Fiction

Anytime we came to Boothbay Harbor, we stayed in town across the harbor from where my Aunt Carol lived. I’d wait until we were fully settled at the inn before calling her because once she heard from me, she would want us over there right away with no dillydallying. She loathed the obligation of waiting around.

“We’ll drive right over,” I would tell her.

“Quicker if you come by boat,” she would always say, and then she would hang up. Her house was a tiny 2-bedroom at the end of Roads End Rd., and she shared a landing dock with her neighbor. We always drove.

On this trip, we came for Aunt Carol’s funeral. She had drowned in a small cove in the Boothbay Region Land Trust where she had taken up skinny dipping several months before. The family of vacationers who reported her naked body were puzzled by the 911 operator’s response: “Is she at it again?” Apparently, several people had complained of Carol’s skinny dipping to the police, and there was even a report she had walked up into the forest naked and wet toweling her hair after one of her swims.

Her gentleman friend, Raymond, had emailed me several weeks earlier about all of this with only mild concern.

“I don’t think she’s losing it,” he wrote me. “She just thinks she’s so old now she can do whatever the hell she wants to do.”

Carol never married. She and Raymond, a fisherman, had been together for years, but she would always scurry him away when we came over. I had a beer with him once in town years earlier, and he’s a wonderful man. But Carol avoided the entanglements of relationships that form on the edges of hers, and she saw no need for us to know Raymond. We might one day render an opinion about him that would rub her the wrong way.

Carol avoided entanglements with my kids as well. Ella was eleven and Logan was eight, and the time they spent with Carol on these trips was limited, mostly because Carol would give them a gruff hello when we walked in. She’d load their pockets with candy, and then send them straight down to the harbor shore to scrounge around for anything that may have washed up. Never having kids of her own, she had no point of reference for communicating with them.

As we planned for the trip, I found it difficult to execute on the dos and don’ts of working through the death of a loved one with the children. The problem was that Aunt Carol was a distant loved one at best. I explained to Ella and Logan what had happened, being sure to use the words “death” and “died,” and I was prepared for any emotional response. But they had none; they wanted to go outside and play. Another don’t was not to hide my own grieving, but there wasn’t much to hide, and I felt somewhat ashamed that I was just as saddened by the likelihood that this meant an end to our trips to Boothbay Harbor.

It was early October. We arrived two days before the funeral so I could help Raymond with any matters of Carol’s estate. On Saturday, the kids, my wife Julia, and I drove to Damariscotta for lunch at King Eider’s Pub and happened upon the town’s pumpkin festival. The kids were thrilled. It was then I realized we could still make our trips to Maine and that they could be something we wanted to do instead of something we felt we had to do.

After lunch and the pumpkin festival, we went back to the Topside Inn where the owners helped me arrange to have a schooner take us the next day on a tour of Boothbay Harbor and then let us off just in front of Our Lady Queen of Peace church for the funeral.

The kids went back to their room, and Julia and I took a bottle of Prosecco out to a couple of Adirondack chairs on the Inn’s lawn. We looked out over the harbor.

“The kids aren’t really going to miss her,” I said, thinking more about myself.

“She’s the salt we taste in the air here,” Julia said, making Carol seem significant and insignificant in the same breath.

The tour around the harbor the next day started out sunny. The kids asked the first mate loads of questions, all of which he answered in lofty seafaring terms and with an intentionally thick New England accent that made them giggle.

We tacked to port and Our Lady Queen of Peace came into view. The weather had turned cold and clouds squeezed the blue from the sky. I saw Raymond’s old fishing boat moored nearby.

We drifted easily toward the pier and came to a rest against it without so much as a bump. The pier belonged to Sea Pier Grocery, which was directly across the street from the church. As we disembarked, the first mate stood solemnly at the top of the plank, as if at attention, and when the kids looked up at him as they stepped off the boat, he gave them a solemn wink and nodded his head. They smiled and skipped down the plank as their hands slid down the rail after them.

The scene was different than I had expected. Cars were parked everywhere and still more came from up the street. We entered the crowded church and saw Raymond at the end of the center isle discreetly motioning us to the front. We sat just behind him on the second pew in seats he’d informally held for us — the kids between Julia and me, with Logan to my right. I watched as Logan turned and peered over the back of the pew. His expression changed, as if confused by the somber atmosphere and strangers’ attempts to engage him with smiles he could see rooted in sadness.

Ella kept an eye on Logan as well, and finally raised her arm around him. He leaned against her, buried his face into her shoulder, and began to cry.