“And because I have known this outer and secret world, and been able to live as I have lived, reverence and gratitude greater and deeper than ever possessed me.”
― Henry Beston, from “The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod”
This hardy, salty little cottage has been in my family for generations; the photo above was taken from an old album of my grandmother’s, dating from the 1940s. It inhabits an old, old place where the indians hunted and fished (my grandmother collected countless arrowheads along its solitary road), and you will have to go far afield to find it, hidden as it is at the bitter end of a lone point on Saquish Head, very near Clark’s Island, where my Pilgrim ancestors landed nearly 400 years ago. Since it stands alone, far from any other house, our cottage has always made me think of Henry Beston’s “Outermost House,” and the elegant prose that inspired Massachusetts legislators to help create the Cape Cod National Seashore. Sadly, Beston’s house (“the Fo’castle”) was destroyed in the 1978 Blizzard, though his beautiful writing of it lives on.
Fortunately, our stout little dwelling has survived many storms, including the 1978 Blizzard, and sits proudly atop its ancient spit of land, surrounded by water. There is a big rock right next to the house, on which some relative a few generations ago had engraved “ELDRIDGE,” as if an attempt to tame this beautiful, wild place. This rock stands sentinel, as it has forever, protected these days by a sturdy and useful deck that my brother built with his own hands. At low tide, you can nearly walk across the little channel from the point to the Island, although, as a little girl, I never dared, unless the old lapstrake row boat was fastened around my waist. In fact, this was my preferred method of fishing for quahogs, pulling the boat along behind, my bare feet finding their hard shells in the muck, gathering them up with my toes, and, finally, tossing them in the boat to take home. Sometimes, if I was lucky, my grandmother would make her famous chowder with all my quahog-bounty, a rare treat indeed.
You may be wondering what this all has to do with Aunt Dotty. Our Great-Aunt, Dorothy May Bennett, was born in 1900, and she lived in this little house for many summers — it is where she and her husband, Elijah Eldridge, brought up their many children. In the warmer months, he was a lobsterman, and fished the waters off Gurnet and Saquish, and every summer, the family moved from the Cape to make the Saquish cottage their home.
I like to think it was Elijah who carved the big rock, but truth be told, it’s just as likely that it was Dotty. They were very much a team: he made all their traps, and Dotty knitted the “heads” (the netting around the hole through which the lobster gets in), but she had her own traps, too, maybe 50 or so, which she fished from her trusty row boat, pulling each one up by hand. She would row herself out of the cove, relying on the old fashioned “pins,” rather than easy, modern oarlocks, all the way out around the Point, finally settling in to fish her traps between Gurnet and Saquish. And then she had to come home again. Although she was a small woman, you can imagine how strong she was, just by the rowing alone, never mind the pulling and setting of all that gear and having to haul everything ashore at the end of the day. I imagine their life, back in the day before weather radar, GPS and cell phones, was much like what Henry Beston wrote about during his year of living alone on that Cape Cod barrier beach, where wits, common sense, and a healthy understanding of the natural world were what one depended upon to keep safe.
Lobstering has a long history in our family; my father learned lobstering from, among others, his Uncle Elijah, and old Russ Harlow, both part of a colony of lobstermen who fished the area even before my father was born. A generation later, I grew up fishing on my father’s commercial lobster boat, and there was a time when I wanted nothing more than to be a lobster-woman just like my Aunt Dotty. When I was about 12, I was given a couple of traps, but no boat, which meant that I had to don my old keds, walk out at low tide, armed with a bucket, among the kelpy, barnacled rocks, and carefully pull out the lobster-bounty, all without getting bitten. But I was determined, and to me, the scraped and bleeding legs were worth it – I loved nothing better than a lobster or three, with a generous heap of melted butter – best eaten in my bathing suit. Even now, I still have some traps of my own.
Later in her life, after Elijah was gone, Aunt Dotty lived in a different cottage, one less isolated, on the other Point, near Saquish Creek. It was closer to friends and family, but any visitor had to be mindful not to drop in when the Red Sox were playing. She was a loyal (rabid?) fan, and listened to every game, her trusty transistor radio residing in a place of honor at the red-checker-cloth-covered kitchen table. It’s beyond sad that she wasn’t around when we finally won the World Series.
Dotty was an interesting person! In fact, some of my cousins tell stories about Aunt Dotty riding a motorcycle – honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if she did, but I can’t be exactly sure as to whether that’s legend or fact. She lived in her cottage in the summer months, and then in the winters, she went wherever she was needed, helping children and grandchildren, and in later years, she spent a long, sad winter helping her brother, my grandfather, after my grandmother had passed away. I remember sitting with her from time to time, and if you were fortunate, she would tell stories of “our people,” as she called them, referring to our family and their history. It wasn’t until I began some genealogical research, decades later, that I really understood her words; I discovered that she had submitted the lineage papers, long before I was born, to document her own pilgrim descent.
Her stories have stayed with me, and the hardy yankee pragmatism she shared with her siblings has ever been a guiding light. When my brother and I were teenagers, we were bombing around off Saquish in a
tin boat, pulling traps out by old Bug Light. I was helping him with the traps among the rocks at the base of the Light, and my brother said: “Hey Deb, can you hop out and get this line free? It’s stuck in the rocks.” And of course, I fell for it, hook, line and sinker, climbing out on to the rocks, only to realize shortly thereafter that he had abandoned me, in the middle of the bay, next to the giant, barnacled tower, the lighthouse ladder just out of reach. Honestly, the scary, awful sucking sound the waves made as they encountered the spaces between the rocks and the lighthouse was enough to unnerve anyone, but to make things even worse, it had started to rain. Hard. It seemed like an age before my brother came back to get me, and we made it to the beach on Saquish Head — just in time for the lighting and thunder to pass overhead. It being the closest refuge, we knocked on the front door of Aunt Barbie’s house (Aunt Dotty’s daughter), relieved to find her home, and whiled away the time in her warm, dry kitchen. I thought of Aunt Dotty often when I was out at the Saquish house, and I know I certainly thought of her that day while I was stranded on those rocks. I could imagine what she would have said to me had she been there — she certainly wouldn’t have panicked (nor would she have tolerated it), so how could I?
Today, my brother has an oyster farm out near the cottage at Rocky Point – and he calls these sweet oysters, tasting of our favorite place, “Aunt Dotty’s” – a fitting tribute to an extraordinarily strong, capable woman, much beloved by family and friends. The farm, and the oysters that bear her name, make me think of how we’ve come full circle, with yet another generation fishing these same waters. To give thanks for this old place, for each other, and for our family’s history, we gather every November out at the cottage, a lovely tradition, and one that is cherished by young and old alike. Echoing the sentiment of Henry Beston’s quote above, being together helps us remember how grateful we are to share our collective reverence of this place, and how fortunate we are to have been affected so deeply by its magic.
I bet Aunt Dotty would be proud.