A lobsterman, a teacher, and their three children write another chapter in a nearly 300-year-old history on Long Island.
I am on the phone, getting set to describe myself to lobsterman Jonathan Norton. We are meeting tomorrow on Long Island, and I’m thinking he’ll want to know what I look like when he fetches me from the ferry. My go-to joke is forming in my mouth—“I’m middle-aged, tall, with naturally messy hair”—when Jonathan says, “No need. You’ll be the one person I don’t recognize.”
Which makes plenty of sense, given I’m visiting in April, when the year-round population of the small Casco Bay island is (at least as of a recent unofficial count) 197, with Norton’s extended family figuring significantly in the number. Ezekiel Cushing, a relative on Jonathan’s maternal side, bought the three-by-one-mile island in 1732. His family has been on Long Island ever since.
Stepping off the ferry, I guess that Jonathan is the big man with the rangy red-brown beard and blond hair cinched in a loose ponytail. He, his wife Katie, and their three young children seem to live in two eras. At least that is my romantic take on their lives, which appear to offer the pleasures of an earlier, putatively simpler time, even as their weekly family trips to Portland involve the twenty-first century joys of a Hannaford supermarket, drum and piano lessons, bowling, and sushi.
Long Island is home to one store (for basic groceries), lovely beaches, a freshwater marsh, a community center, a small library with an art gallery, and a conversation area, which once held Navy fuel tanks. During World War II and because the island has a deep sound, destroyers refueled here. Although the population balloons to 1,000 in summer, even seasonal visitors are often multi-generational.
“It feels like family everywhere you go,” says Katie. She is one of two teachers at the island’s one-room (well, really two-room) schoolhouse. Two of the 17 children in attendance are her own. Children study on the island until fifth grade, when they commute to Portland for school, even though Long Island is its own town, having seceded from Portland in 1993.
Jonathan and Katie live in a home that his great-grandparents bought in 1930. Built in 1910 by Jonathan’s great-great-uncle, the home was originally two small rooms with a porch downstairs and three small bedrooms upstairs. When the island’s post office burned down, the great-grandparents added a small room that became the island’s temporary post office. Later, the space was converted to a workshop. Today, thanks to a 2010 renovation by Phil Fabiano of Island’s Builder, the former post office is the “rumpus room,” housing toys, a drum set, Jonathan’s great-grandmother’s sewing table, and a keyboard. If you stand at the desk (made by Jonathan’s cousin as a wedding gift for Jonathan and Katie) and look out the window, you see the cove with a wharf built by Jonathan’s great-grandfather. The area is full of mudflats. When Jonathan’s mother’s generation was being born, his great-grandfather wanted his grandchildren to have a sandy beach on which to play, so he brought buckets of sand from Little Chebeague over on a dory. (It has mostly washed away.) Across the cove, you can see Johnson’s Boatyard, which is owned by Steve Johnson, a custom boat builder who is also Jonathan’s uncle. Evidence of Johnson’s handywork is in the boatyard itself, but also by the ferry landing, where Jonathan’s lobster boat, the Isla Dawn, built by Johnson, is moored.
Johnson’s Boatyard is located on a former Navy seaplane ramp, and in a sense, if the Navy had never come to the island, Jonathan might never have been born, for although his mother’s family has been on Long Island for generations, his father’s side arrived in the twentieth century as summer folk. In the early 1960s, Jonathan’s paternal grandparents bought the inexpensive abandoned naval barracks, including a wharf with a large breakwater, gymnasium, and bowling alley. They fixed up a corner of the barracks and summered there, putting on large, popular clambakes in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
The story of how Jonathan and Katie met is somewhat parallel. Katie, whose own family is from the Farmington area, first visited Long Island with a high school friend whose mother was Jonathan’s aunt. Katie and Jonathan dated when they were teenagers then separated for college. Eventually, the two reconnected in a Portland bar where she was playing the fiddle. “We picked it right back up from there,” Jonathan says.
To make their home livable, Phil Fabiano left the old wooden staircase that leads to the upstairs rooms in place, but added a small bathroom on the second floor and a new full bath on the first. He opened up the first floor, removing walls. In addition to the bathroom, the first floor now consists of a dining room/ kitchen, a TV room, and the rumpus room.
Floor-to-ceiling windows and two glass doors offer views of two additional homes on the land (one of which Jonathan’s parents use when they visit the island, another that functions as a studio/workshop). The rumpus room now joins the main floor through French doors. A two-level black granite kitchen island, new flat-panel kitchen cabinets (some of which have been painted with chalkboard paint), and new windows and insulation make the house more functional, brighter, and warmer. As for the furnishings, almost everything was either made by a relative or inherited from a relative. Favorite items include a peach-and-tan Hoosier cabinet, which was built by Katie’s father and has a built-in bread box, shelves, flour storage, and drawers, and a rocking chair that was Jonathan’s great-grandmother’s and in which subsequent generations have rocked their children. When Jonathan’s grandmother insisted Katie have it, she thought with delight, “I’m in! I’m in the family!” She’s in the Norton family, she means, but she might as well mean the family of the island, which includes the children she teaches, their parents, and the returning seasonal visitors, all experiencing a life that feels just outside of time.