Seely Road, the street I grew up on, could be referred to as a dead-end or cul-de-sac. At the end of the street, a path leads to a rocky beach and the ocean beyond.
Everyone who lived on Seely Road had shared access to “the cove,” as we called it. This common—and lovely—territory brought us all together. We shared other things, too. Imagine three children riding bikes up and down the hill that was our street and zigzagging up and down every long driveway that branched off it, occasionally stopping to knock on a door or leave a wildflower bouquet. Everyone knew everyone. We wove in and out of one another’s lives, intercalated.
At the same time, Seely Road was isolated. It was a dead-end street, bordered by woods, over a mile outside the town of Bar Harbor, Maine, itself a small place. The three kids on Seely Road—myself and Megan and Brian Weber from across the street—were the only young people within walking distance. The cove was private. A hand-painted sign at the top of the street summed up the situation:
Slow! Kids at play on bikes. No water access.
We were close to our neighbors, but far from everyone else. Our isolation bred our intimacy. And it was that general closeness among neighbors, in turn, the zoomed-in view I had of the street and our lives on it, that led me to notice the gaps that separated us.
Gripping the handle of my violin case, I followed my feet down the hill and took a left at the driveway of Bess Kaliss’s house, two doors down from ours. It was what I remember as my last day in Bar Harbor, one summer in high school, after my family had moved away from Mount Desert Island—the lopsided horseshoe-shaped spot of land on which Bar Harbor sits—but while we still owned our old house at the top of Seely Road.
Bess Kaliss, a pianist, had asked me to come over and play chamber music with her “sometime,” and for whatever reason, I took her up on it. I chose to go, wanted to go, but still, I was nervous. As a kid, I had visited Bess Kaliss’s house as a guest and, often, performer at the “music parties” she periodically held. These salons, to which Bess invited everyone on the street, contributed to the sense of familiarity I felt toward my neighbors on Seely Road. The nervousness I felt about playing with Bess one-on-one, however, showed the limits of our connection. Bess was much older than I, and along with her graciousness came an air of formality. A junior or senior in high school, I was old enough to behave like an adult and young enough that I expected my behavior might be judged and reported back to my parents.
“Can I offer you something?” Bess Kaliss asked, pronouncing “offer” as if it were similar to “awful,” after inviting me in. She had white hair, loosely fastened, and wore all white: white pants, white shoes, and some kind of pullover white blouse in dressy material. Offer me what, I wondered. She meant would I like a glass of water, but I didn’t know that. I said no, thanks.
We played Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata for Violin and Piano. The room was dark, with light coming in from a glass patio door. The piano was on the left and faced outside. I stood to the instrument’s right and with my back to the space where, during the “music parties” of childhood, chairs were arranged for the audience.
As Bess played for us, we saw her back, the movement of her fingers and arms along the keyboard, and the full splendor of her hair, which had the wavy sheen of a My Little Pony mane. The skin of her face and arms draped and jiggled as she spoke or leaned toward the sheet music, glasses first.
Bess Kaliss invited all the neighbors to her music parties, and all guests, kids included, were welcome to perform. Brian Weber took his trumpet out on the patio to lessen stage fright, volume, or both and launched into “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess.” It was a false start. “Take two,” he said. The audience tittered. “Take three.” I got my dad to join me in a few over-ambitious violin duet and musical theater numbers. Bess always respected our efforts. The time I played “Humoresque,” for example, a classic of beginning violin repertoire, Bess referred to it later in the program, which seemed to validate my performance.
At the music parties, Bess was everything: hostess, emcee, and chief performer. She always did several solos and often piano four-hands, too, and delivered substantial introductions to every piece she played. Bess was not a professional pianist, but she was a passionate amateur, known for making long drives to cities, which were all far from Bar Harbor, to take master classes. She and her husband had lived in New York.
Once, at the end of the program, Bess asked if we had any comments to make about the music. Silence followed. Then my mother spoke. “I don’t have anything to say about the music, but I think we all have something to say about a Bess.” I remember the phrase “a Bess,” in contrast to “the music.” My mom then articulated how special it was that Bess not only played music but also shared it with us.
My mother has always had an impulse to tell the truth and say what needs to be said. Sometimes that impulse results in mild conflict. But in this case, it was clear that Bess was remarkable and that this, not critical comments on Chopin, was what there was to say about the afternoon.
To get to Seely Road from downtown Bar Harbor, you take Route 3 out of town. About eight-tenths of a mile past the ball field, turn left where the road forks, onto Schooner Head Road. In another six-tenths, Seely Road will be on your left. It’s the first actual street (as opposed to driveway) that you’ll come to on Schooner Head, so you shouldn’t miss it.
When I was born, there were eight houses on Seely Road: our house, across from the Webers’, at the top of the hill; then the Foxes’; another couple; the Kalisses’ and the Bruces’; then, at the bottom of the street, the Greens’ and Janet TenBroeck’s, later Barbara Knowles’s house. The Greens originally lived at the very bottom of the road, the dead end, with the path to the cove on the left and the driveway to Janet TenBroeck’s on the right. Later, they built and moved into a new house, farther up the road. We all shared the cove. Another commonality among families on the street was that many of the adults worked or had worked as scientists at the mouse-genetics lab on the other side of Schooner Head Road.
Seely Road was a place without internal boundaries. We kids explored the woods and went down to the cove to collect sea glass and rocks, lunch on high cliffs, build rafts (never completed), kayak (the Webers did, anyway), and pick flowers. In the winter I went sledding on the Webers’ hill; Megan and Brian helped me carve a fort out of the snow-log the plow left in our front yard. Our backyard connected to the Foxes’ yard, the property line marked only by rhododendrons. That was a good thing, since hanging from a tall tree in their backyard, the Foxes had a rope swing that kids were welcome to use at any time. The swing was made from ship’s rope, recovered from the cove, with a knot like a wasp’s nest for a seat. If I had a friend around, she’d pull me back by the threads hanging below the knot, then give a big push, and as I rose over the hill, the ground fell away and it seemed as if I were swinging into the tree branches.
When I was small, my mom and I used to go visit Janet TenBroeck, the thin and fragile-looking elderly woman at the bottom of the street. We usually brought her flowers from my mother’s garden, and we would pick peonies from hers, which was bordered by a rounded rock wall, sort of like the top of a castle, overlooking the cliffs and covered, at least on the ocean side, by golden lichen.
Along the roadsides and at the cove grew forget-me-nots, Indian paintbrush, goldenrod, and that lovely purple flower (purple loosestrife; “very invasive,” my mom said) that grew near the brook where it emptied into the ocean. My friends and I would often go down to the cove, gathering flowers as we went, and then leave the bouquets outside people’s doors on our way back up the hill.
Sometimes we even knocked. In reporter mode, we interviewed one neighbor about her experience with Girl Scouting, another on what it was like to be a teacher. We definitely did not call first. And it wasn’t just the kids who dropped in. Before Christmas, the Girl Scouts enthusiast would make Santa Lucia bread, put on a white dress and a crown of red candles, and deliver the sweetness to everyone on the street. There was no predicting when she would come; she just showed up at our blue front door and pressed the bell button.
Bess Kaliss was not the only entertainer on the street. The Webers were the ones who held the really big parties. But today, it’s listening to Beethoven sonatas for violin and piano that brings me back to Seely Road, to that moment with Bess, and to her music parties. Bess is at the root of my memories because it was with her that I spent my last—and in some ways most intimate—moments as a neighbor on Seely Road.
Though in hindsight it is easy to romanticize my Seely Road childhood, I spent much of it wishing that I lived in downtown Bar Harbor (or, better yet, in New York City). I’d heard stories of how, earlier in the century, lots of Bar Harbor kids would play in the streets, and sled in the streets, and “go down to the ball field” for impromptu sports. I imagined that if I lived in town, I would spend my spare time hanging out with other kids. Instead, I was on Seely Road asking to be driven somewhere or trying, with what sometimes felt like more effort than it was worth, to find a friend who wanted to come over to my house.
People on Seely Road didn’t lock their houses. There were no fences. Behind houses, backyards became woods. In a way, the open space made Seely Road feel as if our properties were all connected. On the other, space itself was a barrier, between houses, between our street and others, between Seely Road and town, between me and other kids, between Mount Desert Island and cities where one could take music lessons or go to the mall. When, in middle school, I “got really into” music and the violin, it was frustrating that I couldn’t take lessons within an hour’s drive of home. And yet it strikes me now that the Seely Road of my formative years was much like I envisioned town to be: a place where (at least some) people played in the streets, and there was always someone to visit. The summer I went to visit Bess Kaliss, Seely Road even gave me chamber music.
Seely Road: lonely, less-beaten path or friend-filled haven? The answer depends on your perspective. Perhaps it’s the cove, the beach we shared with each other but off-limits to everyone else, that best captures the duality and the irony of Seely Road. The idea that I once had access to a private beach, albeit shared, without even realizing how it worked—that “water access” was something money bought—makes my childhood seem entitled. Viewed this way, from an outsider’s perspective, the private cove also makes the street seem elitist, snobbish, isolationist.
But had the cove been public, it would not necessarily have been a place that my parents let me go by myself. It might not have been a destination that sent me walking and riding up and down my street, visiting neighbors along the way. And had the cove been open to those beyond Seely Road, it would not have contributed to a unique bond among Seely Road residents. This is the irony: A community open to everyone can lose its sense of being a community at all.
I’m not sure how welcoming we were, as a whole, to new people on Seely Road. After the Greens moved into their new house, another couple moved into what will always be, in the parlance of my family, “the Greens’ old house” at the bottom of the street. I never once knocked on the new family’s door. I didn’t know their first names. I heard rumors they had bought up property downtown—a bad thing, the rumors implied. This gossip, from people I knew and trusted, made me wary of the newcomers. Rather than bring a welcome bouquet, I stayed away.
When I was going into tenth grade, we moved from Seely Road to the countryside of Kentucky. We had known it was coming. My dad had always wanted to retire to his childhood home, and in the year 2000, the time came.
At first, we kept our house in Bar Harbor. We went back in the summer after tenth grade, maybe after eleventh, maybe even after twelfth. In any case, it was on what I remember as the last day of my last summer in the house on Seely Road that Bess Kaliss asked me to come play Beethoven with her.
Despite my boldness when I was the one choosing to leave flowers or knock on the door, responding to Bess’s invitation to come alone to her house made me nervous. I didn’t know Bess at all, really. I knew her public face as the hostess of the music parties. When you’re a kid, older people can learn all about you, but you can’t even ask them how old they are unless you’re too young to know better. To bring myself, violin in hand, to Bess Kaliss’s door that day, I had to cross a new boundary: my own self-consciousness.
We played Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata for Violin and Piano. There were three movements, one flowing and fast, one flowing and slow, and the last, bouncy, difficult to count but easy enough to just play anyway, with the piano making short notes and the violin echoing them. The piece had a sense of running somewhere, then slowing down, then running again.
At the end of our session, I pulled out a Mozart concerto with piano accompaniment that I had brought along. “Oh you should have told me. We could’ve played Mozart,” she said, pronouncing it “Moat-zot.” We might have said something about playing it next time.
In 2003, my parents sold our house in Bar Harbor. The following January, Bess Kaliss died. She was ninety-five.
Maybe it’s only in retrospect that I see my going to visit Bess Kaliss as an echo of my mother’s comment at the music party, acknowledging Bess and how extraordinary she was in our little community. The time to speak had been at that moment, and my mother had spoken. The time to visit Bess Kaliss had been that one day, my last on Seely Road, when she invited me. Had I not played with Bess that day, I wouldn’t have played with her at all.
Now I live in New York City, where everyone and no one is a neighbor. In Bar Harbor, there are so few people that you say hello to everyone. In New York there are so many people that I say hello to almost no one. I would need a reason to connect with people in a way that I didn’t in Bar Harbor, where shared humanity and a common, beautiful environment were, for the most part, reasons enough.
In the New York literary world, there is this idea, perhaps a myth, of evening parties where people have interesting conversations; where people ask writers what they’re working on and the writers provide begrudging hints. I’ve never been to such a party. It’s not my world, just as downtown Bar Harbor was not as much my world as I wanted it to be.
But I once took matters into my own hands and held a salon. I invited my friends, as well as other artists I knew. I didn’t think many would come, but they did. Throughout the evening, I danced, played violin, and read the beginning of an essay I’d written. All guests were invited to perform, and a few did: One friend did a Joanna Newsom impression; another recited a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay; the guy she was dating then led us in tai chi. But it was mostly me. Like Bess Kaliss, I was the hostess, emcee, and main performer. Maybe it was also the influence of Bess Kaliss that led me to consider the idea, quickly abandoned, of putting a sign outside the apartment door announcing the salon and inviting passersby to join in. There in Park Slope, Brooklyn, unlike on Seely Road, I didn’t know my neighbors, but I still wanted them to be welcome at my party.