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Aging in Place

09/11/2018
By Gail Donovan

Aging in Place first appeared in Islandport Magazine, Fall 2018.
 
I hold tight to my mother’s arm as we pick our way along the path. Rocks and tree roots jut up along the trail, and the late fall temperature has just dipped below freezing. It would have been easier to go without my mom—she’s ninety-six—but that wasn’t the point. She loves this annual expedition as much as I do. 

We’re heading for the tip of Georgetown Island, where two beaches run along either side of a spit of land, pointing toward a rocky promontory. One of the beaches overlooks the open ocean. The other leads down to a tidal bay. Tucked between them, just before the promontory, is a tiny freshwater cranberry bog. 

But to reach the bog there is first the path, which used to be just a path but now, I realize, is what my late father-in-law would have deemed “uneven terrain.” I also realize that after choosing the proper footwear (L.L. Bean boots, of course, for this outing), I don’t usually give a thought to how and where I step. But with a ninety-six-year-old, every single step must be considered. Our pace is regal. I hold one of my mother’s hands and my cousin Elizabeth holds the other. I narrate, because while my mother’s spirit is willing and her hips are working, her eyesight and depth perception are shot. “Little step over this root … okay, going around this rock.”

I want wild cranberries. I do not want my mother’s obituary to begin, “Died after complications from a fall,” with that fall having happened on my watch. 

Finally, we are through the woods and—“big step down”—at the beach, the one that overlooks the bay. 

When I was in college, I tried describing this tidal bay to a friend from the Midwest. “The tides are connected to the gravitational pull of the moon,” I said. “At low tide, when the tide is out, you can walk on the mudflats. Then the tide comes in. That’s high tide. And that same place where you stood before would be deep under water.”

“So how often does the tide come in?” she asked. “Once a month?”

This morning—thirty-odd years later—the tide is out. But I’m not headed for the bay’s mudflats, where we could dig for clams if it were summer. It’s fall (technically, although the day feels wintry) and I’m going to the bog for cranberries. 

We find a driftwood log for my mom to sit on, because as game as she is to come on this outing, she doesn’t want to actually wade into the bog. Then it’s just a short walk through some long grass to an ecosystem that never ceases to amaze me—a tiny freshwater bog mere steps away from the Atlantic Ocean. 

It’s small, perhaps thirty feet across, and shallow at the edges. Elizabeth and I spy plenty of hard, red cranberries in the water, which has a thin film of ice on it. Breaking through the ice and dipping my fingers into the water, I make a note to myself—next year, get here earlier.

Thinking of next year, I can’t help but wonder if my mother will be with us. She was born in 1921 and began coming to this island in the 1930s, traveling the short twelve-mile journey from Bath, where her family lived. At first, they came for a week at a time, staying in an empty clam shack. Years later, her father had a house floated down the Kennebec River on a barge and placed on a piece of land midway up the bay. It served as temporary housing for the flood of workers to Bath Iron Works during the war, until it was no longer needed. Then it became her family’s summer cottage.

Year after year, my mother returned to this place. When marriage took her out of state to Connecticut, she came back in the summer. And when the marriage was over, she came back for good. 

One of my brothers built her a year-round house with a foundation and insulation, next door to the cottage. Another brother later moved in, which allowed our mother to “age in place.” 

My twin sister came and went, and one year she came back with something new—a French husband. At first, we had a little trouble understanding Jean-Paul, who wanted us to sit down for three-hour lunches, and posed philosophical questions like, “Where is the joie de vivre?” We were busy! We didn’t have time for joie de vivre! But despite his strange ways we figured he must be okay, because he took one look at Georgetown Island and fell in love with the place. And being a fisherman by trade, he quickly added the bay’s bounty—clams and lobsters—to those lunches. 

From the beach, I hear my mother’s voice. “Gail!” 

Do I have time to pick one final berry? If I find one quickly. But where? And where is the joie de vivre? Where, indeed. The answer can be in a place. On this island with its woods, marshes, beaches, and bays. In this bog, with deep red cranberries beneath a layer of sparkling ice, under a cold blue sky. But it can be in the taking of time, too. Not opting for the quicker walk without my mother, but the slower walk with her.

I reach into the freezing water one last time. I haven’t gathered much, just a couple of cups, enough for a single desert. An apple-cranberry crisp, maybe, to serve at the end of a long, leisurely Sunday lunch. 

My mother will probably be there. But I know, as surely as I know the tide will come in, then go out, and then come in again, that even when she’s no longer trekking to the bog to gather cranberries, even when she’s no longer sitting at the table to eat them, she’ll be in this place.

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Constance Morin Donovan’s final walk to the beloved cranberry bog took place in the fall of 2017. She died at home the following summer on July 19, 2018. She was ninety-seven.

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Gail Donovan writes novels for young readers. Her next book, Finchosaurus, will be published by Islandport Press in October 2018.