Going Home Again
After such a loss, there's no place like it
photo by Karen Gidley Mulvaney
A photo of Joyce Maynard and her husband Jim on their wedding day in 2013
When I left my home state of New Hampshire in the summer of 1996 — Fourth of July weekend, haying season — I wasn’t expecting to return, and I held the yard sale to prove it. (It was a sale so vast, creating so much traffic, the police in Keene had to cordon off the block. I was cleaning out, I said. Saying goodbye to my history. Starting fresh.)
Where I settled — as a long-divorced, 42-year-old single parent of three teenage and almost-teenage children — was in the almost mythically perfect town of Mill Valley, in Marin County, California, a few miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. A book I’d written — “To Die For” — had just been made into a movie, and so, for a few months anyway, I felt I was rich, and had the one good tax return needed to get a mortgage on a house in the Golden State.
At the time, I knew exactly two people in the Bay Area. The sum total of days I’d spent there, on book tours, added up to four. But I was done with winter driving, I said. I was frustrated to be a resident of a state that had just given the majority of its votes, in the Republican presidential primary, to Patrick Buchanan. I wanted to live in a progressive place. And I’ll admit it: After years as the only single person on the bench at my sons’ softball games (other than my ex-husband), I thought my new home out west might offer a livelier social life.
It wasn’t easy adjusting to California, but I did. I learned how to drive the freeways and order wine in a somewhat more educated fashion than my old standby, “I’ll have red.” It took me a couple of years before I got over thinking every time I drove up a particularly steep hill (as one does pretty frequently in San Francisco), “I’d hate to try this in a blizzard.” And for a long time, I found it hard to stay at my desk when the sun was shining. For me, a warm day of gorgeous weather was a reason to put down my notebook and go outside. But Marin County had so much gorgeous weather, I learned I could stay indoors even when it was sunny.
I learned to love my adopted state: the ocean, the redwoods, the farmers’ markets where fresh-picked organic vegetables were available year-round. And I did not miss, one bit, the way that in my small town, everyone knew everybody’s business, their history even. I was born in the Granite State, but my parents weren’t, so I was seldom regarded as a true local.
“You’ll miss the edge of northern New England,” people had told me as I prepared to move. I didn’t even know what they meant, exactly (and how could one entire state have a collective tendency towards edge-lessness, anyway?) but I came to understand what they meant. Maybe it was the mildness of the winters that did it, the lack of rigor. People might seem a lot happier and friendlier in northern California than they did back home, but friendliness means a little less in a place where people are friendly to everyone.
Years passed. I returned to my home state at least once a year, usually in fall, or in summer — because one of the things I most missed about New Hampshire was the way there was always a lake or pond nearby. Back in my New Hampshire days, I kept my swimsuit in the car at all times, in case the need for a dip arose (as it often did), and I seldom had to look long to find a good pond or lake or waterfall. California offered pools, mostly. I never got into that concept.
Then I fell in love with the man who became my second husband, Jim — a Midwesterner, transplanted to southern California at age 4. Apart from a single trip to Boston, Jim had never seen New England, but he was always game for adventures and discoveries, so when I suggested we take a road trip back east, he was up for it. If we were going to spend our lives together, he needed to know where I came from.
Jim did something utterly without precedent then. He took one whole summer off from his work as an estate litigator. We shipped his Triumph Bonneville back east, and since it seemed a little ambitious to travel entirely by motorcycle, we bought a 1992 Chrysler LeBaron convertible (red) for days when we might need a break from the bike.
For three full months then, I got to show my future husband all the places I loved best. We traveled to the Seacoast where I came from — fried clams at Petey’s; lobster rolls at Chauncey Creek in Kittery; the Great Bay, where I used to hunt for horseshoe crabs and where, back in the ’60s, my mother and I drove out to Tuttles’ Red Barn for fresh-picked corn. Back then — in the days before GMO changed all of this — you had to eat it within the hour for maximum sweetness.
More miles on the bike, and the LeBaron then: the White Mountains, of course, and the Nelson Contra dance, and the Harrisville Store. We picked blueberries on Pitcher Mountain and climbed Mt. Monadnock and, in Hillsborough, swam under the stone arch bridge at Gleason Falls, just down the road from the old farm where my children were born.
There is something that happens when you get to introduce a place you love to a person you love. You get to see the place as if for the first time, and fall in love with it all over again, through the eyes of someone for whom all the old familiar spots are magical.
I was so proud of my state. To Jim — Cincinnati-born, LA-raised — everything was amazing: dirt roads and mill towns, quarries and loon calls and never worrying about locking the car. He liked driving our trash to the dump, even — a ritual I’d missed. The fact that he understood why I loved these things made me know that, after 23 years on my own, I’d finally found my true partner.
We were married the following summer, 2013, on a hilltop in Harrisville, surrounded by old New England friends and a surprising number of Californians, for whom that little town was as wonderful and exotic as a village in Provence. It was Fourth of July weekend, which meant that, from the hilltop where we celebrated, we could look down over the fireworks of three different towns.
Fifteen months later, back at our home in California again, my husband woke up one day with terrible back pain. Our visit to the doctor and the scan that followed revealed a tumor in Jim’s pancreas. Nineteen months later, after a brutally tough fight and one more trip together to New Hampshire — that final summer together — my husband died.
It was during the last winter of his life, not wanting yet to envision a life without my husband but knowing it lay ahead, that I realized where I’d want to be after I lost Jim. Two weeks after his death, I boarded a plane to Manchester, where an old friend (the best kind) picked me up and drove me to the little summer cottage on a great swimming lake where I stayed for the rest of that summer, swimming and writing a book about everything we’d just lived through.
Sometimes a person has to leave the place she came from — as I did, 21 years ago. But when the earth gives way under her feet, as it did for me when I lost Jim, there was nowhere else I wanted to be.
Every morning that summer after I lost him — just as the sun was coming up — I swam in that lake. Every night, on the porch, with Jim’s plaid flannel shirt keeping me warm, I listened to the loons calling out to each other.
It felt good to be home.
"The Best of Us"
Maynard's latest book, “The Best of Us,” is the heart-wrenching story of how she met and married her true life partner, Jim, just in time to share his last days with him. Joyce Carol Oates calls the book “deeply moving” and “a testament to human resilience." Anne Lamott says, "I love this new work. I think it is the most important writing of her life — profound, heartwrenching, inspiring, full of joy and tears and life."
Hear it from Maynard herself: "This book is the story of how I came to learn, late in the game, what it is to be married, and to love a person in a way that has nothing to do with what he has to give you. It’s not about grand passion or extraordinary sex or the exciting, wonderful future you’ll create with your amazing, handsome, dashing partner. With my husband Jim, I found my amazing, handsome, dashing partner, but when illness stripped all of that away I learned what it meant to love without asking anything back, because the act of loving was, itself, the gift."
Learn more about "The Best of Us" here.