Postcard from Ipswich

There’s no wifi at my Aunt Mary’s beautiful old house, so we watch the tide come in and go out again twice a day. There’s a moment of stillness when it turns, the water clearly going under the bridge in one direction, and then a pause for maybe three or four minutes, and the surface begins to move the other way, little riffles, and after a while all the boats turn on their moorings and face their prows upstream, the “up” being a figure of speech because it’s quite flat here. Yesterday Mary’s stepson Bobbie was fixing the dock, hammering away and occasionally drilling with his cordless drill. I said I thought it was sweet that Bobbie did this for her, now that his father Bob has died, and Mary said, “Well, since we let him keep his boats here, it’s kind of an exchange.” Bobbie’s wife, Sandy, came to help after her run. They live just down the road. I can’t recall how old their children are, but clearly they don’t need constant supervising any more. They’re probably in high school or college. I think I last saw them when they were 4 or 5, and I don’t remember how many there are, either.


This morning it is raining, steady straight rain with no wind that hits the leaves of the London Plane tree with a satisfying thwack and makes thousands of little circles on the water. It’s medium warm, and always humid here: not tropical but definitely muggy and good-smelling. For half an hour after I got off the plane and into my rental car it smelled to me like mold, but now it’s settled down in my neurons as a pleasant, earthy smell, entirely familiar from my childhood. California is so dry. Brittle, tindery. They are having a drought here in Ipswich, too, water rationing, no toilet flushing, et cetera, which is interesting. The usually lush lawns that everyone has to mow every weekend are half brown. But the trees and bushes are all still green, and our lawns and fields so parched in the Sierra, it seems kind of luxurious here at first glance. At second glance, the Ipswich River is low at high tide, but this creek fills up as it always has, being closer to the ocean and mostly salt water.


Climate change and its rising sea levels are taking a toll on some of the trees on Mary’s lawn: two conifers and an old linden are clearly suffering from salt at their roots. When there’s a full moon and high tide together, Mary says the creek jumps her stone wall and flows across the lawn and over the road just before the bridge. The house is on a rise, but looking at it, I’d say it’s not ten feet above the creek’s banks, maybe more like eight. Something to think about when it comes time to sell the house, which we all vainly hope will be never.


Mary is 86 now. Her posture has softened: when I saw her last she was straight-backed and bustling in her calm way, and Bob was still alive, bustling in his purposeful British, genial-but-agitated way. That was seven years ago at John’s funeral. Now Bob is gone too, and Mary’s trading off between a walker and a cane, and has a strange mechanical contraption that bears her upstairs when she has things to carry. With her hands free she walks, but with a glass of water — spring water out of a bottle because the drought has made her well water suspect — she takes the carnival ride, seat-belted in, slow around the newel post and then quickly up the straightaway and then slow again at the landing, curving up to the upstairs hall. It is a bit like a ferris wheel seat, and I don’t think you can stop in the middle and change your mind. It’s all or nothing, kind of like life at this stage of the game.

If you’re not careful, you can talk about death all day long, or see it lurking in every metaphor. At lunch I tried twice to get us off the subject: two of my cousins and their partners came with mushroom quiche they’d made, and a quick salad. It didn’t work, though: cancer, suicide of the cancer’s wife, hospitals and heart attacks. It became kind of hilarious by the time we were eating grapes and those funny cookies they serve on American Airlines now as your only sustenance for five hours. I recognized the packaging, and then someone said, “Please pass the airplane cookies.”

Still raining. I haven’t been inside a rainy day since the middle of last May at my house. It’s funny how pleasant and ordinary it seems, despite us praying for it. Four years of drought in California now, but only one here. I wonder how much rain they’ll need before they can take long showers again. Last winter they had no snow to speak of, not even in Vermont. Mary said, wonderfully, “Winter was a complete waste!”


I had forgotten how much I love these people, now that I see them again. People I’ve known since I was born, or they were. When you’ve watched someone’s face age 50 years, and known their parents, it’s pretty fascinating to see which parts belong to whom and what happens to the muscles and bones and expressions. I would know all of their steps in the dark: Miranda’s lilting one and David’s sure, athletic half-shuffle. David has moved from decades of soccer playing to tennis, it was one of the tennis group who died of cancer. Miranda goes back and forth between phases of health-based running or walking. Mary practices Chi Gung after long years of T’ai Chi. It is clear that T’ai Chi cannot save you from time and genetics, although she didn’t fall until she was 85, to be fair, and she said it was a matter of vision. The big millstone out front that serves as a sort of stepping stone leapt up and tripped her. I’m only 61, and still mostly sure-footed, but learning to walk downstairs in bifocals is its own kind of adventure, so I have a small sense of what life might be like for her.

That’s it for now. xoxo


6 thoughts on “Postcard from Ipswich

  1. Riffles. Thwack. Tindery. Such descriptive terms that seem to take whole sentences and compound them down. Ironically, it is drizzling today in your town. And in the defense of real weathercasters, it did snow quite a bit in Vermont last year. But it was half of normal, only 200 inches. Still worrisome if it keeps trending in that direction, but oh so much more than poor California.

  2. Hey, this did get to the heart of who I am! Being from ME, NH, MA, and now in the Sierra as well, I reflect often on wetter places and long to return. LOVE your writing and subscribed to your blog so I can follow…

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