Opening Up by Barbara Ross

Hi all. Barb here. I am in Book Jail. Book Jail is the place where writers must go when they have an imminent deadline (mine is June 1) and they have been bad, procrastinaty writers and are behind. Book Jail is a terrible place, where the writer is forced to feel sorry for herself and ask whiny questions like, “Why can everbody go out to dinner except me?” “Why can everybody go to the movies except me?” and, increasingly, as the weather improves, “Why is everybody outside except me?”

So, long story short, I’m rerunning a blog post past about the many rituals of opening up our Maine house every year. Enjoy.

For me, one of the joys that comes with seasonal home ownership is opening the house in the spring and then closing it again in the late fall. These mirror-image rituals mark the passage of the seasons and I find great comfort in their familiarity.

The Plumber: A few weeks before we plan to return, our first call is to Bill, our plumber. “This is Bill the plumber,” his answering machine says. “I’m not taking any new customers.” This has been Bill’s standard greeting for as long as anyone can remember. Non-New Englanders might find it a little abrupt or discouraging. Or, they might think it crazy to turn down potentially lucrative new business before you’ve even heard what it is. But this is just the Maine way. Take as much work as you can do well, leave the rest for others, and don’t pussyfoot around about it.

Fortunately, we are not new customers. In fact, Bill is the only person on the planet who knows his way around our ancient plumbing system, so I forge on. I tell him the date we plan to come up and ask him to coordinate with the town to get our water back on. The first indication I’ll get that the work has been done will be a bill from the town followed, a couple of weeks later, by an invoice from Bill. During this entire exchange we will never have spoken. It’s not that we don’t know Bill. Over the summer something is bound to require his attention (see ancient plumbing above), but our opening up ritual requires no live conversation between us.

The Cable Company: The next call is to the company that supplies our TV/internet/phones asking that we be taken off suspend and service restored. To accomplish this, I must imitate an 80+ year-old woman and keep my mother-in-law’s social security number at the ready so I can prove I am actually her. When we bought the house from my mother-in-law, we naturally took over payment of the utilities. Things went along fine when our cable was supplied by Adelphia, but then Time Warner bought them and had grave, grave misgivings about my husband or me making changes to the service.

“But we pay the bills,” my husband objected. “Oh, we let anyone pay the bills,” the customer service lady cheerfully responded. “You just can’t change the service.” Our choices, she told us, were to pay stiff fees both to close down my mother-in-law’s service and to initiate our own (despite the fact that no one at the cable company would have to leave their offices to accomplish this) or to drive to Rockland or Augusta, each more than an hour away, and present our drivers’ licenses to prove who we are. She never could explain how proving who we are would allow them switch the service away from my mother-in-law, so wary of a long drive with no results, we instead resort to subterfuge. I suspect I sound more like someone in a Monty Python skit than an actual eighty-year-old, but whatever makes Time Warner comfortable.

Me at the wedding

Three Inspections: So all is ready and we’re actually coming up. This year we attended a beautiful wedding in Portland on Saturday and stayed overnight at the home of fellow Maine Crime Writer Lea Wait and her husband Bob on Sunday. We talked for hours about writing, art, politics, old houses and Maine. It was such a great time. Then on Monday, we jumped into our car, drove to our house and began our ritual three inspections. The House, The Garden and The Town: What survived and what did not over the winter? Honestly, we are as disappointed when a favorite breakfast place doesn’t make it through winter as we are when we find our back steps didn’t, either.

Settling In: Putting out the porch furniture, stocking the refrigerator and cupboards, opening the shades, airing out the rooms.

Meeting with Stan: After we list the repairs needed, we meet with “our guy.” This is the guy every seasonal resident needs to hook them up with all the other guys in the area who fix stuff. Our guy happens to be a Stan. We know he’ll tell everyone we’re helpless as kittens but we don’t interfere too much and pay on time, so that’s fine with us. Stan has a list of his own of things we must do, and painting is always on it. Owning a wooden house by the water is a bit like owning the Golden Gate Bridge. Some part of it is always being painted. This year we’re lucky, it’s just the porch steps.

Living Life: Writing in the alcove with a view of the harbor, barbecuing dinner, waiting for our son and daughter-in-law to arrive for the long weekend.

It’s great to be back.

The view as I’m typing this post.

About Barbara Ross

Barbara Ross is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries. Her books have been nominated for multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and have won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Portland, Maine. Readers can visit her website at
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9 Responses to Opening Up by Barbara Ross

  1. Interesting, Barb! I’ll have to do a post about opening up our camp as it is somewhat less civilized. Yes, I open windows and stock the cabinets, but first we have to clean up mouse droppings and spider webs, wade into the freezing water to reconnect our plumbing, and then attempt to figure out exactly what teen behavior transpired there over the winter…

    • Barb Ross says:

      That sounds like opening our former cottage in Marlboro, MA. Everything (and I mean everything) had to be stored in giant totes over the winter because of the mice and we also had “teen activity” including one teen who very memorably told the neighbors she was our niece. The neighbors called us, we had a long, agonizing conversation about ratting our niece out to her parents, decided we had to do it, called them and found out our actual niece was home in bed. Teenage girl at cabin was a total stranger. Sorta like Golidlocks, but a lot messier.

  2. Lea Wait says:

    Welcome back! (again!) Barb (and Bill!) I’m very impressed you were writing two days after arrival … seems to me it took my family longer to get organized when we went through such rituals. In the days when my grandparents closed and opened the house they actually closed and then opened the shutters …adding a good several days and a long ladder to the process. After we added storm windows (in the 1970s) we trusted to that heavier glass, and left the shutters open. And there were always the years when we’d had winter company. Luckily, Vicki, never teenagers. But birds, mice, bats, chipmunks, squirrels … who’d made their way in and not out again, and taken liberties while they’d been reisdents. Not to speak, of course, of the spiders and flies. And, oh, yes. The snakes who loved our barn. In those days we had barn swallows. But the opening and closing of a house is ritualistic. Thanks for reminding us. And – we’re glad to have you back! (P.S. Central Maine Power is still issuing bills in my father’s name, although he hasn’t been in this house in over 25 years, and sends the bills to a street and town the post office stopped recognizing years before that. I’ve given up trying to change it all. The lights are on. That’s the bottom line.)

    • Barb Ross says:

      Lea–We’ve definitely had rodent friends over the winter, including the squirrel who quite memorably threw every one of my mother-in-laws knick-knacks off the bureau in the guest room, smashing them all to pieces. We still leave all the interior doors closed on the theory that it’s better to confine any damage to one room.

      The pest guy has been here and reports minimal mouse activity over the winter and Bill the plumber just left, hoping the compound he put on the pipe will fix the leak rather than having to replace it. Since we’ve just had $$$ plumbing issues at our winter home, we’re hoping so as well.

      It’s a process. A ritual and a process.

  3. Brenda Buchanan says:

    Welcome home, Barb and family Welcome home to Maine.

    Brenda B.

  4. Heather Carito says:

    I’m just back from a long weekend (you can do 5 days when you’re unemployed) in Orleans. Holly had the brilliant idea of a family reunion work weekend; I think it was the 1st time we have both been there with all 5 of the offspring. We painted, pruned, planted, washed windows, scrubbed the deck, cleaned a gutter, removed mouse carcasses in various stages of decay and battled bees & spiders. But cleaning under the sink, the apparent litter box for all the mice, will have to wait for another visit.

  5. Kate Flora says:

    Soon you will be out of jail. I am about to be in jail.

    Where would we be without those faithful. if crusty, retainers who keep our houses alive?

    I taken some comfort that when I lift my head to imaine the next scene, I can look out at the coast of Maine.

  6. Mark says:

    I support book jail for authors I enjoy! 🙂

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