Let me tell you a story of a remarkable island. Many of you may already know it although I’d heard nothing about it until Kim brought a big book up from the studio one day.
He sat down beside me and laid it out in front of the two of us in what seemed to me to be a somber gesture. “What’s up?” I asked. Then he told me his old friend, Ellison, from Pomfret, Vermont had passed away. He’d just received the news.
Ellison was an extraordinary woman. In fact she’d opened and successfully run one of the very first art galleries in Vermont a lifetime ago. Her husband, Frank Lieberman, who had passed away several years back was co-author of the book that sat before us, it’s title, Monhegan the Artist’s Island. This was to be my first introduction to Kim’s two old friends and to the island of Monhegan (the Abenaki Indian name meaning, “great island”).
The book was in process of being published when Frank died so he never got to see the completed project but he did hold the proof pages in his hands contemplating this, the 5th book he and the Curtises had created together.
Ellison had reserved this copy for Kim, signed by the other two authors with Ellison’s signature on behalf of Frank. Below their names was pasted a parking pass from the Monhegan Boat Line. This from a trip Kim subsequently made to the island.
The book jacket describes the place as, “A spectacular scrap of land set in a surging sea…” Where its peoples’ lives, “… are defined by the powerful ocean around them.” I couldn’t say it any better.
It sits approximately 12 nautical miles off the coast of Maine, measures 3/4 of a mile wide and 1 3/4 miles long (Manhattan is 2.3 miles wide and 13.4 miles long to give you some perspective). It’s a small, rocky, yet forested island, with a year-round population of 45.
Despite its accessibility only by boat and perhaps because of its isolation, it’s been a magnet to artists for more than 100 years. Andrew, N.C. and Jamie Wyeth all painted there and Jamie currently has a house on Monhegan.
Kim and I sat together on that melancholy day as we paged through the beautiful book. It was filled with paintings done over the last century by various artists, some famous some unknown, in multiple styles, but all depicting Monhegan Island.
The book was divided into sections by the different aspects of the island that had been painted most: the dock, the village, the headlands, the woods, rocks and seas, fishing and boats and the harbor. Kim reminisced, as we sat enjoying the book, about pleasurable times spent with Ellison and Frank throughout the many years of their friendship.
I loved hearing about Ellison and Frank, their lives and their connections to Kim. He told me about the pasted ferry ticket in the book, from his one visit to Monhegan years before, just for a day. But the island had touched something important in him because he was still affected by his memories of it all these many years later.
His affection for it, his awe and tenderness toward it, touched me. I yearned to visit this place I’d seen represented in paintings in a book that had affected my friend so profoundly. But I never thought for a minute I’d ever go there.
And so it was with great joy and anticipation that we drove through a dense fog very early on the second morning of my trip to Maine, headed to Monhegan!
We arrived ahead of time (and this was for a 7AM crossing mind you!) at Port Clyde, home of the Monhegan Boat Line, our passage to the island (should you ever decide to go, you must reserve space on the ferry in advance).
It was fortuitous for us that the little Laura B would be our boat. Although smaller than I’d expected, she’s been described by a prominent marine surveyor as, “… the best-maintained wooden vessel on the Eastern Seaboard.” She also carries freight and mail to the island year ‘round.
During WWII she served as a patrol boat in the Pacific transporting troops and supplies. She came under enemy fire during those days and carried two 50-caliber machine guns on deck.
We noted that the ocean was pretty stirred up, but as accustomed to the whim of the sea as I am, being from Seattle and a child of the islands there, it seemed okay to me. Little did I know, as it turned out, about the Atlantic.
On this wet, drizzly, fog shrouded day there weren’t many more travelers than the two of us, just three others in fact. From their conversations as the crew readied the boat for departure, it was clear they were island residents (lucky people!). I gathered one was a painter, one a poet and lastly a busybody the others wished to avoid. She talked at them throughout the entire hour-long journey, despite the poet’s groaning and laying down on her bench clutching a seasickness bag (even a crew member rushed inside to grab a bag for himself).
And that was because the sea was rough! These photos don’t do it justice. It roiled and churned, the waves enormous! They crashed again and again against the side of the Laura B buffeting her back and forth as she simultaneously plunged nose down into deep green troughs of ocean, rising again to their frothy tips. Some waves even swept right over the top of our little sliver of rigged wood out in the middle of that lonesome sea.
I couldn’t stop fleeting thoughts of The Old Man and the Sea. Or was it Homer’s Odyssey, as I fought off my own need for a sick bag and my rising alarm.
Having grown up on my great grandfather’s tug in Puget Sound, it was quite a surprise to me that the Sound didn’t hold a candle to this mighty Atlantic Ocean.
And then at last I saw land and houses.
We were pulling up to the dock of Monhegan Island!
It’s hard to put into words what I felt as I stepped from the sea onto that particular piece of land. The paintings from Kim’s book flooded my thoughts like old friends waiting at the landing to greet me.
But this step, I think, represented something huge to me. It felt as though the island itself was reaching in and delicately touching a soft spot of memory somewhere deep inside me. Was it an invitation to remember a part of me I’d left too long ago on another island, this one in Puget Sound?
What of that young woman who dreamed simple dreams of a quiet island life? Who longed to write and sing and paint? Because I don’t see enough of her within the rather timeworn woman I feel I’ve become.
But standing right there on Monhegan it felt as though I experienced something of a quiet shift to that old personal journey: one in which I remembered to take pleasure, to be soft, to seek and find beauty, to laugh more, to create.
Perhaps by reclaiming parts of that earlier time and weaving it together with a more grounded elder self, I can become something I may actually enjoy.
Monhegan, having transported me back to flashes of my youth on Vashon Island in Puget Sound, that other island in my life, recognized and welcomed me.
And I gave myself over to her.
Love to you all,