Time Travel

Past modifies present by the sea

We leave the highway and bump along a sandy track into another era. There is a timelessness here, a sense of lives well lived and histories preserved in this beach house by a New England bay.

It is a family house to which my family has come for a week. We are guests, but we are also kin of the distant variety, connected by marriage to this enchanted place. Hidden in the woods, far from a main road, it seems always to be waiting for the next carload of weary visitors in search of refreshment.

Old houses have their own energy, and this one fairly pulses with the spirit of its matriarch. She passed away some years ago, but she is everywhere: in photographs, in neatly stocked cupboards, in faded quilts, and drawers full of toys for visiting grandchildren. Hers is a comforting, practical presence that calls attention to the things that matter: hummingbirds at the feeder; a heron in the marsh; fresh blueberries on the table. The echo of her crisp Boston accent discourages whining and introspection and sandy feet in the house. There are walks to be taken, sailing picnics to be planned. There are window boxes to water, books to be read, stories to be told.

Once here, it could be 1920 or 1950 or anytime before the endless din of television numbed our senses. Apart from the Sunday papers, news comes from the vintage Life magazines and ancient National Geographics stacked in bookcases. A sort of benign indifference to the outside world descends, and time is measured by the arrival of the next meal or the next siesta.

A shady dirt road ends at the beach and a sheltered stretch of bay. Most days, we have it to ourselves. At low tide, the sand bar is a children's paradise, teeming with fiddler crabs and shallow pools of darting minnows. At high tide, we swim in the August-warm water or glide the Sunfish around the point.

This peaceful stretch of coastline has seen its share of drama. The hurricane of 1938 cut a swath through the woods and along the shore. Piles of bricks still mark the chimneys of ruined cottages; a dig in the sand may produce a fragment of china teacup or a doorknob. There is a story of a family who climbed to their roof as the water rose and held on as the house was swept into the bay. Marooned, they spied a refrigerator floating by and managed to corral and open it. It was packed full of lobsters and champagne.

Such strokes of luck do not seem incredible in this place. Steeped in simplicity, it has a kind of quiet magic that surfaces at the crucial moment. The wind changes; the threatening clouds vanish. A fruitless day of angling ends with a spectacular run of bluefish. The urgency of e-mail and bleating cellphones recedes. Sleep is long and deep. The secret sorrow eases. The sharp edge of worry is dulled. Time's march slows to an amble, and even the slam of the screen door is music to my ears.