Summer houses are like time capsules. I remember this every June when we go to Maine, to the same place I've gone most of my life. My wife has been going with me every summer since we were in the 10th grade, so it always feels a bit like waking up back in high school when we arrive. In a dresser upstairs there are T-shirts I haven't worn since I took algebra. There are old letters in desks, matchbooks on the mantle from long-defunct restaurants, condiments in the kitchen I'm positive I recall from early childhood. At the bottom of the wood bin are newspapers announcing the crash of the Challenger.
This year my wife and I went determined to clean house. One of the first things we found was an answering machine, the outdated kind with the cassette tape and fake wood veneer. Before throwing it away, I played it. There were messages from people I hadn't called back since the Reagan administration. My own voice sounded about 19, which is how old I must have been when I recorded it. It was jarring. I decided to halt the archaeology expedition.
But there turned out to be no escaping unexpected reminders of the passage of time. One afternoon I was wandering around the boathouse looking for something when I found a small pyramid of old Coke bottles arranged on a rafter beam. Must be the kids' bottle collection, I thought to myself. And, I realized a moment later, it was. But not my kids -- my parents' kids. These were bottles my brother and I had collected when we were little. Just where we'd left them.
Time seems to move especially fast in Maine, because our routine rarely changes when we're there. In the morning we build sand castles and throw sticks in the water for the dogs. In the afternoon we go swimming. The water is pretty chilly, so the kids usually climb out after a few minutes. They sit on the dock wrapped in towels shivering and watch me go "diving."
That's what they call it anyway. The reality is less impressive. I strap on a bright red children's swim mask (once part of a $ 9.99 "Junior Frogman" set from CVS) and swim around underwater. I must look preposterously dorky. But there's no one around to see it but the kids, and they're too young to be very judgmental about appearances. Plus, they're excited. There's always the chance I'll bring up treasures.
And sometimes I do. Thanks to careless ice fishermen and generations of clumsy people getting in and out of boats, there are quite a few manmade objects on the bottom. One year we found a tackle box that had tumbled unopened out of someone's canoe. This summer I pulled up an ancient-looking bottle with the word "Kaylene-Ol" (whatever that is) embossed on the side. But most of the time what I bring up is just junk: bricks, oarlocks, lost moorings, broken fishing lures, weirdly shaped rocks, unidentifiable hunks of rusted metal, an outboard prop or two, and lots and lots of freshwater oysters.
I throw it all piece by piece onto the dock while the kids yell happily. The stuff is usually gnarled and blackened and covered with moss, but that doesn't diminish its value. They split the loot into even piles and paw through it lovingly, like pieces of eight.
By August this year, the treasure piles had grown too large for the back porch. I cleaned off a shelf in the shed, displacing a decade's worth of mismatched plumbing supplies, hung a board across it with some old strap hinges, and called it a treasure chest. The kids put their cherished objects inside. They came back to check on them six or seven times a day every day until we went home.
And we finally did go home. We spent our last day in Maine as we always do, cleaning and closing up. I came to the shed last. I was about to lock the door when I noticed the shelf with the board across it. Suddenly I felt emotional. Next year, I thought, this place will look exactly the same, because it never changes. But we do. When we come back, the bricks and rocks and hunks of rusted metal will still be here, just where the children left them. I wonder if they'll still consider it treasure.