The Art of Making Meaningful Acquaintance
By Dennis Gilbert
Photographs by Matt Cosby
“What lies ahead is an endless brunch of briny seafood, sport, sunshine, and romance.”
Encased on the nearby wall is a page from the April 2, 1945, edition of Life magazine depicting local displeasure with the Tracy via the upturned scowls of Mr. Roberts and friends.
So many signals crackling across time toward the present: the Revolutionary War heroes of Roberts’ Arundel, Grant’s Age of Sail, Tarkington’s Magnificent Ambersons, the Great Depression, the New Deal, post-War prudery, and…Life itself!
Tina Strickland greets mea stranger at the doorwith a generous smile and a welcoming sweep of the hand. Tina is the dining room manager of the Captain Jefferds Inn. I’m here for a tour. That couple on the beach with the little black dog? They were sojourning here and recommended I interview the innkeeper, Erik Lindblom.
Built in 1804, the Captain Jefferds is a three-story paragon of post-Colonial splendor, as evidenced by room after elegant roomthe Monticello, the Adare, the Chatham, the Connecticut15 in all. Outside, we tour the grounds, gardens just now beginning to shrug off their tiresome dormancy and a sloping expanse of lawn that borders the public open space River Green. It’s a picturesque prospect, with the river below and the sea beyond.
Inside again, the amiable Lindblom talks with pride about the residence itself and the role the business of innkeeping plays in the livelihood of the town. The seasons are expanding, and many inns remain open year round.
“It used to be, all you heard after Labor Day was the sound of hammers,” he says, as buildings were buttoned up for winter. The Jefferds itself is closed only three days a year, to give the staff a holiday and turn the premises over to family and friends.
A painting contractor of 30 years’ experience, Lindblom is a knowledgeable lecturer on the niceties of eighteenth-century construction. Of particular note is the window glass, each hand-poured pane its own kaleidoscope of waves and bubbles, every one as unique as a snowflake. Imagine discovering these as a child, not just one magic lens to study the world but a whole mansion of them, brightening and bending substance and space at the slightest alteration of your gaze. You could while away an entire childhood without ever noticing.
David and Ann Schultz’s Home and Away Gallery features work of contemporary Inuit, Eskimo, and Native American artists. The collection is comprised primarily of sculpture in serpentine with a complement of baskets, jewelry, and beadwork. The three-dimensional forms overshadow the smaller catalogue of works on paper. Most are prints, but there is a handful of extraordinary drawings by the Inuit artist Napachie Pootoogook. A printmaker herself, late in life Pootoogook turned to drawing as a medium for depicting remembrances of childhood. Accompanied by text, these intimate works document outstanding moments of struggle, play, and magic recalled across the expanse of a lifetime. The felt-tipped pen is an apt instrument for Pootoogook’s documentary impulse, seizing hold of a way of life even as it recedes.
These drawings invite comparison with the Baxter Family Bible, presented to the Historical Society in 2011. Printed in Cambridge, England, in 1638, this remarkable volume survived the freezes and thaws of an entire Maine winter before being rediscovered. That was 287 years ago. It is now on display at the Society’s Pasco Center.
Mortared into the porch wall of the Louis T. Graves Library on Maine Street is a facsimile of the gravestone of one Ezra Thompson: born September 23, 1754, in Wilmington, Massachusetts; graduated Harvard College, 1756; spent upwards of 20 years teaching the youth of Arundelto their great improvement; died July 5, 1798. “Imitate his virtues,” the stone counsels, “and follow him to glory.”
Along with Thompson’s mortal remains, the original headstone resides somewhere in the domain of Kennebunkport’s approximately 70 cemeteries, one of which stands on a hummock at a fork in the road about a mile to the east of the library. A plot of lawn and pavement located in the crotch of this fork supports the Wildwood Fire Co. station, a tidy set of conjoined buildings whose impeccable upkeep is augmented by a small commemorative monument. Simple words in plain text engraved into an uncut stone anchored in the earth, this monument honors volunteer firefighters past and present. In the wake of the devastating fire of 1947, whose afterburn continues to sting the memories of survivors, Kennebunkport is rightly proud of its volunteer fire department, for it is the epitome of ever-ready civic action at restexcept when they are staging chowder dinners to supplement their budget.
The water view at the Wayfarer in Cape Porpoise is taken up by the kitchen; the dining room, seating a couple dozen souls, looks out onto the charming square instead. The menu is coastal rustic with a dash of Irish, the atmosphere homey comfort imbued with more than a bit of sparkle by a waitress named Bert, whose gift of gab and sunny efficiency would brighten the drabbest dining room on the dreariest day. Other attractions include a halcyon-days seaside mural in the bathroom and lunch counter seating for us loners. The moment you enter the place, you can tell it’s a locals’ favorite and a fine place for a bite to eat. But this time of year, with the season a while away and returning snowbirds busy airing out rooms and tidying yards, business isn’t exactly bustling.
A slow morning is never a good omen for lunchtime coffee, but Bert gives it her blessing as she pours.
“The Reuben?” I venture, ravenous.
“Ordering!” Bert yells toward the back, swooping off to hot-top cups grown tepid.
A lazy three-sixty surveys the scant occupancy of the hour and carries me back into a view of one of the most treasured of all local folk arts, a snapshot collage of George H. W. Bush posing with owners and staff. On display here and there around town, these installations will surely remain in place until the paper crumbles. Easy to see why: has there ever been a more photogenic commander-in-chief? Neither bluff nor stiff, this man’s broad smile and inborn congeniality mark him as kindred spirit in any company.
A splash of sunlight pours into the room as a handsome, well matched couple of “a certain age” (like me), strolls in. Obviously regulars, they navigate to a favorite booth under a window.
Bert bustles to their table with ice water. “You should have been here earlier,” she says. “I had them all singing along with Mitch!”
Suddenly, those jaunty strains emanating from the boom box by the register assume a familiar ring.
Woman from across the room: “A friend of mine used to go out with one of Mitch Miller’s singers. (Wistfully) That was a long time ago…”
Bert: “That must have been a long time ago!”
Bert got the Mitch and a Jim Nabors CD at the Goodwill for a buck apiece. We all agree that Jim Nabors is a GREAT singer.
Handsome Man: “You know what they wanted for lobster the other day?”
Bert: “I’m not surprised.” Her husband hasn’t hauled traps since November, sold his offshore boat. “Which is where they all are right now.”
Handsome Woman: “I’ll have the Louie Melt.”
Handsome Man (examining the Jim Nabors case): “Bert, can you play number 14?”
In the service window, a bell dings. Seconds later, Bert slides a whale of a Reuben onto the counter in front of me, mountains of corned beef bulging out from under triangles of marbled rye.
Me: “Oh my…”
Bert (producing a Styrofoam clamshell from under the counter): “Don’t worry, darlin’: what you can’t eat, you can take home.”
The wilt of sweet-salty sauerkraut glistening with melted swiss beckons. I bite into the most succulent Reuben I’ve ever tasted and settle in to work on the Wayfarer Challenge. Pretty soon I’m dabbing Russian dressing from the corners of my mouth and my eyes are watering from sheer gustatory pleasure, while Bush 41 beams down at me from his shrine behind the counter and Jim Nabors, sloughing off his inner Gomer Pyle and donning the doublet of Don Quixote de la Mancha, fills the cozy dining room with a baritone powerful enough to float a battleship.
Before the Reverend Ruth Merriam formally welcomes worshipers to Sunday service, they have already enjoyed a half hour of blood-stirring hymn singing orchestrated by popular request. Someone calls out a number, pages are turned, the organ prelude peals forth, and offupwe go. Dominating the front of this small sanctuary, the joyful choir seems to levitate with song, the congregation not far below, and you start to feel the spirit moving in the very floorboards beneath your feet. The room swells with ardor at every verse. For the first-timer, it’s an especially unexpected lift; you can’t help being disappointed when the last note has been sung.
There is nothing formal about Reverend Ruth’s greeting. Today is Heritage Sunday, the 157th birthday of the Church on the Cape, and she is bursting with celebratory energy. Clad in a plain white robe but miked like a rock star, she gleefully outlines the festivities of this special day, from the after-service social hour and May Basket workshop to this evening’s potluck panel of 50-plussers recalling The Way We Were. Reverend Ruth has a good gig. You can tell from the passion in her singing, and the ease of her address, and the pride in her voice how filled to the brim she is, living out her vocation. One imagines her sermons being rich in revelation.
For this special day, however, the scripture reading and homily fall to an honored guest, Reverend Russell Peppe. Reverend Peppe’s selection is from John 4, the woman at the well, whom Jesus asked for a drink in exchange for the Water of Life. This seems a formidable challenge: clearly it will take a skilled rhetorician to bend this drama of doubt toward a celebration of this little church’s longevity. But that’s what pastors are for.
“We all know what a church is,” he begins.
“It’s what’s left after the building burns down and the pastor leaves town.” This surprising observation opens a door on the past, which Peppe guides us through gently, asking for a show of hands “if you recognize any of these names.” He reads a list, and many do.
And these? Another list, and fewer, mostly older hands are raised.
Another: hardly any. And these? Now we are in the company of strangers. The fabric of the past has begun to fray.
“Reverend Atkinson,” he says, “presided over the dedication of this church in 1857.
“In 1886, Reverend Nickerson reported to the Conference that 147 children attended Sunday school! Where did they put them all?
“We can keep going,” he says. John Wesley. John Wycliffe. Saint Jerome. “Saint Paul,” he says, angling back toward the source, still sitting at the well and waiting for the Samaritan woman to return. Where has she gone? To gather her people. She has heard that a Messiah is coming. Could this be he?
At the end of the service, I congratulate the organist, Beryl Samia, on her beautiful playing. Sadly for the Church on the Cape, she’s retiring soon.
“I couldn’t help noticing your keychain,” I say, nodding toward the red, white, and blue Boston Red Sox bauble hanging from the organ lock.
“My father was a great fan,” she says. “He loved Rico Petrocelli.” Her grandsons play ball; she’s eager for their season to start.
Like Samia, everyone I meet at the social hour is a wonderful conversationalist, quick to find common ground and adept at the art of making meaningful acquaintance.
Your first time here? They always want to know how you found them, where you’re from. “That’s not so far away,” they say.
“Will you come again?”
Outside, the air grows tangy with rising dust as the congregants depart. Under a lifting overcast, the mauve and taupe of cottages is visibly deepening as the grass greens and the crocuses give way to daffodils. Ambling along the sidewalk, I’m feeling all at once pleasantly empty and pleasantly full, not really sure what happens next, when a gleaming white sedan suddenly pulls over and the driver leans across the seat to speak. She’s one of the women in the choir. “You forgot your Reuben,” she says. On the double-take, I recognize the Handsome Woman from yesterday’s lunch.
“I told Bert you were at church. She said you forgot the rest of your Reuben.”
I glance across the square at the Wayfarer. It’s just past noon. A hand reaches under the curtain and turns the Open sign around to Closed.
“Good-bye!” the Handsome Woman calls, driving away. “Come back!”
What do you do when life unexpectedly lays the table for a movable feast? What can you do but sit down, say grace, and dig in?