Mr. Elof Bernstorff lived for a time at Minturn on Swan’s
By Elof Bernstorff
There’s something about a
Add to this a spark of dry humor and you have Mrs.
Nettie Milan, reputedly the oldest resident of Swan’s
No one knew how many candles to put in Mrs. Milan’s birthday cake. Someone with more temerity than we asked, “How old are you, Nettie?”
“What do you mean, old?” The bright gray-blue eyes snapped behind their glasses, and Nettie’s mouth slanted into a dry smile.
And right she is, for her mind is young and gay.
In this comfortable little sitting-room filled with the aroma of fresh coffee and cake, crowded by momentoes of a full life, we lingered after the others had gone, hoping for a deeper glimpse into the remarkable personality which for years has set the social pace of Swan’s Island.
“How lonely you must have been during your 34 years on Burnt Coat Light!” we said.
“Nonsense!” The frail, long-fingered hands poured two more cups of coffee, “I was never lonely in my life. Too much going on!”
And little by little she took us back through the years, pausing now and then to lose herself in sort of a reverie, her slender figure straight as a young spruce, her expressive hands toying with the silver as if she were laying out the pattern of her life.
At such moments the room seemed filled with the rushing winds of Hockamock Head, surf pounding against the ledges, schooners running aground and men struggling in the breakers.
And all through it we felt the indomitable courage of
Nettie Saunders came from Down East. She was born at Eastport and later her family
As she recalled, the days on Mt. Desert Rock, a faint
shudder trembled through Nettie’s frail body.
One day for instance, she stood on the shore and watched Captain Milan
struggle with death in the boiling water.
C. W. Thurston, an assistant light-keeper, attempted to
Nettie remembers the New Years night the British
schooner Prohibition went aground. “It
was a cold and pleasant night.” She said, “Except for the wind. The Prohibition sailed out of
Her words, terse and factual, nevertheless painted the picture for us, a picture of looming black water swirling into white combs as the tide pushed it over the rocks; of a disabled schooner like a fly caught in syrup, tossed by the heaving sea which lifted her over the ledges; of the dory nosing through the water, its oars dripping silver in the moonlight; of the strong women watching from the kerosene lit tower while their men took the shivering crew off the rocky shelterless island; of dry clothing and hot coffee waiting in the warm kitchen below.
Nettie Milan remembers, too, the night the Rockland Steamer caught fire at the steamboat wharf. The slanting smile came out again as she said, “The crew was up to the Odd Fellows Hall. Everyone left the dance, and the boys all in their Sunday clothes, hauled her off while she was burning.” Then soberly, “She dies right there in the harbor.”
Yet setting there behind her coffee table, the deep waves of her grey hair caught neatly in a net, her skin as clear as it must have been in her youth, this remarkable woman showed no sign of the austerity of her life. Others tell us she has the happy faculty of laughing at her own mistakes and misadventures. Even after her husband’s death and losing the big house he built for her, she was happy to move into the snug little house near the harbor where you can sit at her window with Orin’s ancient binoculars.
On parting, Nettie Milan handed us her scrapbook. “If you find any way of figuring out how old I am,” she said, her mouth taking that downward quirk, “I’ll thank you to keep it to yourself!”
book, yellow and cracking with age, goes back more than 50 years. All dates were carefully deleted. But clearly through its pages walks the
straight little figure of a
And then we remembered that Nettie Milan who had been a newspaper correspondent for Swan‘s Island at one time, president of the Ladies Aid for 35 years, and avidly listened to world news on her radio when we left, had never as much as mentioned a neighbor by name. She told us she detests gossip.
“There’s so much good in the worst of us,” she quoted, “and so much bad in the best of us, that it behooves none of us to speak ill of the rest of us!”