"My mother first saw Maine in National Geographic," says Clemmie Bernet, "and something about it just grabbed her." Her mom tucked the article away, and several years later, she and her husband drove their five children from Texas to Maine's coast for the summer. They made that trip repeatedly. "As we got older," Clemmie says with a smile, "they somehow got it in their heads that Maine was going to keep us together."
Clemmie is backlit by large-paned windows and a coastal fog that hints at burning off later in the morning. Her cottage sits above Five Islands Harbor in midcoast Maine. Outside, lobster boats tug on moorings, the flag above the porch snaps in a breeze, and the air carries the briny smell of a good chowder.
One of the cottages her parents rented was near Southport Island, not far from here. From the island's southern cape, they noticed a rambling building across Sheepscot River. They learned it was an inn for sale. "They didn't have a clue," Clemmie says of her parents as new innkeepers, "but they were sure right about it keeping us together."
Her mother ran the inn from the Fourth of July through Labor Day, while her father, a lawyer, visited from Dallas. Clemmie's childhood sweetheart also visited. "Brant would help at the inn or just follow me around," she says. "It worked, too, because I married him."
All of the siblings worked at The Grey Havens inn as they grew into young adults, at times running the place. During a wedding there, a guest caught the eye of Clemmie's sister Marnie. He was a local lobsterman, and when they married they settled nearby on his family's land. Another sister, Haley, and her husband took over the inn, eventually buying it from her parents.
Each of these sisters, in turn, had large families; Marnie and Michael have six kids; Haley and Bill, five; and Clemmie and Brant, four. Still based in Texas, Clemmie and Brant began to rent cottages so their gang could revel in the abundance of cousins. Then they focused on the tiny yellow cottage hanging out over the harbor. "How could you not notice this place?" Clemmie asks.
Michael, the lobsterman, and his father had noticed it for another reason. The press of summer homes has displaced commercial access to the water, making it hard for fishermen to get to their boats and gear. Five Islands has a commercial wharf, but if things change, Michael wanted to guarantee he could get to the harbor. He and his family tracked down the cottage's owners, who sold it to Clemmie and Brant four summers ago.
"The whole sea side of the house was opened up by the weather," says Brant. "Uninsurable. But in a house this size, nothing is too big a project." The gaping hole on the side was repaired. The toilet under the stairs was replaced by a tiny bath upstairs, and a new beam was added to bear the load. The porch railing needed beefing up for safety. And the rough-framed walls and exposed-joist ceilings required fresh paint.
"Mostly, the place is just small," says Clemmie, "and that takes some getting used to." Still, there's room for Willie the black cat, Ferdy the dog, and a few choice finds from beaches and flea markets. When it isn't mealtime, the corner table gets covered with art projects and books, or a laptop shared by the crew. Outside, the kids comb the shore with their cousins. They pick mussels for Brant to grill, or they jig for mackerel.
Brant and Clemmie try to bring the family back throughout the year. "Maine gets in your blood and there's no shaking it," says Brant. They've spent Christmas, New Year's, and at least one spring break at the cottage so far.
"I get so happy here," Clemmie says, "I never want to leave." From the porch, she watches the kids down by the water. Hendricks Head Lighthouse graces one harbor entrance. The bold ocean rolls through another. Winds carry the throaty sound of lobster boats returning to the wharf. It's a Maine summer as perfect as a memory, all bound by a cottage the color of a faded National Geographic.