained, sticky fingers). “Sacagawea, what an original name,” she said. And she complimented the vintage piano and the antique windowpanes, the fraying curtains. In the turret bedroom she complimented the old photographs hanging crookedly on the wall. “Why, they’re Bachrach,” she said, examining the signature of one of the prints and noticed they were all signed by him. She flashed her smile on Mrs. Hov (“Chekhov without the chek,” Mrs. Hov would say). “Yes, they are,” Mrs. Hov confirmed, and her milky blue eyes brightened. “I grew up in Connecticut,” she said, as if in explanation and to underscore her more prominent past, her voice soft and self-assured. An elegant woman still, with slender fingers that had long ago mastered the piano, today she wore a simple housedress, but yesterday she was the smiling girl in all the sepia-tinted prints.
Mr. Hov was a retired Swift scholar and an amateur poet of the A. E. Housman mold, with a firm yet charming manner. The couple was at the house when Theodor and I arrived with our two girls for a long weekend. The Hovs had come to fix the boiler and were just leaving. I would remember them for a long time, a pair, he a smaller version of her with the same kind blue eyes, hazy with cataracts. Though she had a full head of lovely white hair and he was bald. He was in the middle of reciting a poem he’d written, his voice earnest and mellifluous: “I try the fleeting years to catch. / But, mark thee well, this one firm adage of the sea!” Emma and Will listened; she leaned into his caress, standing on the porch overlooking the dunes and ocean. She wore a smile that, having begun in sincerity, hadn’t quite anticipated how long a poem could actually go on, and was striving mightily, along with the poem, to prop herself up.
Upon our arrival, Theodor and I found them in a state of suspension, the elderly man holding forth. “For whom our time has come, / And man is laid beneath the sand, the sod, or sea.” It was an ode to Pond Point. Hov’s wife had been coming here since the 1930s. Together they bought the house in the 1950s, for a song, with the equity they’d accrued in their primary home. Standing there on the porch of their second home, windblown and kissed by the Maine light, Mrs. Hov, her lips curled, just slightly, with love, watched her husband’s gentle hands conduct his words. “The sharpened sands their lips do pulse and / Tongueless, whisper songs most sure. / ’Tis we, not thee, that shall endure, / that shall endure!”
A moment of silence followed and then Emma burst into applause. “Just a little something I wrote in 1983,” Mr. Hov said, turning his attention fully to us, my girls’ eyes wide with curiosity at the spectacle. “Ah, your guests have arrived,” he said. “We’ve heard all about you, Emma and Will’s friends. All good, I can assure you! Welcome, renowned New Yorkers! I invite you all to have a wonderful weekend.”
We knew all about Emma’s cast of friends. She was always telling stories about her collection of elaborate people—friends marrying in the final stages of fatal cancer; a wife whose slender book of poems about her adulterous love affair with a young buck became a bestseller, publicly shaming her (also adulterous) husband with both her betrayal and her success;...