09/29/2015 01:05 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2016

Early Frost

I disappointed myself in a way by cancelling a summer trip (too demanding physically), but no small compensation came this month with a getaway to Massachusetts and then Maine in the company of a niece.

That lady is a writer and medical doctor who lives in a suburb of Boston and has forged a dual career of writing and working in shelters with emotionally disturbed persons. Nearly two decades ago, soon after finishing medical school, she suggested going with me (or I suggested going with her) for a couple of nights to Ogunquit, in southern Maine, a town of cafes and narrow sidewalks and friendly people and a beautiful and beautifully preserved walk that wraps around some cliffs that overlook a beach and the Atlantic. We've repeated the trip every summer since, so much time that she and her husband have raised a daughter, now in her first year of college. I ask my niece regularly, "Do you still want to do this?"

"Yes, of course," she says, and I feel lucky and relieved.

This year we went later than usual, since Labor Day was late, and we skirted around the Jewish High Holy Days. We arrived as the sun was luckily still warm, but daylight ended early and the nights offered the feel of an early frost with a chill that calls for jackets wrapped tightly around one. The weather made breaded shrimp and lobster bisque especially great.

People have asked me what we do on this getaway. We get away, I saw. That's especially true for my niece who leaves briefly the role of wife and mother and mom to a series of cats and Golden Retriever dogs who were lucky enough to land in the ideal home. The difference in years between my niece and me--she approaches 60 while I move toward 85--have largely disappeared with time. We value the same things and easily incorporate our feelings into that of the other. We seem never to run out of things to talk about, serious or silly. She respects my physical limits, and reads in her room or walks along the cliffs while I afternoon nap.

Sometimes I feel envious that the trip to Maine is only a 1-1/2 hour drive from her home--up a thruway, quickly in and out of New Hampshire, and then over a bridge to the "Welcome to Maine" sign. I first went to Ogunquit 40 years ago, with a bunch of gay friends. The town has mushroomed, but the quality of the food has never shrunk. We make a required stop at the candy store where everything was and is made by hand.

My niece is more attentive to Jewish traditions than I. We both had religious upbringings, I probably even more than she. Still, while she planned to attend services for Yom Kippur, I found that I lacked the spirit to do the same. For me those walks on the rocky Maine coastline offer their sort of spirituality; watching the tide as it comes and goes, and alternately covers and then disrobes the nearby beach, suffices as evidence of a higher power whom I thank.

Pope Francis, who won so many hearts on his recent trip to America, said: "Nature can be a church." Or a synagogue.

Stanley Ely writes about travel, and also religion, in his book "Life Up Close, a Memoir" in paperback and ebook.