Over the twenty-three years I’ve lived in Maine, I’ve perfected the hosting of summer company into an art form, turning a chore into a relaxed, fun time for everyone, including myself. Just when I thought I’d reached the peak for these home-based vacations, my cousin, Donna came to stay, bringing the meaning of “R & R” to new heights.

You know the expression “two peas in a pod.” That perfectly describes Donna and me, even though we have spent only a handful of days together over the past 30 years. What initially bonds us are our childhood memories, our closeness in age and the fact that our mothers are sisters. “Back in the day,” our two families lived a hop, skip and a jump from each other so we spent many idyllic times together before graduating from high school and then, sadly, totally losing touch.

In the end, it was my dying father who brought us to the close connection we now share. As my family and I spent his final week with him this past winter, Donna felt pulled to join us in our vigil. She came to help us shoulder the heavy burden, and managed not only to keep us centered and brave, but also brought us calmness, even times of joy. She sacrificed a week out of her life to meet us right where we were, no matter what emotion we were experiencing. We referred to her as our “glue stick,” “our angel.” For the rest of my life I will always call her “my Donna.”

The week at the cottage with Dad was heart-wrenching, but sweet with purpose. I now have this cousin, this close friend, this shared experience. Six weeks after Dad died, Donna and I met in Massachusetts, her driving east, me driving west, meeting in the middle. Two months later, Donna came to Maine.

Because I wanted her to do whatever she pleased, I told her upon arrival, “This week is all about you.” Early on, I realized my cousin had other ideas; she made the week all about us. The weather wasn’t especially cooperative, but not a day went by that I didn’t feel warmed by Donna’s positive presence, her generous spirit and her infectious laughter.

Even though I worked for part of her visit, I felt more relaxed and fulfilled than I have in ages, bringing to mind the Italian expression, “dolce far niente,” meaning “sweet to do nothing.” We had times like that, and I must say we did it very well. Whether we were in our robes until mid-morning, watching favorite videos or Dr. Phil and Oprah, drinking tea and knitting our way on toward the midnight hour, we talked. We were always talking, covering the past 30 years and then some, discovering we had nearly parallel lives. We shared our experiences, both joyful and heartbreaking, recognizing how precious it all was. We laughed uncontrollably and kept the tissues nearby at all times for our tears.

Shopping and sharing

We prepared fresh seafood and salad suppers in my kitchen, drank pots of coffee, dined in area restaurants, shopped in Freeport and Boothbay Harbor, walked Popham Beach, drove to Bailey Island and spent time with each of my four daughters.

The morning Donna departed, I wandered around the house, feeling very sad. On my unmade bed, I found a gift bag holding a glass hummingbird feeder, along with a card filled with her handwriting, so much like my own.

She wrote, “This time together has been so special and I’ll remember it always. I felt so loved and cared for. I’m also feeling sad because it’s time to leave. It helps to remind myself that the sadness is just the other side of the same coin. Thank you so much for all your loving care.”

The thing is, I’m the one who should be thanking my dear cousin for taking care of me, and for giving me this early summer vacation that has so filled my heart.

Karen Carlton is a freelance writer living in West Bath, who is a regular contributor to this column. She can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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