The 700-square-foot post-and-beam cottage on its tiny southern Maine lot was set within a miniature forest of red and white pines and thick hemlocks. Among its charms was a claw-foot tub in the bathroom, a potbellied wood stove, and a pair of old carriage-house doors. It was our first home, though we would be able to spend only vacation time there. We were living in campus housing at the boarding school where my husband was teaching, and I was working at a local newspaper.
Our son was small when we moved in as “summer people.” He was drawn to the water, toting as a child his boogie board, then as a teenager and college student his surfboard, to the Atlantic at the end of the street. I loved hearing the crunch of his footsteps on the gravel path and the sigh of the screen door as it opened when he returned on summer nights from the restaurant where he worked or when he came home for the weekend from school. “Hey, Mom,” he would call out as he stepped inside, happy to be “home.”
A dozen years into that house, my marriage fell apart. I stayed there year-round for a while, sleeping in long underwear and stoking the wood stove before dawn in winter. Ice would build up on the inside of the windows, and more than once the pipes froze.
One February night, the phone rang. The caller said my son, who was spending the semester on a sustainable-development project in Costa Rica, had gone to the beach, unaware that an underwater earthquake had produced a deadly riptide. He had not yet been found. We flew to Central America and spent a surreal week during which his anguished classmates and teachers held a memorial service and we made arrangements to bring him home. On the flight back I cradled the simple white urn that contained his ashes.
The little house in Maine held me in its arms that winter and spring. I wept while I walked the empty beach, wrapped in a parka, as gulls screamed and wheeled overhead and eiders rode the icy waves. Mostly, I lay on the wicker couch, from winter into spring, the cat curled on my chest.
That was 20 years ago, and I am writing this while sitting at an old drop-leaf table in that same Maine cottage. I come here whenever I can. Over time, being in the place my son loved has offered solace instead of pain. Many of the trees that kept the house in shadow are gone. Perennial beds bloom in their places and sun pours through the windows, and there is insulation, heat, and other creature comforts. I still make a fire in the wood stove on chilly nights, and sometimes when I’m sitting on the couch, I think I hear the sound of my son’s footsteps on the gravel path.
Some of his ashes are under a delicate birch tree that I planted out front. At its base, which is carpeted with pine needles, are papery curls of white bark and a few smooth, flat rocks. One is engraved with “Love” and another with “Always.” And on the third are these words: “Hey, Mom.”
Laurie O’Neill is a writer who lives in Lexington. Send comments and a 550-word essay on your first home to Address@globe.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.