As I turn from sneaking a peek through the windows of the modest cottage under renovation, I notice a slight, older woman standing on the front balcony of the McMansion next door. She calls out to me, and I approach to exchange what I hope will be just a few polite words.
“You’ve been looking at my niece’s cottage,” she says. “What do you think of the renovations?”
I feel a tinge of anxiety that my curiosity may be considered prying or even trespassing. “The place is exquisite!” I exclaim. The small building, nestled among others of similar size and rectangularity in this seaside condo community, has been transformed since my last visit. The new owner has covered the exterior with natural cedar shingles, and flower boxes with fresh fall plants hang beneath the windows on either side of the front door. Inside, though curtains restrict my view, I see walls covered with light pine paneling, a kitchen completely modernized, and a new, polished wood floor. Artisan carpenters have been there most of the day, working on the finishing touches.
The woman says her niece plans to use it for family and friends, but not rent to strangers, to ward off, I suspect, any interest I might have in leasing it. I tell her that I am staying in the tiny cottage nearest the bluff, and she relaxes a little and indicates that she knows the owners. We agree that this seaside cluster of homes is a quiet, perfect getaway spot. I exude enthusiasm.
She seems frail and a bit shaky, so I am surprised when she asks if I would like to see the inside of her home. It is enormous like the newer units on the property—a three-storied, light-grey clapboard mansion with balconies facing the ocean on the first and second floors. Still, when I hesitantly accept her invitation, I am not prepared for what awaits inside the front door. I have not brought a mask, and I wonder if she has a COVID vaccination, but I follow her inside.
The place looks like the prize home in an HGTV contest. The interior design is perfection indeed. She has impeccable taste—not an object is out of place, lush furnishings and fine art abound, kitchen counters are clear of clutter between top-line appliances. We tour the living room and bedrooms. The beds are piled high with expensive duvets and designer cushions. Except for a book, open on the living room coffee table, it looks like no one lives there—like they’ve staged it for an open house.
I rave about her taste, the beauty of the furnishings, the view from the abundant windows. She leads me upstairs to the second and third floors, moving one step at a time, her slowness due, she says, to a recent back injury. As we amble through the house, I ooh and ah at every turn. She tells me that she and her husband built it a few years ago as a retirement home for her daughter and son-in-law. Then, suddenly, her daughter died of a massive stroke in her late fifties. At that very instant, I turn and notice a carved plaque above the slider windows to the second-floor balcony. “Jenny’s Happy Place,” it reads. “Your daughter was Jenny?” I ask quietly.
“Yes.” Almost apologetically, she tells me that her son-in-law still comes to stay with them on weekends sometimes. I express my condolences and acknowledge that losing a daughter is very hard. She nods.
We chat for a bit longer, and I start looking for a way to ease myself out of the house politely. We find a transition topic in our appreciation of the view and the quiet seclusion of the location. They come to stay just about every weekend throughout the year. She talks about the other homeowners warmly as I head down the front steps and say goodbye. The woman has told me her name, but I have already forgotten it.
I stroll back to my weathered and worn one-room cottage on the brink of the eroding cliff at the beachside, keenly aware of the dramatic difference between the two abodes. Although a part of me would like to live the princess life inside the castle I have just toured, another part of me feels relief as I open the paint-chipped front door to my tiny rental. Most of me aches, though, for the slight, shaken, affluent woman who has lost her daughter and the future she had planned for her family.
When I awake at 12:55 a.m. the following day, waves are crashing on the beach at high tide. I step outside on my little porch. The air is warm for October, and the sky is clear. Unnumbered stars glow brightly in the blackness directly above and weakly through the light-polluted haze closer to the horizon. I haven’t seen stars in a very long time, and I marvel that I can still identify the Little Dipper. Except for the breaking waves, a hush surrounds me. I turn to look at the neighborhood’s dark buildings. A dim light shines through a first-floor window of Jenny’s Happy Place.
Altered names and details protect the subject’s privacy.