The place the spirit calls home

FOR ME, IT’S a gray-shingled, white-trimmed cottage with a wide front porch that meets a slightly overgrown summer-green lawn running to the Atlantic-not the Pacific, because the Atlantic is the ocean that brought us here in the first place. There is a loyalty we have to that ocean above all. Along the lawn’s borders, on the left and right, are lilac bushes. In the middle of the lawn is a white wooden flagpole; a fresh breeze strong enough to keep the flag at attention is always blowing. At the edge of the lawn, just before the dune grass, is a border of red marigolds. And on the beach are girls from a poem by Philip Booth:

girls with born right

sky bright

star night


[girls of]

I-belong charms


young gold

legs and arms

That’s the place for me. I don’t own it; I’m not sure I’ve ever even seen it. But it represents an amalgam of everything I’m looking for. We all have or seek or dream about the right place. Thomas Jefferson spoke for all of us about the pull of that spot: “I am as happy nowhere else, and in no other society, and all my wishes end, where I hope my days will, at Monticello.”

For Watt Matthews, a graduate of Princeton’s class of 1921, the right place has always been the Lambshead Ranch, which is located a few miles outside of Albany, Texas. There, in the 1890s, his mother and father were married, and there his remarkable mother, Sallie Matthews, wrote Interwoven, a chronicle of the Reynolds and Matthews families that’s considered to be one of the best books ever written on Texas ranch life. After graduating from Princeton, Watt returned to Lambshead, and although he has traveled far, in a sense he has never left. He once said: “No matter what changes come, I told the family, there’s no memorial they could ever build that would match holding this place together.”

There are those who can’t escape or erase their pasts fast enough, but not Watt. He honors the land and his family’s memory. From one bluff, you can look down to the stone house where his parents spent the first night of their marriage. On another part of the ranch, there’s a one-room schoolhouse where Watt and his brother and sisters began their educations, and not too far from there is the family graveyard, which is shaded from the heat by a grove of live oak trees. The ranch headquarters is comprised of a group of one-story wooden buildings (including one for each member of the family) built around a quadrangle with the cook-shack at one end. Headquarters represents just what an outpost should be-compact, self-contained and settled. On this ranch are two of the most important attributes of a right place: protection and a sense of continuity. Dinner in the Lambshead’s cook-shack on a winter’s night-with a fire so large that it’s uncomfortable to stand within 20 feet of it-imparts a feeling of uncommon calm. As the night wears on, you feel the place take hold.

All right places share this ability to take hold. Each has its own unduplicated code, like a fingerprint, with sounds and smells and vistas, all carefully ordered by memory. It’s a code no condominium can duplicate; no zero-lot-line development can come close, either. The right place resists mass production and clever cloning techniques. Riding the range of a ranchette can only suggest the experience the right place can provoke. But in the end, it will always fall way short.

Yet the right place for one person may be entirely wrong for another. A few summers ago, Watt visited Martha’s Vineyard, and he later said that he didn’t quite get the idea of an island, a little piece of ground in the middle of the ocean. “I didn’t like being hemmed in on an island. Why, after about 20 miles, you just come to the jumping-off point,” he said. His eyes, which for more than eight decades had seen the land’s sweep as inexhaustible, couldn’t quite adjust to the finiteness of an island.

What makes a place right is what’s removed, and what’s removed are those things and activities that clutter and obscure. The right place changes our rhythms and alters our sense of what’s important. A boat that needs caulking, trees that need trimming, fences that need mending become absorbing activities. For some, the attraction of the right place becomes so powerfully riveting that it becomes the final place.

On the island of Islesboro, in Dark Harbor off the coast of Maine, is a tiny cemetery overlooking Penobscot Bay. A 3 1/2-foot-high stone wall, 20 or so feet long on each side, surrounds it. There are three graves, each marked by its own individually carved, straightforward black slate gravestone. Two face the dawn; one faces the sunset. The grass is lush and carefully kept. I didn’t know the people; someone said they were from St. Louis and had summered there for generations. They chose in death the view they had loved more than any other in life. There must have been nothing in the inland city of St. Louis that mattered to them as much as Dark Harbor did. The right place always matters, while most places just don’t matter at all.

A clear memory of the right place can be as important as being there. In fact, the right place doesn’t have to exist anywhere except in your mind (that might be the best place of all for it to exist). There in your mind, all those things that can sometimes destroy or alter the right place-being discovered by the wrong set, a neighbor who all of a sudden wants to help you get in touch with your own feelings, any change-can be avoided or sidestepped.

As I write this, summer is only just be ginning to loosen up, saving its scorchers for the months to come. The antidote will be remembrances of the right place: the feel of the sea breeze, tans meeting white T-shirts, moving from the heat of the inland side of the house to the cool of the ocean side. When I need my daydreams most, I’m depending on my right place to provide them.


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