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A red sunrise over the river casts a glow onto the ocean beyond, and all is quiet. It is late August, and the day will be hot. 

After Labor Day, the best of all times arrives. When most of the summer folks have departed, the beach roses ripen, and it is time to make rose hip jam again. A time for catching blues and stripers in the Atlantic out front from our old repaired black fishing boat and for walking the beach emptied of family crowds. A time for contemplation about the big and little things in our lives, looking back on our 80 years and anticipating what the future will bring. 

The good years remaining are few and to be savored. We try to ignore the ugliness of a forthcoming presidential election, of the cacophony of terrible news about strife elsewhere in the world, and the slow moving peril of climate change. We miss friends in our retirement community home at Galloway Ridge in Pittsboro, N.C., 750 miles to the south, but cherish the opportunity to be here once again among old memories in this little cottage in Westport, Mass., built 66 years ago by Joyce’s parents as a summer escape from Providence. 

Since her parents died years ago, the cottage has been shared with Joyce’s sister and her family. Recently, it has become Joyce’s home by formal agreement between the sisters. The floor of the renovated kitchen is covered in heart pine retrieved from an old North Carolina barn, a warm reminder of our nearly 50 years in the Tar Heel state.

Here we have our own small garden, our own earth to tend, our rhubarb patch, daylilies and iris. We watch them emerge in May, when it is cold, and we warm ourselves by a fire and comfort ourselves with books. In our apartment back in North Carolina, fireplaces do not exist. How we miss the smells, sounds and dancing lights of an oak wood fire! 

More homes open in June and all is full by the Fourth of July, when a magical, raucous parade passes in front by the beach. Our children, their families and friends descend, and our cottage, the same size as our apartment at Galloway Ridge, overflows with people, intent on having their vacation. 

Most of our neighbors have much more elaborate places. We like the modesty of our old Cape Cod cottage. We love the home cooked meals: chowders made from clams we collect in the river, strawberry-rhubarb pies, bluefish caught by us out in the Atlantic the same day, fresh corn and other vegetables from the farmer’s stand. 

There are many old and new friends here, too. These are days of laughter and chaos, and days for catching up on how our grandchildren are changing, emerging to take their own places in a rapidly changing world. Watching them leap into the river off of the old wharf, whooping with joy, brings a greater measure of joy to us oldsters. Even better is when a pod of them puts on life vests and floats out into the fast-flowing outgoing current, braving the risk of being swept out to sea, being careful to keep in the slower waters nearer to the shore and scrambling out to safety before it is too late.

Westport is an affluent summer community by the ocean and along the Westport River. Inland, it is an eclectic mix of working people, flavored by Portuguese extraction, who came here to try their luck on whaling ships and later to work in textile mills. New Bedford, the whaling capital, is just 20 miles east. Many of the local markets carry the wonderful Portuguese sweet breads. 

The ostentation of the new and old wealth so evident in the country club setting and beachfront homes is absent in the people lining up to fish over the bridge or to cast their lines from the point of rocks at the entrance to the harbor. A town-gown clash has resulted in a democratic opening up of access to the beach to all Westport residents, much to the dismay of some of our neighbors. 

A drive along the ocean east of the river passes a long row of beachside trailer homes, colorful with trucks, motorcycles, flags, small metal boats and barbecues. Somehow, their presence restores a sense of balance in this enclave of privilege. We pass it on every visit to our favorite open-air seaside restaurant overlooking the marsh and waters of Buzzard’s Bay, where we sip local beer labelled Moby Dick and order lobster rolls or fresh sea scallops. 

There is an obvious impact of history, dating from the 17th century. The harbor once was a natural refuge for British ships, who named it the “Devil’s pot hole” for its treacherous currents and rocks at the narrow entrance. The river is now packed by sailboats and small power boats, owned mainly by summer citizens, although a few commercial lobster men and sword fishermen still ply their trade here. 

One of the great early wars between local Native Americans and the insurgent colonists was known as King Philip’s War. The Wampanoags and their allies, the Narragansett, attacked over half of all New England villages between 1675 and 1678, sowing fear and disruption among the Puritans. Indian names still abound on street signs and adorn certain local breeds of cattle, but otherwise King Philip’s people are long gone. Their once peaceful way of life, with its careful tending of the land and the bounties of the sea and the rivers, has been replaced by our new culture: our great numbers, our materialism, our over-harvesting and pollution.  

We both love the pastoral beauty of a settled rural life removed from the congestion of Cape Cod, which lies an hour to the northeast. We find a richness and comfort in the connections to the past, which we also see in the village commons, the old graveyards, the myriad old lichen-covered stone walls and fences, and the tall church steeples. This is New England, a place different from where I grew up near Chicago, but accepted now by our extended family as their heritage, based on years of coming here. 

When we are in the cottage, we see the pictures of Joyce’s parents; our granddaughters dream of being married here. We can choose to be alone, to do things our way without belonging to the country club, to enjoy the cool air and the wide open vistas of the Atlantic almost at our footsteps. 

The ocean reminds us every day of the power of the natural world, in ways that are more powerful and immediate than we perceive living in a retirement community. Northeasters are a regular occurrence, and a walk along the beach often reveals old lobster pots thrown up on shore. The hurricane of 1938 destroyed beachfront homes built to withstand the greatest of storms, leaving broken slabs of reinforced concrete and brick now covered partly by drifting sands as testimony to arrogance. The old lobster house along the river where lobster men sold their catch had watermarks that showed how high the waters rose during the hurricane of '38, and lower marks left by the hurricane of 1954. New homes have been built just behind the dunes, but the next big hurricane will get them, too.

Nothing is permanent, change is inevitable. We mourn the passing of the old and familiar, and we try to hang onto vestiges of the past. Our grandchildren respond to this one reason they want to sink their roots into this place with its memories and connections to one side of the family story. It would please us if they were able to continue to visit here, to continue a family tradition now three generations old, but practical considerations make that difficult. Our family has spread around the globe, following opportunity and adapting to changing circumstances. Eventually, perhaps in the not-so-distant future, it may be necessary to sell this place of memories to a stranger who knows nothing of what once was. 

That is not the only thing that worries us. Our cottage was built in 1950, and is just above the high water mark from the 1954 hurricane and survived it, but rising seas caused by warming weather and melting ice will abolish that safety margin in decades ahead. The sea has risen about a foot already, and predictions call for at least another few feet in this century, maybe much more. A rise of six or seven feet will doom this home. We try to ignore these doleful thoughts, but even amidst the beauty and tranquility, they pop into mind, and our sense of comfort is perturbed.

Soon we will return to the many comforts of living among friends in Galloway Ridge. It is bitter here in the winter. The winters are gentle in North Carolina, the falls lovely and long, the springs early and fragrant. But come May, we will return to Westport, for another summer in the gardens of Joyce’s youth

Fred Sparling

Fred Sparling is professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

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