Column: The shadow of age

Mary Otto. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Mary Otto. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to


For the Valley News

Published: 08-21-2023 10:18 AM

Especially during summers in Maine, I am inspired by poet and essayist Mary Oliver. Yes, we share the name Mary. We both grew up in the Midwest and easily came to love the ocean as adults. Reading and writing have been central, deeply satisfying pursuits for us both. But what is crucial to my being energized by Oliver in my own writing is the regularity with which a mere line or phrase from one of her books reminds me of something in my own life: an event or situation of the moment, a memory, a series of images.

In Winter Hours, Oliver writes about personal aging, describing being older as that time that “waits to be spent gracefully and attentively.”

As I sat reading one recent August afternoon on the shaded porch of our old log cabin, this the 47th summer of our family’s history here, I began to think about my own place in that history. Being the mother and grandmother, I am the oldest generation of family members who now gather at the cabin year after year. With this recognition, I am conscious of the length of time we’ve been here and of how deeply summers in Maine have affected our lives and influenced our relationships with one another.

In only a few minutes, however, my quiet time on the porch is interrupted by a flurry of activity down on the dock in front of me. It’s a windy day, and one of my daughters is returning from a sailing trip. I have a great view of the scene, as my eyes follow the rocky, well-worn path to the water’s edge through a stand of green bayberry and scrubby white pine. Clearly, my daughter loves sailing and is highly competent at the tiller. Heading up the bay with the wind behind her, she has quickly come about into the wind and gotten the boat slowed down. Soon she and one of her passengers are off onto the float and the boat is securely tied to the dock.

Part of me is envious. Both my husband and I grew up in Iowa, where for us, being out on the water meant power boating on Lake Okoboji, one of the “Iowa Great Lakes,” or water skiing on the wide Missouri River. And though our years in Maine have wedded both of us firmly to sailing, it is our children and grandchildren who are the naturals and the experts.

Once the activity at the dock calms down, I open my book again. Though I like it, the story there is at the moment less compelling than my musings about our summers in Maine. Drawn again to the water, I find comfort in the familiarity of leaning against pillows on the slightly rickety glider that has been here forever, gazing out at small sailboats passing by, listening for the cry of an osprey or the sight of a great blue heron. It’s enjoyable to think back to the early years of our daughters demonstrating their sailing progress in our Turnabout, the “Why Not?” and to their being succeeded by our three grandchildren in the same boat. The youngest was just here with his family, and even though he is 16 and very tall, he again took the Turnabout out. Just for old time’s sake, he said. Our other two grandchildren, both in their twenties, have gone on from their days of sailing Turnabouts to making possibly life-long commitments to the ocean. One has just qualified for his captain’s license and makes his living in Maine as an oyster farmer. The other, just out of college, will likely pursue graduate studies in marine biology.

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Nearly from the start, we have had a larger sailboat too, and more recently, with the insistence of several younger family members, we have acquired a power boat. Boat trips with family and friends take us farther afield and often to several islands within our reach. Our expansive collections of beach glass and the adventures we’ve shared lead to the easy conversations and short-hand versions of tales of the sea that solidify our connections. “Remember the year we forgot all of the sandwiches,” someone will ask as we recall a long-ago sail to the distant Damariscove Island? Or, “You haven’t forgotten that day we grazed the rock that is now right in front of us, have you?”

Our Midwestern relatives have come east to Maine since the very first summer we were here. Recalling my mother and my parents-in-law and their sense of wonder at the sights and sounds of the coast is poignant. In fact, a group of those family members are here right now, settled in a nearby rental cabin and committed to doing all of the things that have become part of their checklist for satisfying visits to Maine: sailing, at least testing the water for swimming, shopping in Freeport, having blueberry pancakes, dining on lobster, and sitting on our porch to take in the sights while we visit.

On the porch, it’s easy to be attentive both to important memories and to the interesting and engaging realities of present days in Maine. I also recognize that though this doesn’t happen often, at least today, I am settled here and looking on. I’m not out on a boat or down on the dock participating in whatever might be happening there.

With that thought, I return in my mind to Mary Oliver and her words about older age waiting to be spent gracefully and attentively. I am happy to be attentive at this time in my life.

But I have questions about being graceful. If indeed this time of being older also needs to be spent gracefully — naturally, thoughtfully, generously, tactfully, according to my thesaurus — can I do it? What will be entailed in such an effort, here in Maine or anywhere else?

The shadow of age floats noiselessly over the landscape.

Mary K. Otto, formerly of Norwich, lives in Shelburne, Vt. Readers may email her at