A Map of Marriage on Monhegan Island
Painting by Sarah Sutro

 

We fell in love when our bodies were still whole, long before children, long before the map of our lives was etched with medical detours. Now Uli and I step off the boat and onto Monhegan Island, just as we arrived from Boston in 1994 for our honeymoon, elated from our wedding. 

 

This time we arrive burnished from surviving and thriving the fourth cancer episode — this one Uli’s. Eight months ago, his skin glowed from radiation. Six months ago, doctors cut and sewed and sent him home with eleven temporary, implanted tubes. For two months we had a nightly threesome with Ivy, the IV pole that fed Uli. I liked Ivy. She kept him alive.

 

We check into the Island Inn, the place we couldn’t afford two and a half decades ago. Poised on a hill above the harbor, the resplendent inn is festooned with scalloped American flags along the inviting, open porch. We make a reservation for dinner and settle into our quarters, the antithesis of our honeymoon suite — the rustic room and down-the-hall bathroom. This room looks like an Andrew Wyeth painting and why not? He lived and painted here. Since the mid-1800s, the island has been a mecca for artists who return year after year, drawn to the magnificent vistas. 

Sheer white curtains droop in the warm air, like the last stragglers at a dance marathon. The meadow in Wyeth’s painting exists here, too, once your eyes focus past the rusty fire escape, the inn’s kitchen roof below, a garden plotted with herbs, and the dusty dirt road. The marshy, lupine-sprinkled meadow is the island’s source of fresh water. With a corner room, we also have an alternate view — the blue ocean with green and white sloops, brown lobster boats, red and yellow dinghies. 

For years we thought we were open to each other’s views, but we wore blinders around our opinions. Statements that started with “All Americans think that. . .”  or “Germans always say. . .” carried the unfair propensity to lump each other into a stereotype. We thought we listened, but listening carried an agenda—to change the other person. It took years of heat, negotiations, and patience—sometimes excruciating and interminable patience—to truly listen, and even more years to understand that a person changes only when they want to change.

 

On the Alder Trail, plush balsam moss wraps around the bases of dark green fir trees. Delicate ferns adorn the edges of young spongy bogs. Occasionally the trail is quaggy enough to warrant improvised bridges of wooden planks that someone has positioned over the worst of the muck. Uli and I have crossed countless bridges in our thirty-four years together—suspension bridges in Bali that bounced like trampolines over canyons I was convinced I’d be catapulted into, dilapidated wooden bridges in Brazil with missing planks over raging rivers that snapped at my feet like a hungry animal, tree logs lashed together in Papua with vines where the young children who lined up behind me nudged me across the ravine, their tiny hands on my bum. 

The bridges I am most thankful for, whether improvised in an emergency, or built from a blueprint, have provided safe passage from arguments—like the battle about hogging precious dining room space with that sprawling ficus tree—to reconciliation with a gift of handcrafted wool birds to hang on its branches. My refusal to get up at two a.m. to climb a dead volcano almost cost us our marriage. We hired a driver and left at 3:30a.m. Uli proposed at the top of the mountain.

 

The trees in the Cathedral Woods form arches, and the grounds are bedecked with lacey ferns, fluorescent blue violets, and an occasional burgundy-striped jack-in-the-pulpit. The flora and fauna of Monhegan thrive partly due to the removal of the deer population that was decimating the island’s greenery. These woods are known for the wee fairy houses built with twigs, stones, pinecones, and tree bark. But competition has infected the woods’ miniature-house real estate. Tourists import invasive items—shells, coins, plastic straws—to build palatial structures, fairy McMansions. They strip pieces of bark from trees, pull up tiny saplings and denude tree bases of moss. A clandestine group of islanders named “The Stompers” have taken it upon themselves to march through the woods, remove the invasive items, and stomp out the gaudy villas. 

Nature is begging us to participate and support conservation movements. I live with two-and-a-half hoarders. Uli refuses to part with two-decades-old Consumer Reports guides. Last week, our twenty-four-year-old daughter finally allowed the disposal of her friendship tower from kindergarten. The half-hoarder, our college-age son, saves every Legos structure he’s built, no matter how puny, but recycles school papers regularly. If it weren’t for me, our family might be on one of those TV shows — except the new trend is “reusing” rather than “recycling.”

 

Back at the inn, the dining room bustles with the beginnings of the weekend. We were foodies before the term became a trend. Our dinner is an orgy for our palates: citrusy shrimp dotted with paprika, puréed saffron-spiced cauliflower, pan-seared scallops painted with whole-grain mustard, and black rice with wild mushrooms, along with a bottle of Pinot Grigio we had packed, knowing about the inn’s BYOB policy. Reluctantly I polish off the scrumptious strawberry-rhubarb crisp. Uli’s eating capacity is limited. With most of his esophagus and stomach removed, he can only eat small portions and has to eat six times a day to maintain his weight. His limitations pare my desire to eat, but he insists that seeing others eat full meals doesn’t bother him. He saves his dessert for a late-night snack and an early breakfast. 

Then our server delivers another treat, the announcement that our dinner is a gift from friends, with a wish for a happy anniversary. The guests at the neighboring table overhear the server and echo the congratulations. We toast to anniversaries and ask if they want to be introduced to our friends. Even without the wine, we would be joking and bubbling with laughter. 

Humor has often saved us from ourselves. Although Germans are not known for their humor, Uli does have one, but it’s not easily tickled. It favors dad jokes and puns that are so pathetic they make me laugh anyway. I default to laughter after dropping a jug of maple syrup, a saccharine bomb exploding over the kitchen counter and floor. An absurd mess, just like certain moments in life. When I modeled my first maternity purchase, a royal blue dress, Uli stared at the empire waist and said, “It’s kind of big in the middle.” I managed to spit out a question, “And where do you think I’m going to carry this child—in my big toe?” If I couldn’t laugh at that, we wouldn’t be together.

 

The residents’ conviviality is a hallmark of the island. Our honeymoon B&B served communal dinners at long wooden tables, at six o’clock sharp. Even though Uli and I were newlyweds we were not spring chickens (I was thirty-six; Uli was forty). But we were by far the youngest of the guests. Every night word spread that we were honeymooners. Toasts were inevitably proposed, followed by the dull clinking of plastic cups, communal well-wishes and cheers. 

We have hosted dinners, brunches, and parties and toasted with champagne flutes, juice boxes, canteens, and sippy cups. Maybe it’s my Portuguese upbringing and Uli’s European manners that compel us to continue the tradition of clinking glasses at dinner. Maybe it’s a symbol of the togetherness we seek. Or maybe it’s a pain-in-the-butt delay to hungry children who grow up into adults clinking their own glasses.

 

At the foundation of every solid relationship is a set of common values. For us, mutual political leanings were crucial. We knew a couple on opposite political sides who argued about current events with vehement passion for twenty-three years. We couldn’t figure out how they stayed together. In the end, they didn’t. 

We protested Reagan’s gag order in Washington, D.C., Bush Senior’s Gulf war, Bush Junior’s Iraq war. Uli stayed with the kids so I could march in D.C. for gun control and in the 2017 Women’s March. My favorite part was the sign-making: 

A Safe Gun Is an Oxymoron 

We Are All P.O.Ws—Prisoners of Dubya 

Tweet Women with Respect

Tonight Monhegan Island is participating in a nationwide vigil, Lights 4 Liberty, to protest the Trump administration’s inhumane treatment of immigrants at our southern borders. Thirty adults and children march from the library to the schoolhouse carrying flashlights and candles. I was born in Portugal. Uli was born in Germany. We know the vivid tapestry of the U.S. is woven by immigrants. I have a relative who came to the U.S. illegally. His kids, rabid Republicans, demand incarceration and deportation of immigrants, leaving me bewildered and furious.

 

Like the sea, love can temper or evoke ardor. Powerful surf lashing the cliffs mirrors a roar of rage, a boom of thunderous laughter, ardent passion that needs nurturing. Blustery squalls intensify the grateful calm of a compromise.

The hollow knocking of a busy woodpecker greets us as we hike inland through a forest of fragrant spruce and pine trees. At Pebble Beach, harbor seals bob in the undulating waves like bowling balls lost in a watery gutter. The sea breathes as waves ebb and flow in hypnotic rhythm. We stop for Uli’s second breakfast, half of an apple with peanut butter. We love nature. Uli reveres the mountains. Right now we are in my favorite milieu — salty sea spray sprinkling the boulders. Nature and marriage demand respect. In a conversation with friends, Uli once stated that childcare expenses canceled out my earnings, a comment I’d heard from other men attempting to justify their wives’ truncated careers. I was livid. Childcare is a shared expense—working fathers need it just as much as working mothers. Deducting half of those expenses from my income still produced a profit. He apologized profusely. Respect is the boundary that protects a relationship. Without it we would drown. 

 

Bleached white spruce and rigid fir trees, petrified by the salty air, frame our path to Pulpit Rock, where the only congregants are seabirds. We hike the cliffs at Whitehead under the sun’s rays, an ocean breeze winding around us. A sharp-beaked osprey charges through the sky, looking for its lunch.

In the past we tried the Unitarian Universalist Church, the Congregational Church, and the Methodist Church, but none passed our audition. A minister-friend married us. She baptized our children, more for our parents than for us. Yet the religions we rejected have guided our principles—the kindness we give and receive, penance-free listening that elicits honesty, courage to admit errors, judgment-free inclusion and love of family. We like to think our religion is humanity. 

We find a grassy spot, unpack our lunches from the inn, and picnic at Burnt Head, a panoramic view at our feet. A transparent cloud envelopes smaller, rounded clouds, like a bag of cotton puffs. Black-headed kingbirds and long-legged willets wade in the tide pools that form between ridges in the boulders. They peck at the pockmarked walls, snacking on crabs and periwinkles. A pair of white herring gulls fly above, screeching complaints, like an incompatible couple. A glossy black cormorant, fresh from a dive, stands guard on a rock while its chick snuggles under her chin. 

The call to parenting crosses all species. In our family that call delivered our daughter and our son. It also gave rise to disputes over German traditions — don’t open any birthday gifts before the actual date to avoid bad luck — versus American style — let the kids open gifts as they arrive to spread out the gift binge. The call stretched our life with diaper disasters, lice attacks, treasured stick-figure portraits, squabbles and kindness, dioramas of dinosaurs and Inuit life, tantrums and tenderness, the pride of piano/cello/violin recitals, soccer games, and reports on Martin Luther King, Jr. and Herman Hesse. That call was answered with two cherished human beings.

 

The steep, narrow paths of the Cliff Trail expose the island’s craggy coastline, outlined with white spumes of crashing surf. Tourmaline whirlpools surround protruding rocks that serve as perches for gold-necked gannets and white-chested guillemots. The ocean drapes the outcrops with opulent necklaces of glistening black-and-gold seaweed. Tufts of stubborn grass persist on razor-thin ledges. Fortitude is a gift and a necessity to persevere through fears as terrifying as the precipitous drops along the trail. 

We stop for Uli to catch his breath. His recent medical journey has suppressed the goat gene that sends him scampering up the Alps while I usually toil on the trail behind him. I survived multiple surgeries and treatments for two breast cancer crises and for melanoma. We both have tattoos from radiation and residual brain fog that is most likely from aging, but we pretend is from chemo. Together we have raised a daughter diagnosed with juvenile arthritis at the age of three. Chronic illness is not for cowards. She continues to do everything she wants but has learned that sometimes you need to adjust—a useful life skill. Although longevity of life may be a miracle, longevity of marriage is not. It is the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other, together.  

 

In the morning, tantalizing streaks of sun escape through the fog, a slice of light on the water, a glint on a boulder. We hike up the hill to Monhegan’s working lighthouse and visit the Monhegan Museum of Art and History, housed in the former quarters of the lighthouse keeper. The current exhibit features Maud Briggs Knowlton, one of the first women to paint on the island. She captured the magic of Monhegan using watercolors and oil, with colors as bold as the sea and as gentle as the breeze. Knowlton was also the first woman to direct the Currier Museum of Art in the 1900s. More than a hundred years later, the hiring of a woman director at a major art museum still makes headlines. The more things change the more they stay the same.

I grew up with a working mother. Uli’s mother stayed at home. I made it clear to Uli that I wasn’t a stay-at-home, house-cleaning, food-shopping, chained-to-the-ironing-board, full-time babysitting Hausfrau like most of his female friends and relatives. We both cooked. Mr. Shirt pressed his shirts for a buck a piece. Uli bent to my demand that we take turns doing the food shopping. I bent to his by entering my tax receipts into Quicken, an accounting program I despised. But there came a time when managing my career, children’s schedules, endless doctors’ appointments and a traveling husband pushed me into a part-time Hausfrau role that in reality was a full-time job and dug a ditch of depression around me. Medication and therapy helped. I realized I had to be the catalyst for change. We dropped daycare and hired a part-time sitter to chauffeur the kids to the activities I was trying to cram into my two free afternoons. Roles can only change when the actors write a different script.

 

We hike to Whitehead where the quintessential postcard views — the jagged coastline of cliffs buffeting the island from the crashing waves —  beg for photography, Uli’s hobby. As a physicist, light and its reflections fascinate him. While others snap quick family photos, Uli checks the lighting, adjusts the camera settings, and moves people around, earning the half-humored-half-annoyed-jest and groans that accompany his entrance with a camera, “Here comes the professional.” His analytical eye is the lens that makes him Uli. As a musician, my lens focuses on emotions. Herring gulls fly over the water, their plaintive cries arcing with dynamics but never a melody, their spiky wings outlined in the shadow, more visible on the rock than against the sky. Uli probably sees these details. I feel the freedom of soaring. 

Our individual outlooks have led to collaborations and clashes, but experience has softened our unwillingness to see the other’s perspective without losing focus. We can talk about each other’s differences without animosity—most of the time. Communication is always a work in progress.

True to our ethnic backgrounds, I express myself with passion. Uli’s default mechanism is reserve. I can count the number of times he has said “I love you,” but I didn’t need to hear it when he chose to move from Munich to Boston, leaving behind his family, friends, colleagues, and houseplants. How did I score a lifetime companion who brings out the best in me, and despite seeing the worst in me, continues to love me every single day? On the other hand, Uli always introduces me as his better half. And I always agree.

 

In the afternoon, I settle into a rocking chair on the inn’s porch while Uli naps in our room, rest that his new body needs. You can be anonymous at the inn, sit in a chair and not be forced to chit chat. Like me, another guest writes; others read. I store the sounds around me — a rope clanging against a boat mast, the yawning foghorn of the departing ferry, the calm harbor water lapping at the shore like a dog drinking from a bowl. I memorize the peace created by the noises that are not here — airplanes screaming, cars rumbling, phones ringing, ACs droning, and lawnmowers grumbling. 

The slow pace of change on Monhegan creates a rare sense of timelessness. The residents have centralized electricity and telephone service now. The island no longer goes pitch dark at 9:00 pm, but electricity costs are four times higher than on the mainland. This guarantees no streetlights, minimal light pollution, and a sky full of brilliant diamond stars at night. Uli and I have grown and changed since our honeymoon, but that commitment — for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health — has held firm through each phase in our lives together. We have protected and preserved our love with the strength of timeless dedication to each other. Marriage is not made of the fairy tales we read as children, or the Hollywood illusions staring at us in the supermarket checkout lines. But there is magic.

As the afternoon sun wanes, Uli joins me on the lawn. We relax in ultimate luxury, sitting in Adirondack chairs, each with a glass of wine, the ocean murmuring below. We bid farewell to a painter’s perfect sunset, a marigold sun, its extended arms dripping orange, red, pink and gold over the horizon. As we lift our glasses to toast, I smile thinking about the sunsets we’ve watched together at the beach, from a tent, on a bridge, through an airplane window. 

“Cheers, Betty,” Uli says. “To my bride.” 

 “Cheers, Uli. To another honeymoon with you.”

 

 

 

Author's Comment

Writing about marriage requires honesty and respect, the confidence of what we believe in, and the perspective of time to find the words — just like marriage itself.

Bios

Elizabeth Reed has the curiosity of a traveler, the courage of a three-time cancer survivor, and the creativity of a writer. She is a musician, activist, and traveler. Born in Lisbon, she was raised in Boston and married a German, which gives her a wide cultural perspective. She and her husband have traveled to 46 countries, most with one or two children in tow. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine, Passion Passport, The Rumpus  and other journals. She is writing a memoir about surviving leech attacks in the Sumatran jungle and other adventures in marriage and parenting. 

Sarah Sutro’s art and writing express the interface of nature and culture. She explores light and color in gardens and wild areas where she lives in the Berkshires, MA, and in watery coastal landscape when she travels. She is the author of the poetry chapbook Études (Finishing Line Press) and a book of essays, COLORS: Passages through Art, Asia and Nature (Blue Asia Press).

One Comment on “A Map of Marriage on Monhegan Island

  1. My husband and I spent a day on Monhegan Island about 25 years ago, and I have never forgotten it. I wrote a story which took place there, with characters borrowed from Virginia Woolf (Cam and Lily from To the Lighthouse). Reading your piece brought back memories of that lovely, magical place and a wish to return. Your words evoke not only the island, but also the challenges and joys of a long marriage. Thank you.

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