The Sweet Tension of Remembering and Letting Go
Here at Damariscotta Mills in mid-coast Maine, where I have come for an early morning swim, the lake and river and Great Salt Bay flow together and serve as a home for oysters, ospreys, sailors, swimmers, anglers, and an abundance of small, silvery alewives. “Damariscotta” is a Native American word for these little fish that swim each year from the sea to the lake, where they spawn, like salmon.
I have been visiting this spot at the junction of Nobleboro and Newcastle for 25 years. My husband and I once sat at the edge of the lake while our young daughters jumped off a small bridge into the deep water, shouting, “Mommy, watch! Daddy, watch!”
My husband died young, and annually I return to this setting of innocence and joy.
I wade into the long lake to begin my swim. The water is still like a mirror, yet teeming with natural life. My arms silently slice through the surface and the velvety, forgiving water carries me along, offering a rare lightness of being. Tall evergreen trees line the shore, and a raft lies flat in the distance. It is so early there are no boats and no children shouting or splashing.
I can hear water rushing over a dam nearby, which was constructed in the 1700s to power a sawmill, leaving the alewives no way to travel. So in the early 1800s, local inhabitants built a ladder for them to climb. Each step is surrounded by rocks that form a pool of water for the fish to rest before jumping to the next step. They arrive every spring by the millions, following a scent that tells them where to go, struggling to find a place in each little pool. Some make it, others don’t.
I finish my swim, step onto a small sandy beach, and stand by the bridge, wrapped in my towel. I remember my girls poised there, between childhood and adulthood, innocence and experience, joy and sorrow — and my husband firmly grounded on the shore, keeping them, and me, safe.
Just as the baby fish wait until they are old enough to swim back to sea without their parents, so, too, my girls grew up. One will soon become a mother herself. Someday she may come here, with her husband, watching her own children’s moments of joy. She, too, will experience the sweet tension between holding on and letting go.
I come here to recover the past, but it escapes my grasp. It is like trying to hold water in my hand. I cannot prevent the passage of time any more than the lake and river can avoid their flow out to sea.
It would be too easy to say I find consolation here. Nature is soothing but it cannot undo the permanence of loss. Yet, somehow, as I shiver a little from my swim, I feel a kinship with the alewives. For them, and for us, each step of the ladder involves losses and gains. We are propelled forward, whether we like it or not. The journey is hard — but it is full of wonder.
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