My favorite body of water

In 1940 or so, my grandfather John Lloyd was driving in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with his wife, Lillian. They trundled up a dirt road connecting Intervale with Jackson, called Dundee Road. About a mile and half up they came upon a beautiful farm: house on the left and barn across the road on the right, fields all around. It was for sale, and during those lean times it was for sale cheap. My grandfather wrote a check to the gentleman farmer on the fender of his Dodge, and that’s how Mountainside Farm became a part of my life, almost 30 years before I was born.

This picture is what you see when you sit on the porch of the house and look across the road.

During my Dad’s childhood, summers were spent at the farm. Once the kids were out of school, some big car or another was filled with everything, and the family would drive from Atlantic City to Dundee. Sometimes the trip would take so long – this begin in the days before the interstate highway system – that the journey took two days, and the family would spend the night outside Hartford, CT. or Lawrence, Mass.

So for three months it was my grandmother, my dad and his two sisters and for a time his older brother, joined by the “hired man”, a colorful north-country character with a glass eye named Edgar Crouse. Edgar and my dad bonded, and much of my dad’s near obsessive love for activities like mowing hay and cutting down trees he “inherited” from Edgar. He would tell me very funny stories of Edgar’s occasionally odd behavior, his wonderful Yankee expressions (“Jesus Lewie, the Christ-y thing is stuck!”) and his wild late night walks down the road, ranting after a night of too much drink.

My grandmother formed a community with other families on the road, she had to, her husband was there only every now then, most of his attention going to his law practice in New Jersey. Up the road, there lived another family: Max and Elizabeth Foster and their two sons Robin and Pete. These were the gentry of New England, Max from a long line of Yale men and Elizabeth born into the New England society of Ipswich Mass. where the Fosters wintered. At dinner, my father reports, only french was spoken. But they were also warm and friendly in that way New England gentry can be, with a kind of eccentric openness and devil-may-care attitude than made them quite approachable and life-long friends. Max died when I was young, but later, when I was in drama school, Elizabeth gave me a copy of his self-published book The Play Behind The Play, a defense of the 1st quarto of Hamlet, known as the bad quarto. To a budding Shakespeare geek like me, this book sent me on what has been a life-long fascination with the curious original texts of Shakespeare’s plays. So Max and I have a mysterious connection through the Bard of Avon. I think he would have liked that.

This is a photo of our place, across the road from the barn, with my daughter Ella on the porch.

Up at the Fosters’, Elizabeth took care of retired police horses from Boston. Each summer, she would have between two and five of these lively horses in their barn up the road from us in Dundee. Into her seventies, her face a wrinkled memory of its former glory, pierced by two ice-blue eyes, Elizabeth would take these horses out to ride the many trials and old lumber roads that mapped their enormous piece of land, at the foot of Doublehead Mountain. Once, upon hearing that I loved to ride too, she took a teenage Benjamin Lloyd with her. One of my two indelible memories of this extraordinary woman is racing – and I mean racing – after her through the woods, my arms around the neck of my horse, holding on for dear life, and wondering just who exactly was up ahead of me, with long blonde hair in tight braided curls, looking maybe 35 as she steered her mount at a full gallop through sun-dappled trees.

My other memory of Elizabeth is this: it is 1993. I am 31 and she must be in her nineties. She is sitting in a full-house of an audience of about 40 people, in a tiny store-front theater on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I am onstage, playing Hamlet in my self-produced production of Q1 Hamlet, a performance of the “bad quarto”, the fascination of Elizabeth’s late husband dead now twenty years or so. I am doing one of the monologues, straight to the audience, and we lock eyes, Elizabeth and me. Her ice blue eyes shine in the darkness, and her smile makes her look like a teenager. This was one of the only trips she ever made from either Ipswich or Dundee after Max died.

But the most common reason we go to the Fosters’- and now I’m moving on generationally to me, my half-sibs and now, my own children – is for their pond, which we call Fosters’ Pond. Its picture is at the top and right here:

Max and Elizabeth dammed up a stream that runs trough the property, and dredged out a pretty deep hole in the ground. On one side is a field which ends in a stone wall and small but striking grove of birch trees. On the other (behind the photographer in this picture) is the barn and Elizabeth’s legendary vegetable garden. They stock the pond with trout, though I don’t fish. For as long as I can remember, it has had the rickety bridge – visible here – leading to a pontoon dock. Since I was old enough to swim on my own, I have been jumping off this dock, into the cool steam-fed water of Fosters’ Pond. It is my favorite body of water in the whole world.

Undeniably, the location has something to do with its exalted place in my life. Not only that it is in Dundee, a place I – like my father – have been going for my whole life. But also that as you approach the pond, you walk down from the dirt road that runs past the assortment of vacation homes the Fosters’ built, leading to the main house and bar. Walking down the hill you pass between the vegetable garden on your left and an amazing little field of wild flowers and grasses on your right. In early July, when I was there last with my kids, the air was thick with the sweetness of milkweed flowers. Looking up and to your left as you approach the

pond, a series of hills rise in the distance leading up to the summit of Kearsarge Mountain. So the pond has this focal-point quality: as if everything that makes New Hampshire in the summer dreamy and wonderful if concentrated on this little oasis of bliss.

The water is magical. It has these strange interior pools of warm and cool that no one has ever been able to explain. You’ll dive in, swim a bit, and then feel yourself pass into water that feels ten degrees warmer than the cool liquid you’ve just been floating in. And just as abruptly, as you float on, you slip back in to another pool of coolness. The water is deep and dark – opaque. It has that mystery all good water should have, concealing what lies in the depths, shrouding memories and trout.

And this is strange to say, but I realized it a few weeks ago when I was there. I think the fact that it is man-made has made it dear to me. Or maybe, man and woman made is more accurate. In other words, I sense the pond as a work of art in the natural world, something Max and Elizabeth made together, designed and built, working in consort with nature and not against it. And as such, I feel it as a gift they have given me and my family. I hear them say, sure! Come on up and go for a swim whenever you want! You don’t even have to ask! Here, I hear them say, take this from me and enjoy it.

Strange too is this: the fact that it is not mine makes it my favorite body of water. As such, it is unencumbered by my baggage. I can receive it as a gift. I don’t have to fret about it or take care of it. And it is not a part of the complex story of my own family, in its many peaks, valleys, joys and despairs. Removed from all of my noise, it can remain a placid idyll, a retreat, a blessing.

I’m sure it is the romanticization of my connection to Dundee, to the Fosters and to my own sprawling extended family. All that is good and creative and uncomplicated about us is represented by this little dark glass of fresh water. And don’t we all need places like this? Places that make it easy to believe that we really are noble, loving and brave. Places that affirm our deserving of an idyll, places that say it’s okay, relax, the water will support you, field surround you and the mountains will be here forever. That’s my son Griffen, about to dive in.

My Favorite Body Of Water, originally published  Saturday, July 17, 2010