On a summer weekend earlier in July, my husband and I traveled up to Maine to visit our friends, Maggie and Bob, who had recently built their forever home overlooking Sebago Lake and the White Mountains. This was our first trip to see them since their house was constructed and while we had heard stories about its unique location, the open airy feel of the living areas and how the natural environment around the property had been carefully incorporated into the house’s look and feel, I was unprepared for the magnificence of what awaited us as we drove up the long dirt road that served as their private driveway.
I love all kinds of houses. Old ones, new ones, ranches, farmhouses, splits, Colonials, A-frames and log cabins. When I dream, I’m almost always inside a house and it’s usually not my own, but I typically wake up having felt right at home. I’m especially fond of houses with tall windows dressed up with long, white, billowy curtains that move gently in the breeze. It must be the romantic in me.
The house where I’ve lived and raised my family for the past 17 years is an 1850-era Victorian with many of its original features still intact. When people enter our home, they immediately comment on the 9-foot ceilings and generous oak moldings around the doorways. Multi-colored gingerbread details show off to passers-by on the street and the front entrance is comprised of two sets of sturdy double doors each topped by frosted, hand-etched panes of glass. I’ve come to love the deep sense of comfort and continuity inherent in my historical home. Just the same, our friends’ brand new place has stayed on my mind ever since our visit.
Much has been written about what makes a house into a home. It really boils down to those intangibles that get carried into houses by the people who live in them. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s stepped inside a luxurious manse that felt cold and unfriendly despite being filled with comfortable furniture and loaded with beautiful objects. On the other hand, there’s nothing like the feeling of enjoying a mug of coffee at a dear friend’s old kitchen table, its surface marked with signs of cooking mishaps and bearing a chipped pitcher of flowers fresh from her garden. Clearly my taste in houses and things tends to fall into the more “weathered” category, but the idea is that love doesn’t need a fancy space to grow.
Back in Maine, this rule is in evidence many times over. Bob happens to be an avid sailor and builder. When we arrive, he can’t wait to show us his downstairs workshop where he pulls out the original plans for the house and displays some of the tools and materials he used during the building process. He takes great pride in explaining how he contemplated where the windows should go, based on where the sun would find its way into the house at different times of day. Our tour leads us to a lovely deck that extends beyond the back French doors of their living room, allowing lucky visitors to view Mount Washington in all its glory.
Another type of home graces their property, too. Behind the garage sit three active bee hives. Sunday morning before we packed up to leave, Maggie invited me to help her inspect the hives. I willingly donned the requisite beekeeper’s attire: long gloves, netted helmet and a light set of coveralls that fit over my clothing. My task was to use the smoker to fool the bees into thinking there might be a fire and send them inside to protect their queen. We wanted as many of them inside the hives as possible so we could see about the health of the animals themselves and determine their level of productivity. I was tentative at first, but after being reassured that the smoke was benign, I pumped puffs of smoke into the entrance of the hive until Maggie told me to stop.
Each of the hives is named for a special person in their family. The largest and most established hive is called, Sheila, after Maggie’s mom. I’ve had the pleasure of tasting honey from the Sheila hive and I can testify that it offers the most wonderful sweetness thanks to the colorful pollinator gardens planted throughout the yard. The external walls of the hives are painted with vivid swaths of blue, green, yellow and orange. Their designs remind me of a cross between a Van Gogh sky and a 1970’s Marimekko print. They stand out brightly but don’t clash with the natural environment around them.
There’s a clear sense of purpose inside a beehive. Each animal is fully dedicated to performing its particular job to better the entire colony. It’s quite humbling to watch the bees go about their daily business, caring for the queen, tending to her eggs and her ensuing brood, gathering pollen from outside and building the hexagonal cells where the pollen, honey and eggs are stored. The reason Maggie inspects the hives often is that here in New England, with summers being so short, the bees need to produce a lot of honey in a fairly brief time period in order to survive the long winters. As Maggie pulled out the honey frames, we could see immediately that all three colonies were on their way to a bumper supply of honey that would most likely sustain them when the seasons changed.
Whether we’re talking about beehives, suburban Victorians or Maine sanctuaries, all houses are just frameworks that hold our busy, complicated lives. We fill our homes with an unlimited catalogue of emotions: happiness, loyalty, stress, worry, fear, and courage, among many others. We expect our house to keep us safe and sheltered, and to offer us space to grow and change. The feeling of “being home” is something we take with us out into the world. Miraculously, we don’t always have to come back to the same house to find that feeling again. Like the bees, we have to work diligently to provision ourselves against the hard times. Yet unlike bees, we humans often lose sight of our primary goals and instead invest ourselves in plans that don’t prioritize our health and welfare.
I’m incredibly grateful for the time spent at our friends’ home in Maine over that special weekend. Being at their house offered me a sense of peacefulness that I didn’t even realize I had been missing. These days, in the midst of the chaos of work, chores, the daily news cycle, and world affairs, I’ve found some respite by going back in my mind to Maggie and Bob’s home where the mountains stand guard and the bees thrive. I know they’ll be happy to see us when we visit again.