When, a few years ago, I told my friend Monica that I wanted to live in a cabin in the woods someday, she gave me a straight look and said, “Liz, you’re weird enough as it is. You need to be around people.”
True, perhaps, but I have not heeded Monica’s advice over this past year. Since last August, I have spent every spare week or two in a borrowed camp in the western Maine mountains working on the book version of my one-woman show, My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother. In 2011, I borrowed my friend Joyce’s mother’s condominium in Bethel to start the book that turned into the show that ate two years of my life. I returned there this past June and July to finish the job. Two more weeks in the woods should bring the book close to completion. Arranging writing retreats in these “borrowed spaces” makes me realize I’ve gotten very good at the art of the mooch.
Granted, I’ve had plenty of practice. Growing up in Bath in the 1960s and ‘70s, I spent my summers frolicking at Brighams Cove, at Quaker and Fosters points, on the New Meadows River, at Small Point and Popham beaches, over at Reid State Park, and occasionally at Ocean Point and in Boothbay. It was as though the Kennebec flowed into the Atlantic with the sole purpose of providing me a playground and, conveniently, all of my family’s friends purchased property for the sole purpose of giving me shelter in these places. These dwellings are known in mooch parlance as OPCs, or Other People’s Camps.
In the beginning I didn’t get it. I wanted to know why we didn’t have a camp. The Ambroses had a camp. The Dalys had a camp. The Parkers had a camp. The Vallieres had a camp. The Eastmans had a camp. The Waldmans had a camp. And those in our circle who didn’t own camps rented them. When I asked my parents why we didn’t have one, my mother explained that my father found no romance in roughing it. Growing up during the Depression had inoculated him against that. Sleep on a lumpy mattress in a musty shack just for a glimpse of the ocean? That’s what OPCs were for.
Throughout college and into my 20s I couch-surfed, house-sat and hopscotched my way across the country, stopping in states where I had friends, friends of friends, or, in some cases, friends of friends of friends. When I settled back in Maine in my 30s and the tables were turned, my pals found visiting me to be a Spartan affair: a foldout foam futon in the living room, an empty fridge, and a blocking maneuver at the threshold to my apartments that said, “You want to come in here?”
Getting married at 40 and buying a home changed that, and for the first few years it seemed like John and I had guests (family, friends, offspring of friends) all the time. We still love to have company in the cooler months, when we can lounge in front of the fire while something bubbles on the stove or roasts in the oven. But summer is different. We’re porch people, not deck people. Decks say, Come on over and hang out. Porches are for a couple old coots in rockers yelling, “You kids get outta my yard!” Plus, it’s hard to entertain when you’re on the road. I’m not saying we leave town in the summer intentionally. But, honestly, who wants to run a B&B when you can feel the wind in your hair and someone else’s pillow under your head?
So while most of my friends and neighbors are airing out their guest rooms, laundering the extra sheets and towels and stocking the freezer and cupboards in anticipation of the They’re here! moment, you know what I’m doing? Checking the air in my tires, dusting off my portmanteau and gazing at my calendar in anticipation of filling those 15 spaces that represent fleeting summer weekends with visits. You could say I am something of a professional guest.
But being a good guest is not as simple as bringing your benefactors a pot of jam, as stated in the movie Six Degrees of Separation. It requires finesse. So, as a public service to all you visitors and your gracious hosts, I am going to provide instruction from a pro on the Art of the Maine Mooch.
• First, an admonition: If you are visiting to freeload, please stop reading this and turn the page. Go home and stop bothering people.
• Communicate. Be clear about when you are going to arrive and, more importantly, when you’re going to leave. And stick with the plan.
• Respect the size of the space you’re entering. Do not bring a steamer trunk to a small, primitive cabin unless the trunk is stuffed with scones and baguettes and croissants and fanciers from Standard Baking. If you are invited to go sailing — and I have to say John and I are seasoned experts in OPBs (Other People’s Boats) — this is doubly true. Darlings, leave the makeup mirror and mules at home.
• Inquire about house rules. I drink a lot of water, which means I void a lot of water. Some owners of summer residences would prefer that you not flush until the ammonia in the bowl melts your retinas. Others shriek in horror at the sight of a little bloom of toilet tissue floating there. Plumbing preferences are delicate matters. If the rules are not posted in the bathroom, ask. Same goes with stripping/making the bed. (I personally have a two-night minimum before using other people’s linens. If I am staying for only one night, I sleep in a sleeping bag and bring my own towel.)
• Don’t put the last pieces in the jigsaw puzzle the family has been working on all summer. (You know who you are.)
• Tune into the house vibe. Hard as this might be to believe, I can be annoying to be around. I’m chattery in the morning, whereas many of my hosts rise with monk-like silence and solemnity. I mitigate this by taking an hour walk before most of the household stirs — you know, like giving a dog a good run before bed. After that, I’m ready to keep my thoughts to myself. Until I want to know what everyone’s reading. Or doing. Or thinking. (See above about annoying.)
• Don’t disappear. If you go for a walk in the morning, leave a note. It’s not likely you’ll be abducted on your walk, but it would be a comfort to your hosts to know you were snatched from out there, and not from inside their home, if it does happen. And don’t wander off just when an activity — say, your ferry’s departure — is about to take place. Stay accounted for.
• Most important, be a food resource, not just a consumer. (See above about freeloading.) John and I like to divvy up meal duty with the people we most frequently descend upon. (This is easier if you marry a man who is in the wine business and knows his way around the kitchen.) “We” — I’m the executive chef, so I do more supervising than sautéing — so often make meals at other people’s homes that we travel with a hamper containing all the essentials: knives (John prefers to use his own), mandoline, microplane, pepper mill, cooks’ kitchen towels, oyster knife, tongs, martini shaker, vermouth, wine openers, and a variety of hot sauces. I understand not everyone is this food fussy, so if your hamper only includes some whittled sticks and red snappers, at least put them to good use.
• Because I don’t cook, I am the first one to pop up at the end of the meal and get at the dishes. There’s nothing worse than a guest who expects to be waited on. At least make a fake show of it, like that half-reach for your wallet (a.k.a. “alligator arms”) at lunch.
I know this sounds a little bossy. (And no, Monica, spending so much time alone in the woods didn’t make me like this. It’s just my nature.) But being in someone’s home is a privilege and should be treated as such.
And how can I ever thank my friends who have sheltered me this past year? How can I repay the people who made the completion of my book possible? Certainly not with a pot of jam.
But maybe with two.
Elizabeth Peavey’s one-woman show, My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother, returns to St. Lawrence Arts on the evening of September 13 and for a matinee on September 14. Her June show sold out. Get your tickets while they’re hot.