Friday, October 1, 2010

When Home is... a Guestbook

In my experience guestbooks left inside holiday houses, B&Bs and guesthouses have held little appeal. The majority only leave enough space for one sentence, which for most entries is usually about the weather. You glean little information about the people who had visited before you, what their lives are like and what brought them to the same holiday house you happen to have chosen.

So, when we opened the front door of a cute, wooden two-bedroom cottage in the tiny seaside town of Jenner, Northern California last year and I noticed the guestbook on the kitchen table I gave it little thought.

Instead we unloaded the bags and took the kids down to the beach. The coastline had already captured my imagination: rough seas, rocky cliffs, grey sand and driftwood. Not far away, around the next headland in fact, was Bodega Bay where Hitchcock filmed The Birds. Little has changed; the seagulls are still the size of rabbits and the coastline is both haunting and romantic. I didn’t want to leave.

We ate dinner in a little seafood restaurant that evening with multi-paned windows overlooking the ocean. We could hear the wind howl through the door cracks and see the swell of the sea. It looked like rain so we huddled together and ran up the hill back to our cottage, quite early. All I needed now was the ghost of the sea captain from The Ghost and Mrs Muir to appear and my love affair with this landscape would be complete.

After the kids were in bed, we settled on the sofa and poured another glass of wine. I spied the guestbook again and decided to flip through while waiting for Stuart to find the corkscrew.

Here it was; the guestbook I’d been waiting for all my life. Entries that went on for 10 pages: the soldier back from fighting in Iraq who couldn’t get over the quietness here, who could still hear gunfire and bombs in his head but who found the beach and the ocean healing; the couple who had come to try and save their marriage, who had managed to find the time and space in this little cottage to actually see each other properly for the first time in years; or the man who brought his girlfriend here to cook her a romantic dinner of pasta and strawberries and chocolate and who joyfully left at the end of the weekend with a fiancĂ©e.

Then there was the family with teenage children and an old Labrador who had been holidaying here for years and had recently discovered their beloved dog was dying of cancer. This weekend was the last holiday for this old dog and the family delighted in watching him run along the beach he had always loved and playing in the long grasses surrounding the cottage.

But I think the story that caught me the most, the one I kept rereading throughout our stay, was written by a woman on her honeymoon. Only a couple of days before, she and her now-husband ‘got all dressed-up in new party clothes’. With the kids they ran down to the San Francisco registry office, had lunch at a very ‘swanky’ restaurant with their families and close friends, all stayed the night at ‘an even swankier’ hotel before piling the kids and dog into the car and driving to this little cottage.

Their days had been spent relaxing and enjoying becoming a family: ‘all of us here together, my wonderful new husband, his two young sons, my little girl, and the new baby we recently discovered has started growing inside me.’

It was the ‘new’ baby, this symbol of lifelong love and hope that still has me thinking of this family and that guestbook.

A family I have never seen and never will see but a family who lived in the same space we did for a short while during a momentous time in their lives; a family who by now will have grown to six with a baby who today must be a preschooler.

A family I will always think about whenever I think of our time in that tiny Californian town.


Anonymous said...

wow, I loved reading this! I was also never a fan of the guestbook, but it sounds like that one was special. Did you leave something in the guestbook too? Maybe someone on the other side of the world is also contemplating what became of your family?!
manda xx
ps seagulls the size of rabbits really gives me the creeps!

Germaine Leece said...

I spent the whole time we were there composing my 'story' for the guestbook and as we drove away, I realised I'd forgotten to write it! So no, there is no other family at Jenner Inn thinking of us on the other side of the world! It's like we were never there...

And yes, the seagulls were quite confronting! gx


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