She had a strange sense of time tucking inside itself, folding, dovetailing with minute precision. Mair Ellis, character in Rosie Thomas’ novel, The Kashmir Shawl
Something emerges within you that is deeper than you thought you were. Eckhart Tolle
I tucked myself in each night with a novel, a multi-layered story that swept through time and place and drew me into its pages with a delicious sense of intensity. As I allowed the novel to carry me across the sea to Wales and then onto India, a part of me also stayed grounded right where I was, on this side of the Atlantic with the waves whooshing in and out again against the rocky coastline that hugged this cottage’s hedge of lilies and freshly-mowed lawn. And each night, before settling into my cozy bed and my good read, I opened the door to the deck and let the breeze blow in — I couldn’t get enough of it, the smell of the sea and the sound of the waves and this novel that I was hungrily devouring.
It was both an exotic treat and a habit, familiar from long ago, this nighttime ritual I followed while staying for a week at the cottage in mid-coastal Maine this past summer. It is a short drive from this 1950’s-built Saltbox rental property, a mere two-and-a-half miles by car or foot to the land that my grandfather bought back in 1906, the land that included the farmhouse my cousin still calls home, and the spruce and balsam forest with its mossy ledges and the two coves and the point of land between and the cottage that sat at the head of one of those coves where I spent my childhood summers. Tracing the shoreline by boat, past cottages and through the inlet called the Carrying Place and around the tip of Cap Point, its an even faster jaunt, the trail that links my present-day week of July evenings spent nestled under quilts reading a novel to my childhood summers at Fish House Cove.
Was it the sea breeze and the cozy bedtime ritual, familiar from childhood, or the deliciousness of immersing myself into the story that called to me each night? I truly can’t say because it was all woven together into a transfixing whole. It was only a few pages into the novel when I discovered that although the main character was Welsh and her ancestors’ stories were far different than the stories of my ancestors, there were similarities in the present moment where we, the protagonist and I, found ourselves. The novel begins shortly after the protagonist’s fathers’ death with a bittersweet scene taking place at her childhood farmhouse in rural Wales, on land that has been in the family for generations, with the protagonist and her two siblings dividing up the property’s treasures as they prepare to sell the land to a local sheep herder. I know what this is like, to gather with siblings and divide up possessions and let go of a piece of property that you have held dear forever.
And it was what happened next in this novel that sent shivers of excitement up my spine. The protagonist finds, tucked in the bottom of her mother’s bureau, a shawl, an antique carefully-woven Kashmir shawl, and a lock of dark hair and an old black and white photo of three young women looking directly into the camera and laughing. She is certain that her mother’s mother is one of the women in the photo and the Kashmir shawl must have been hers, too, from the time that she spent as a missionary’s wife in India in the years before the Second World War. Thus begins the protagonist’s quest, a journey to find out the shawl’s story and to learn about this grandmother who she never knew that takes her to the high mountains and hill towns of northern India, a journey that mingles past and preset for the protagonist and for us the readers. The grandmother’s-young-woman-story is presented in vivid details, weaving in and out of the protagonist granddaughter’s quest and creating a gorgeous panoramic view that seems to transcend time and space.
I closed the book each night with the taste of India on my tongue and a genuine love for these characters and a curiosity about how it was all going to unfold. And then, as I turned out the light, there was the screen door rattling and the breeze and the damp smell of ocean and the weight of thick blankets, and then there was a faint sound of a bell-buoy and I was home again in this cottage that felt like home, drifting off to sleep and thinking to myself, “I’m living in my own unfolding novel!”
You see, past and present were mingling for me, too, not just because my childhood home was a few miles away, or because I found my adolescent wings while working at an inn a stone’s throw from this Saltbox gem, not just because it had almost seemed magical, too unbelievable and easy for the pages of a novel, the way that this cottage rental had found its way to me through three friendly strangers met over brunch at the local cafe. There was more. There were the family’s back stories, the ones lived out before my memories of family picnics and boat rides and and hikes along juniper-lined paths, stories as compelling to me as the ones that my novel’s protagonist and I were uncovering each night. There was my grandfather, well-known artist who bought the family land, who lived and etched and painted in this town until he died in a car accident in 1925, grandfather more myth than real, until now, that is, when he was taking up whole chapters in my “novel”, the one that I found myself living in July.
It started a month earlier at my high school reunion, when a friend I hadn’t seen in forty years, an artist- historian-architect, took an interest in my grandfather, and my friend’s curiosities and his searchings were bringing my grandfather alive for him and for me, too. I began to see my grandfather all fleshed-out, tall and rugged and at the helm of his sailboat or paddling his canoe with his artist tools in his leather suitcase protected somehow from the elements, heading out to an island to etch for the day, maybe to Ragged Island, the one that I could see, a month later, from my rental cottage’s deck. In chapter’s woven between my present-day gatherings with siblings and cousins and jaunts to the beach during that week in Maine, my grandfather lived in the pages of my imagination’s novel, as did his two wives, the first who died in the 1918, and the second, my grandmother, as did his children, too.
We knew things as readers that the protagonist of my nighttime novel never knew, rich details of her grandmother’s bold and adventurous years as a young woman in India. And that was okay. The protagonist solved some mysteries, felt the love and the connection that was there, held dear to the stories that did come her way, and tied tender bows around those parts of the past that have counterparts in the present. I am doing the same.