I never meant to buy a second home. I certainly never intended to buy one on an island a full 11-hour drive away from my house in Massachusetts.
By that time I’d been coming to Prince Edward Island, Canada, for a decade, ever since I was an impoverished single mom looking for a cheap place to bring my kids on vacation. I couldn’t afford Cape Cod, or even New Hampshire. Prince Edward Island was cheap because it was far, though it didn’t really sink in just how far it was until I actually made my first trip here.
To get to PEI from Massachusetts, you basically drive through so many miles of pine trees in Maine that the state motto should be “Maine: The Infinite State.” Then you drive even more miles through New Brunswick’s rolling hills and Bay of Fundy Views, until finally crossing the architectural feat that is the Confederation Bridge across the Northumberland Strait and landing on an island of red cliffs and lighthouses and lobster suppers. (The first time I came here, the bridge wasn’t built yet, so there was the added excitement of trying to make the ferry and missing it, then having to wait another hour with cranky kids in the car.)
That first trip to PEI was with my friend Emily and her children. We were both divorced and struggling, and we rented a rent-a-junk sort of van that garage bands use to move their equipment, only instead of equipment, we had four kids in the back under age 10. Having this brood basically required us to keep tossing juice boxes and crackers into the back of the rattling van during our odyssey, and stopping by the side of the road more times that we could count to let them pee, since apparently they couldn’t all pee at the same time at gas stations, as requested, which led to Emily and me to imagine one or more of them being gored by moose or eaten by bears. Fewer children would be easier, but still.
Anyway, we landed on the island around midnight. This was back in the days before GPS, so we had to navigate using a map and a flashlight (because the interior van lights were busted) to our destination. The last part of the drive involved a bumpy dirt road which fired up my fantasy life again, only this time I envisioned a serial killer waiting for us in our rental cottage, but I was too tired to care at that point. We managed to make the key work in the lock and let ourselves inside, where we all fell into beds without even undressing.
In the morning, I woke to the sound of fiddle music. I sat up and pulled the curtains, and realized our serial killer’s cottage was actually on a sparkling blue bay lined with great blue herons and tall lupines in bright Disney colors. The fiddle music was coming from across the water, where I could see a church spire, tall and white but spiraled in red like a barber shop pole.
I was instantly besotted with the island, and have been coming for over 20 years now.
After I’d successfully introduced PEI to my second husband, Dan, the first house we bought on PEI was a tiny box, a summer cabin with a separate shower room created from an old ice cream stand. Some years later, Dan and I were staying at a friend’s house on the east end of the island when we happened to run out of milk. (We still had kids in tow, though only two at this point, and already teenagers.) We left them sleeping and drove a few miles to the only store in the area.
“Let’s take a different way back,” I suggested.
It was then, on one of those narrow roads that bisects the island south to north, that I saw it: a field of bright yellow mustard, planted between potato crops, and an empty house across the street.
“That’s my house! Stop the car!” I yelled.
“We have to call,” I said, pointing to the real estate sign.
My husband sighed.
In the U.S., if you call an agent about a house, you’ll have a meeting in ten minutes. But, because this was PEI on a Sunday, nobody was in a hurry. “I’ve got the family here and we’re about to go to the beach,” the agent explained, not at all apologetically.
The house was abandoned, clearly—some of the windows were boarded up. “How much is it? And how many bedrooms and bathrooms?” I asked, pressing my face to the windows. There were the ubiquitous lace curtains, unfortunately, and I couldn’t see a thing.
“Five bedrooms, one and a half baths.”
“I’ll buy it,” I said, ignoring the sound of my husband choking behind me.
“You’ll what?” the agent asked.
“I’ll buy it.” I made an offer. “See if the seller will accept that.”
“Don’t you want to see the house first?”
“I can’t. We have to drive back to the U.S. tomorrow. I’ll see it during the inspection,” I said, and gave him my phone number and address.
“It’s ours,” I said, turning back to my husband. “We found our house!”
“It could be a nightmare inside,” he warned. “Don’t get your hopes up.”
“It could be,” I agreed, but I was sure this was it…
(Stay Tuned for Part II: What We Find When We Step Inside, Including Literature about the End of the World.)