Homes

Sweet Spot

After years of metaphorically moving in and out of Maine houses, a writer finds her place on the midcoast.

Charlotte Holmes and her Greek Revival in Belfast
Charlotte Holmes and her Greek Revival in Belfast
TEXT BY CHARLOTTE HOLMES
PHOTOGRAPH BY RYAN DAVID BROWN

For three years, I spent hours a day visiting houses in Maine. I gazed through windows overlooking the sea and watched spray stilled over granite boulders. I swept through blueberry fields off one-lane roads, up rough, sparsely populated hillsides tucked behind stands of pines, and picked my way along wooded paths ending in rough meadow. Cherryfield. Jonesport. Isle au Haut: their brief histories on Wikipedia made me wonder how an outsider like me would mesh with the townsfolk, even if I did have a great house.

From my desk in Pennsylvania, I Zillowed through places where 3,000-square-foot Victorians sold for a song, accompanied by promises that a little creativity, a bit of elbow grease, or an experienced contractor could return the splendor. One afternoon, I lost my heart to a shingled cottage — open hearth, painted floors, ocean view — until my husband showed me Route 1 licking at the garden’s fringes on Google Maps.

I imagined that everyone building a house in 19th-century Maine had been a sea captain, so many of their alleged houses were for sale. Again, Google wrecked my illusions: The one I loved most had a freestanding staircase and ten-foot ceilings, as well as a flea market tent city next door and an auto supply shop across the street.

And oh, the glorious oceanfront house (priced so low, I suspected a typo or misplaced comma) that might have been a spread in Country Living! That place appeared in not one, but two books about Maine ghosts. Residing alongside an amiable spirit didn’t deter us, but sharing space with a nasty fleet of spectral hangers-on who, according to lore, hurled pottery and tore books? Definitely out of our comfort zone.

People want Maine for all sorts of reasons. For us, refugees from the Deep South who’d grown up feeling estranged from the place that spawned us, Maine meant cooler summers and calmer heads, pristine forests, and an ocean that was still accessible even if we didn’t own the McHouse that stood before it. Perhaps all those years of reading Dickinson and Emerson, Jewett and Lowell, had also instilled in us a love of New England toughness and simplicity that too often seemed absent in the world we saw around us.

Our dream of moving to Maine began when, one summer, strangers offered us their house overlooking Penobscot Bay in exchange for cat sitting. They started as friends of friends and soon became real friends. Several years on, when they began to consider the pitfalls of rural aging, they looked around for a lively town with good medical care, and Belfast raised a flag. We mourned the loss of the cove, but “you can’t live on a view,” they said, and we took their point. After one summer cat sitting at their “new” (circa 1850) house and experiencing Belfast for ourselves, we knew that we, too, had found the right town.

ABOVE Author Charlotte Holmes’s Belfast Greek Revival, once home to a 19th-century shipyard owner, boasts clever nautical touches, including caged lights, steel-cleat handles on a steep, polished-wood rear staircase, and a stainless-steel shower from a submarine.

"For us, refugees from the Deep South who’d grown up feeling estranged from the place that spawned us, Maine meant cooler summers and calmer heads, pristine forests, and an ocean that was still accessible even if we didn’t own the McHouse that stood before it."

"For us, refugees from the Deep South who’d grown up feeling estranged from the place that spawned us, Maine meant cooler summers and calmer heads, pristine forests, and an ocean that was still accessible even if we didn’t own the McHouse that stood before it."

ABOVE Author Charlotte Holmes’s Belfast Greek Revival, once home to a 19th-century shipyard owner, boasts clever nautical touches, including caged lights, steel-cleat handles on a steep, polished-wood rear staircase, and a stainless-steel shower from a submarine.

In Pennsylvania the following winter, Belfast became the streets I walked toward sleep: from High down to Main, left to the coffee shop with windows fogged on cold mornings, right to the river whose unpronounceable name means “the place of ghosts” in an all-but-forgotten language. Zillowing, I found few houses for sale, most too large, some charming. I loved a wonky circa 1820 duplex as much for enduring 200 years of cooking and nose wiping, making love and making do, as for its green-tiled fireplaces and wide-plank floors. My husband vetoed. The sheer square footage of peeling paint, curling roof shingles, antique masonry, and uninsulated windows was argument enough against the years we had left and the bank account we had to fund them.

Our second summer cat sitting in Belfast, our Realtor (by then we had a Realtor) showed us the houses remaining on our list of possibilities. We’d arrived coveting a certain yellow Greek Revival on the hill above the post office. The photos showed two fireplaces, a renovated bath, and original walnut kitchen cabinets. In real life, the house was everything we hoped for, save the spongy floor joists and squirrel holes gnawed through the roof, the weird tangle of rooms in the ell, the barn held together with baling wire. On the porch, the agent asked what I thought. I looked around. Paint buckled on the siding like waves. Boards sagged under my feet as I shifted my weight and admitted, “This house makes me feel tired.”

A few days later in a downtown store, a clerk advised us to give up searching for a home in Belfast. “You have to know someone,” she said confidently. “These houses stay in families for generations.”

When our son and daughter-in-law visited from Brooklyn, we showed off the 1838 tombstone resting in someone’s front yard, the cupolas, pergolas, and stables bigger and more ornate than any ordinary house in any ordinary town. My own small favorites stood between the mansions, gable ends facing streetward, underscoring their resemblance to the temples that inspired them.

On Saturday morning, I was deep in a dream when my cell phone rang. My son, on his way to the farmers’ market for breakfast, announced that the greenhouse was for sale.

“What greenhouse?” I asked. He explained that the green house I’d been eying for two summers, the modest Greek Revival across the street from our cat-sitting gig, had overnight sprouted a Realtor’s sign in the front yard.

Dear reader, by the next Saturday, the house was ours.

The hours I spent online, cruising momentary possibilities, weren’t wasted. When we sharpened our focus, Belfast filled the lens. Amazingly, the sellers had preserved the home’s spirit without knowing its history. Unaware that the first owner’s shipyard had fueled the town’s economy for most of the 19th century, they had nevertheless introduced sly nautical references — a stainless-steel shower apparently filched from a submarine, caged lights, and a back staircase so steep it could almost pass for a bookcase. Steel-cleat handles from a marine supply shop screwed into polished wood walls continued the nautical theme. Gripping tightly that first day, I hoisted myself up the stairs to the top deck and saw rooftops bobbing on a sea of trees. On the landing, my husband gave me a complicit look. We hardly needed to discuss the leap we were about to make. Canny as old ghosts, we launched ourselves into the next chapter.

Charlotte Holmes is director of creative writing and a professor of English at Penn State University. She is the author of Gifts and Other Stories and The Grass Labyrinth, which won the gold medal for short story from the Independent Publishers Association in 2016. Her fiction and essays have appeared in The Antioch Review, Epoch, Grand Street, Narrative, New Letters, and The New Yorker, and her poems have been published in American Poetry Review, Tar River Poetry, The Women’s Review of Books, and other journals. She looks forward to joining her husband in Belfast full-time.


2 Comments

  1. Jennifer Jackson

    What an extraordinary story of coming home by my friend and former colleague Charlotte Holmes. Every happiness to you both in the green house.

  2. So jealous, but not far behind in our dream to call Belfast home.

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