. . . holding on, letting go. Daddy held on to the lobster. It was a keeper, he said.
Breathe in, Breathe out, Move on . . . Jimmy Buffet
Breathe in, Breathe out Hold on, Let go
It was on a Father’s Day that Cam found it. He had been cleaning the back basement and it appeared on a shelf, seemingly out of nowhere. Neither one of us remember how it ended up in northern Michigan, thirteen hundred miles inland from the Maine coast, but there it was, sitting among the boxes of books, the piles of rags, the toys that the boys had stashed away. “I think this is for you,” Cam said, as he passed it over to me. “From your father.” And I clutched it in my palm, puzzled at first. And then I recognized it, this six-inch long metal ruler-type thing with a piece of tattered twine tied to the hole on one end. It was a lobster measurer; it was my father’s lobster measurer.
Cam and I started dating in the fall of my freshmen year at the University of Maine, just twelve months after my father’s passing, and his memory was fresh in my mind, his presence still palpable in the material objects scattered throughout our coastal home. It is likely that the lobster measurer was tucked in with some of the tools that my mother had offered to Cam during a college break, and had stayed hidden all these years until this particular Father’s Day when it jumped out at Cam and spoke in a loud voice. And now, years later still, it sits on the shelf of an antique dry-sink in our living room and has become one of my most precious possessions.
I remember lobstering with my father on summer evenings when he returned to the cottage after work, and on the weekends when the days were spacious. He loved revving up the old Johnson outboard engine and taking off in our eighteen-foot locally-made wooden lobster boat. He loved the freedom he found on the sea where you could steer your boat in any direction and there was something new to explore, and he loved the traps that he set and his hobby of hauling them. It was better than any after-work cocktail, he would say, and for us, it was the best way that we, his kids, could be with a father who we adored. It was all wonderful — the smell of the engine’s gasoline mingling with the smell of the rotting bait mingling with the freshness of the sea, the sound of the gulls as they flurried around us, the splash of the waves over the boat’s curved sides as we sped off fast on our way to the next trap and the next, the way our labra-dale dog stuck her nose into the wind and the way we did too.
And then my father would slow the boat down and aim us carefully toward the next bobbing buoy, and we, his kids, would lean over the side of the boat and dip our hands into the ocean and let them stream along like that until one of us would grab for the stem and pull the buoy into our boat. And this was the best part, the most wonderful of all. And sometimes it was my turn to help, and when it was, I would stand by my father and together we would pull on that sopping slimy rope; we would pull and pull and pull until, finally, it would pop right up to the surface, the wooden-slatted trap attached to the rope’s end. It was like Christmas, each and every time, to open that trap and see what we caught. We caught crabs, perky and snapping, and sea urchins and starfish, and we caught lobsters, too. And that’s when our father would haul out his metal measurer and press it against the top of the lobster’s snapping body. And we would wait. Was it a keeper? we’d wonder. And more often than not, it was too little and we’d say good-bye to the lobster and we’d fling it back into the sea. We’d let it go.
I know about letting go. I know about flinging things back into the sea. For much of my adult life, I dreamed of a cottage in Maine, a specific cottage on a specific piece of land, the one that was the cottage of my youth, the one that became the ramshackle cottage of my mother’s later years, the one that sat on family property at the head of Fish House Cove. We were to inherit it, my siblings and I. And then, six years ago now, we, along with our mother, made a decision to obtain a reverse mortgage on this piece of the land, so that she could stay put with the help that she needed, in this home that she loved. And I admit that I still clung to the dream that somehow the place would be there for me — and for me to share with family and friends. It took a long time to release my grip, to realize that it just wasn’t going to unfold the way that I had envisioned, a long time to toss a dream that had been so tender and sweet back into the sea. But, I did let it go when the money ran out, and we, my siblings and I, did sell that chunk of the family land, and the people who bought it, they did what I probably would have done too; they tore down my mother’s ramshackle home and they created something new.
And it has been two years since we sold the cottage, a year and a half since our mother’s passing, and the letting go for me has felt true and clean. I find myself still drawn to Maine, often and with excitement, to its charm and its rugged coastline, to its tidal rivers and the creative pulse of its people, to the smell and the rhythms of the sea. Sure, it is family and roots and the familiar that pull me eastward, but it is also something else, a forward-focused exploration that has taken me beyond the cove and the family-land into an adventure of new discoveries. And so, it felt okay to me — exciting even — to rent a place for my family this past July that was a thirty minute car ride away from my childhood coastal playground, a place with a lush lawn surrounded by woods near a small village that wasn’t even on my radar as a kid. And for one week in the heat of summer, this place became home to the seven of us — to my husband and I, to our two sons and their partners, and to our one-year-old grandson — and from this base-camp, we lived the week fully, exploring the restaurants, the hiking trails, the village shops and markets, the beaches, and yes, we also visited with family and roamed the land that was once one big parcel bought by our grandfather in 1903. At the time, I could feel it, that this family adventure was a gift, that it was rich beyond what could be measured. I knew I was having fun, and I knew there was more to it, too.
And now, a month later, I’m surprised by the wave of emotion that washes over me when I tell people about our adventure. It happened when I was speaking to Amber and Raja last Friday. I was telling them that I just don’t get it, how I really did let go of the land, really did move on. And yet, there we were, in my perfect-feeling moment, the all of us, fully present and playing on that parcel, on the forever-wild parts that we still own and on the parts that we have an easement to use. Our daughter-in-law was swimming laps in the cove. Our son (her husband) and their one-year-old and my husband (Grandpa) were sprawled out in an inlet beach of rocks and shells, the inlet where my father collected the shells for his animal sculptures. Our other son and the gal he’s going to marry next spring were catching the breeze in my father’s old Sunfish, and, sailing alongside them, in his brand-new Sunfish, was the current owner of the cottage. “It was as though we lived there,” I said as the emotion rose to the surface. And Amber put it into words when she paused then replied. “You had to let go of the old, in order to welcome what is present for you now.” And another friend added her wisdom a few days later when she said, “You have received the essence of everything you wanted.”
And I realize that this is true, that you fling a lobster back into the ocean when it is not ripe for the catching, and you fling your dream in, too, when the form you are trying to squeeze it in doesn’t quite fit. And then you stay present to your present-day moments and you navigate your boat into waters that feel good to you and you listen from the inside to what is the next step and the next, and then somewhere down the road or somewhere out to sea, maybe you’re hauling a trap or you’re just sitting there drifting for a moment or standing on a rock that you used to play on when you were a kid and you’re looking out at your family as they enjoy this place that you love and it becomes apparent to you that your dream has manifested, that what you wanted you have received, and the form is perfect, more expansive than you could have imagined.