Coming Home to Maine

Maine writer and photographer Coco McCracken on the concept of belonging and setting down roots.

Photo: Christine Tanner

I was scanning Manana Island’s gnawed grass coastline for a sign of the rogue goat I had just been stalking from across the channel. The view from our Monhegan Island bed-and-breakfast mirrored the postcard in my backpack: worn gray shingles, cadmium yellow lobster traps, fishing boats caught in the tidal swing, the water a primary blue. I lost sight of the goat with a blink, as one often does when trying to steady binoculars on a distant subject, miles away. I shifted my view back to the boulder I knew the goat was near, and I restarted my slow scan.

That’s when the innkeeper asked the question: “Are you girls natives here?”

My home address has changed almost every other year since I left for college at 17. In my younger years, answering where I was from felt like a natural follow-up to a handshake, harmless and requisite. Whether gathering at a beach picnic in San Diego or sharing pints with new friends in London, I knew the question implied a desire to bond with other travelers looking for a place to call home.

There is, of course, another version of the same question. This version I’m equally accustomed to, and its meaning shapeshifts as often as I’m told my face does.

“Where are you from?”

When I hear that question, I inhale. Then I spew in one breath: “My father’s parents are from China, my mom’s mom is from Northern Ireland, her dad is from South Africa.”

The question is typically asked out of curiosity. And yet, when I answer, the interested stranger smiles with satisfaction for having solved the mystery of me. (I knew it. I knew she was something else, too.) I then prepare to receive a Chinese restaurant recommendation or to hear about a business trip to Hong Kong. I prepare for backhanded compliments about a land I’ve never actually been to: “Oh, the smog! The pollution! The smells! But the temples, so beautiful.” I feel a wall raise between myself and the inquisitor. Sometimes they describe their proud generational claim to family living on said land. In Maine, more often the inquisitor is, like me, “from” somewhere else. But justification of their rootedness is usually then solidified with the measure of time that has passed between living somewhere else and living here: “Well, we’ve been here for 19 years, so really…”

After decades of being asked the “where are you from” question, I can’t ignore that many of us have developed a hierarchy of claim to cities, towns, and states by measuring how long we’ve occupied them. From that perspective, the use of the word native feels particularly misplaced. For a moment, I wondered if the innkeeper genuinely wanted to know if our families had ties to the island’s Wabanaki people. Taking in the word native in this context was like being force-fed an ice cube. Should I risk rudeness and spit out the cold, unwanted thing? Or should I wait for time to melt its hard edges, and then swallow?

When my husband and I moved to Maine in 2019, we fell head over heels for the land. Stepping into the otherworldly wonders of a kelp-covered cove was nothing short of magnificent. The first frigid winter slapped our souls awake from our comfortable California slumber. Standing under white pines, which skyscrape with more power than the tallest high-rises back home, we were humbled. From cliff jumps to seaside tiptoes, we had never felt more wholly connected to the ground we stood on.

Both sets of my grandparents left their home countries because of war, poverty, and civil unrest. Ireland and China couldn’t be more culturally or geographically opposed, but my grandparents’ emigration stories are similar, and their ultimate union collides in me. How wonderful would it have been for my grandparents to stay in their homelands for generations, to become caregivers of the land they had hoped to pass on to me and my siblings? But, of course, my grandparents couldn’t stay. Belfast was on fire, China unstable. In exchange for a better life, they lost claim to their land lineage. They would forever be newcomers on whatever road they would walk next.

There are images that stick with me every time I’m on the East and West Coasts of the United States. I wonder which parts of the Pacific Ocean that I’ve swam in once touched the feet of my great-great-great grandmother in South China? When standing in between the slats of stratified rock at Trundy Point in Cape Elizabeth, I think of those time-lapse renderings that show North America hugging into Europe during the Mesozoic Era. Am I really so far from the ancient lands my ancestors tilled in Northern Ireland?

How many years will it take me to feel endemic to a land? I have tried to “come home” so many times. Finally, as if there were a magnet under Maine, I have been pulled to this place. Could a part of me be trying to get across the sea to the homes left behind by my ancestors? How can I explain this all to our innkeeper, in the tight confines of small talk? I return to the question.

“Are you girls natives here?”

The “girls” are me and my friend Morgan. Morgan was born in Maine, and I wondered if the innkeeper would start asking about her parents, making connections to what acquaintances they might share.

But in a matter of seconds, I am freed from this conversation. Morgan’s voice rings as clear as a bell, stalwart and unafraid of any awkwardness that might follow her response.

“No, I don’t believe any of us in this room are.”

We were given the room shortly after. Sighing relief, we settled back into the window banquette and continued our search for the wandering goat. It was an island after all—the goat couldn’t have wandered very far.

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