Impermanence

im·per·ma·nence  /imˈpərmənəns/

noun: the state or fact of lasting for only a limited period of time

During my childhood, summers were spent on the beach constructing increasingly complex sandcastle kingdoms. Moats dug frantically to protect the endless hours of work were never a match against the rising tide. Sandcastles, like everything in life, are not designed to last forever. In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche writes, “What is born will die. What has been gathered will be dispersed. What has been accumulated will be exhausted. What has been built up will collapse. And what has been high will be brought low.” 

The fact nothing is guaranteed eternity is a key tenet of Buddhist philosophy. The Tibetan protection bracelets on my wrist right now are adorned with tiny skull beads as a small reminder of all that is impermanent. When my dad told me in late July that he decided to sell our family cottage, I found comfort in this concept. 

The Owl Cottage, as it lovingly has become known, is the product of the greatest love story. My paternal grandparents young and in love married while my grandfather was on leave after basic training and before boarding the USS Clay bound for the South Pacific in World War II. After the war was over, he returned to build a home and family. In the decade after the war, my grandparents did quite well for themselves. Well enough to strike a deal with my grandmother’s boss to purchase a plot of land on Fortunes Rocks Beach in Biddeford. Together, they constructed a 750-square-foot seasonal cottage that became the heart of our family. 

In the mid-1950s, the stretch of beach was dotted with similarly small summer homes owned and loved by locals. As the value of oceanfront property exponentially increased over time, these modestly successful families were slowly forced out. The sale of small summer homes made way for out-of-staters to come in, level the structure, and build larger year-round properties with all the modern luxuries of home. With luck on our side, we held on tight. 

Mémère Gisele died after a long battle with metastatic breast cancer when I was just two. Though my time with her was short, the impression she made on me was strong. Being at the cottage felt like being with her. Much of my summers were spent there. It is where Pépère Roland told me stories of their young love. Where he taught me how to play cribbage, body surf, make cocktails, find the best rocks, and listen for the ocean in seashells. Through college and my early 20s, I relished the days I could spend at the cottage with him, either quietly reading, swapping stories, or bantering over the cribbage board. 

In February 2013, my grandfather died quite suddenly. At 88, he had lived a long, beautiful life. At 27, I was struggling with my career, my sense of purpose, and mental health. Needless to say, his death gutted me. But come spring, we returned to awaken the cottage and carry on family traditions. I no longer had my paternal grandparents, but I still had this place that was intrinsically them.

That first summer, we enjoyed the cottage to its fullest. I was working evenings part-time and juggling freelance writing gigs, so I spent as much time as I could there, but at every turn I expected to see my grandfather. I would catch the scent of his aftershave wafting on the sea breeze. I would hear the shuffling of his feet. I would see his rocker moving ever so slightly back and forth. It was during this tumultuous time in my life that I swore to my father if he ever sold the cottage, I would disown him. The thought of losing the cottage felt as if it would sever the only ties I had left to my grandparents. 

I bawled the night my dad called me to inform me of his decision. Though we had hung on for nine summer seasons, the burden of the property was outweighing the benefit. Each spring, it dominated our days to reopen the cottage, clean, and make improvements. We rented it out weekly during the peak weeks of summer, which required our presence every Saturday to turn it over to the next renters. With the additional use came additional repairs and items that needed replacement. Each fall, closing up required just as much of our time. Then the stress of every passing storm, especially when the moon was full and the tides were astronomically high. Would we incur significant damage? Could we afford any necessary repairs? What if the ocean wiped it all away? 

After my dad repeatedly apologizing, I assured him that despite my earlier convictions, I would not in fact disown him. The current housing market coupled with rising taxes, rising tides, and rising stress made this the right decision for our family. I showed him the beads on my bracelets and said, “all good things must come to an end.” 

On an unseasonably warm November evening, my parents and I met at the cottage for one last time. We had one last bottle of champagne on the patio. We had one last walk around the tiny cottage, absorbing its distinct smell. We found one more penny despite my mom’s fastidious cleaning; a sign from the heavens no doubt. I closed the door one last time and wept. 

And then I laughed. 

The tide may have washed away my sandcastles I built there, but it will never wash away all the beautiful memories made there. 

Photo © J. Ferguson Studios

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