In the days that followed hitting bottom, I often transported myself mentally to a rocky perch atop a 900-foot sheer cliff, just a few feet at its base from Lake Megunticook in Maine. I imagined myself bare-chested on the warm rock, baking in the sun, the light purifying my soul. I recalled the gorgeous view of the lake of my childhood and the Penobscot Bay beyond. A young lady, Elenora French, reportedly climbed to that spot May 7, 1864, to pick blueberries in a May Day dress, only to be blown off the cliff. There's a huge white cross there in Elenora's memory.
My grandfather first came to Lake Megunticook, just outside the picturesque sailing village of Camden, with my great-grandparents in the mid-1910s, when the local salesmen in the family paint business recommended "A place on the pond." Megunticook covers 1,220 acres across three interconnected bodies of water. Directly in front of "Maiden's Cliff," the water is 64 feet deep. The landmass at the center of the fingers of the lake is state forest, and has never been built on. It's just pine trees and large Maine boulders, perfect for jumping into the cool summer water.
My great-grandparents traveled by train and steam ship from Philadelphia to rent several houses, one of which was on what was then called Alden's Island. My grandparents, Bob and Betty Matlack, honeymooned on the lake in 1931, just after he had graduated from Princeton and she from Connecticut College, at a house just up the lake from our Island.
My father, his two brothers, and my grandparents began to rent again on the lake in 1946, after the Depression and World War II. In 1948, my grandfather bought the island. That summer, my dad went there for the first time. He was ten. My parents were married in 1960 and spent their honeymoon on the island before heading off to Oxford.
The island is roughly an acre of rock and soil shaped like a crescent moon. My personal record for swimming around it is just under eight minutes, so I have concluded that it is a third of a mile in circumference. The house is an old-style camp with shingles and green trim, exposed beams on the inside.
Each year as a child, I anticipated arriving at the mainland dock months in advance. There's an old-style sailing ship's capstan at the foot of the ramp leading to the dock; it has been there as long as I've been alive. Island time was focused on swimming, boating, fishing, and mountain climbing.
A snapshot of me at five, screaming with excitement the first time I felt a fish bend my rod, is forever burned into my brain. As I got older, I woke up early to cast off a larger boulder at the front of the island to catch a peace I felt nowhere else in my life. Each year when we left after our two weeks on the island, I would sink. Pulling out of the mainland parking lot, I would cry to myself, knowing I had to go back to normal life. It was heaven to me there and I didn't want to leave.
The summer of 1997, still shell-shocked, I brought my one-year-old son and three-year-old daughter to swim in the cool waters of that lake in an attempt to reconnect with the spirit in which my grandparents had bought the island. I picked them up at their mother's new condominium in Boston and endured my daughter's tantrum as we pulled out of the drive. Within twenty minutes, she had settled down, and we set out on our first mission as a newly constructed family.
I tried to recollect the dreams Bob and Betty must have carried for their grandchildren. It was the one thing in my life that had not changed. I still belonged there. I taught my children to swim in the magical waters, as my father taught me. At dusk, Kerry and Seamus watched the Canadian geese fly overhead in tight "V" formation, squawking loudly. I read them books about lobsters and blueberries whose existence on the island predated my birth. My children climbed sleepily into the bunk beds. I kissed them goodnight and retreated to my own bedroom. There, I crawled under the warm, soft comforters and fall into a coma-like sleep to the sound of water lapping outside my window and the echoing wails of loons, desperate to locate their mates under a sky full of stars.
At dawn, I swam across the channel to catch a glimpse of Maiden's Cliff. Again and again, I came back on those still mornings to stand on the submerged rock across the channel. I crouched low, immersing my whole body, watching the loons dart and dive for perch. Maybe the water could provide me with some answer to the crushing pain in my soul. One morning, an old man and his toddler grandson walked down the rocks across the channel. They had on bathing suits and were holding hands.
Dad had always had an awkward, heavy-footed gait. He suffered from flat feet that caused his ankles to roll as he walked. Even at a year, Seamus had the same feet and walk. Watching the two of them crossing the dock, I realized they were mirror images of each other, although separated by fifty-odd years. I dove off my rock that morning and swam back across the channel toward my father and my son.
Thomas Matlack is the former Chief Financial Officer of The Providence Journal, is the founding Managing Partner of Megunticook Management, and is the co-founder of The Good Men Project.