I have just returned from 10 days at the Seafarer Inn in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Sitting in one of the rocking chairs on the Inn’s wide front porch watching the sailboats glide across the harbor is one of my favorite things in the world.
Your hostess at the Inn is my mother-in-law, Olga. Ignore the first name, which came from a novel her mother favored in the 1920s. Her maiden name, DiIanni, is much more meaningful. Like the Marchmains of Brideshead, the DiIannis of Olga’s generation are cursed with a dangerous charm, albeit in a version I like to think of as “Marchmain lite”—not quite the same taste levels, but also far less alcohol.
For almost 20 years, Olga has put the DiIanni charm to good use running The Seafarer as a Bed & Breakfast Inn. Often have a reserved mid-western couple hoping for a quiet night in Boothbay been surprised, after the communal breakfast and ritual picture taking, to find themselves enthusiastically hugging and kissing Olga good-bye on the big front porch, promising to come again.
Some guests go even further. Olga has a small but fanatical following who seem to like nothing better than to come, stay for several days, and do her chores for her. These guests arrive every year to wash the lawn furniture, pull the weeds, hang pictures and do other rounds of endless activity and then pay her for the privilege.
We, her children, have wondered about this for some time. Appropriate to its architecture, The Seafarer is decorated in the Victorian manner, which is to say that every available surface, either horizontal or vertical, is covered with—something. We gave up moving any of this stuff around long ago (except occasionally to clear off a chair so we can sit down), because we found that liberating any space at all only created an invitation to fill it up again. Therefore, we have often been mystified by the sudden appearance something like of a heavy bureau in a third floor bedroom.
“Picked it up at the dump,” my mother-in-law will proudly explain. “Solid mahogany. Can you imagine someone getting rid something like this?”
“Perhaps it was someone who already had three or four bureaus per bedroom,” my husband will suggest, gazing around meaningfully.
“How does she even get this stuff in here?” he would hiss soon as she was out of earshot, imagining house elves or magic mice.
“I think,” I answered, “It’s the damn guests.”
My suspicions were initially aroused when I answered the phone at the Inn one day. “Hi,” proclaimed the chipper voice at the other end. “It’s Steve. I was just calling to make my reservation.”
“When did you want to come, Steve?” I asked.
“Second week in October, the same as always.” Steve seemed a little offended that I wasn’t aware of this. “I come every year to see the foliage and put up the storm windows.”
This year, I finally got the chance to catch the action first hand. While I was staying at the Inn, Al, Marsha and Miles O’Brien arrived from Peabody, Mass., for a two night stay. Olga actually closed the Inn two summers ago, but that has not stopped the most fanatical of the chore-doers from coming, even though now the place is now 100% amenity-less. For these people, making your own bed and breakfast at the Bed & Breakfast only adds to the appeal. I have to say that on the surface the O’Briens seemed like perfectly normal—even nice–people, though Miles was perhaps a bit more polite than the average adolescent dragged off to a Bed & Breakfast with no TV or internet by his well-meaning but clueless parents.
The minute they arrived, Al huddled with Olga about the to-do list. They inspected the property. He had ideas. Of course, so did she.
“Time for bed,” Al announced to his family immediately following dinner on the first night with all the anticipation normally reserved for a fishing trip or a cruise to Monhegan. “The hardware store opens at 6:00 a.m.!”
I came down the next morning to find Olga in the kitchen. “Where are Al and Marsha?” I asked.
“Marsha ran to the supermarket and Al is trimming the bushes,” she answered showing absolutely no awareness that these are not vacation activities–are, in fact, the very activities that most people go to a Bed & Breakfast to get away from.
As I sat on the porch, sipping coffee and gazing at the boats in the harbor and occasionally at Al doing his Edward Scissorhands impression in the hedge, I thought I had the answer. “Ah,” I thought, “Al is one of those men who don’t know how to relax, who think puttering equals recreation.”
But Marsha put that notion to rest as soon as she returned. “I can’t get him to do a thing at home,” she said, gazing fondly at her husband who was sweating profusely while tangoing with a winsome rhododendron. “I have a to-do list and I have begged him and begged him to do just one thing on it.”
“Don’t you have to make your own bed in rehab?” my daughter Kate asked a little later. She was sitting in the rocker next to mine, painting her toenails and staring at Al, who appeared to be covered in small cuts, and, along with his hedge-clippers, was now so entangled in a lilac bush he looked like he was battling a giant squid. Kate’s furrowed brow told me she, too, was trying to understand the O’Briens.
“Yeah,” I answered, “but I think that only does something for people who are so addled they can’t make their beds at home.”
That night, Marsha reminisced at dinner. “The first time we came here was the week you opened. We were on our honeymoon. I helped you hang the curtains in the living room.”
“Is that so?” Olga replied politely.
Frankly, Marsha seemed a little hurt that Olga couldn’t remember this, but really, so many guest, so many chores…
Later, we looked at through the photo albums (assembled by guest Jeanine Weinstein, 1994-2002) trying to find pictures of the O’Briens on that fateful visit. We came up empty, though we did find snaps of the year they stained the deck.
I never did unlock the mystery of why people come to work and pay money to Olga for the privilege. Maybe it is that deadly DiIanni charm. Or maybe their parents live far away, or are gone, and these guests want to remember what it is like to spend a weekend doing annoying tasks with poor tools and an irritating level of supervision. Or maybe they want not so much rehab as “hab,” that feeling of satisfaction that comes from helping someone who needs the skills you have and the time you can give, and who provides friendship and connection in return.
Whatever it is, it doesn’t speak to me. I sat on the porch and finished reading my book.