The Guide to the Local Way of Life on Cape Ann & Boston’s North Shore

The Journey Home

The Journey Home

A couple enlists a long-time friend to bring a new soul to the historic Rockport Lodge. 

Designer Amy Meier’s custom coffee table anchors the O’Brien family’s living room. (Photograph by Michael J. Lee)


What does it mean to come back to the place you always wanted to leave?

Growing up on Cape Ann, I wanted nothing more than to get away. My mother, originally from New York, retained an out-of-towner’s sense of wonder and did her best to instill the same in us. But it’s hard to see the beauty one is raised with. The sound of the waves functioned similarly to the tick-tocking of the grandfather clock by our father’s reading chair. Both rhythms were so omnipresent that we couldn’t quite tell if we could hear them or not. It took effort on the natural world’s part to get our attention (the Perfect Storm did it, dumping boulders halfway up our lawn). 

My older sister discovered the way out first. She learned to read, and set to work deciphering the exit signs on Route 128, which whipped past our station wagon’s window like green schoolhouse slates (soundtrack: Cats).

Reading became a way out for me, too; when our mother turned us outside to play, I’d bring a book and read it while walking. I’d trip on tree roots and bump into hedges. There were whole worlds opening up on the page, at the end of my nose, but the price of entry into them was a certain level of cluelessness about the world I lived in.   

Later, as teenagers, we would drive from beach to beach, sometimes getting out, but often just tracing the coastline as animals might the edge of their cage, coming close to taking the out-of-town exit on the second rotary, but usually chickening out and choosing Friendly’s instead, where we would place the most sophisticated order we could muster: a large carafe of coffee and a Vienna Mocha Chunk sundae. Vienna sounded far enough away.

.  .  .  .  .


The den features blue paneling and grasscloth walls, and another custom-designed coffee table by Meier. (Photographs by Michael J. Lee)


I did make it out, first to college, and then, Boston, for a job in advertising. The agency, which was situated on a drydock in the then-sparsely inhabited Seaport District, had a familiar end-of-the-world vibe. My client, Amy Meier, invited me to her apartment for a cocktail party. 

Amy’s exacting standards for design were matched only by her enthusiasm for life. I would later come to associate her positivity with her Chicago roots, but before I knew her well I was often befuddled by it. For instance, I went to her party because she was my client, but when she opened the door she seemed genuinely enthused to see me, so much so I wondered if a more exciting guest might be on my heels. 

Abby Cahill O’Brien (left) and designer Amy Meier.

Abby Cahill O’Brien (left) and designer Amy Meier.

From that night on we were friends and eventually roommates. We shared a garden level apartment on Beacon Hill. I painted my bedroom an unfortunate shade of gray that was putty-ish sometimes and other times purple. The color wasn’t what I’d had in mind, but I stuck my books on the deep windowsills and called it a day. Meanwhile, Amy brought a dining table and couch and serving platters, and everything that made the apartment a home. 

A few years later our careers took us to New York. More advertising for me, and a design degree at Parsons for Amy. In New York I fell in love and married a man who already had a soft spot for Rockport. When the recession hit in 2008, our faraway inclination toward moving back to Cape Ann became an urgent need.

I had quit advertising and started inching toward a life of writing. We were thinking about babies. The thought of moving back to Cape Ann came with some trepidation — goodbye, urban anonymity — but I had seen enough of the world to crave home again. Greg found the listing for the Rockport Lodge. We were immediately taken with the idea of settling there, partly because the world was fraying and we wanted some measure of stability, and partly because of the house’s history. 

Built in the late eighteenth century, the Lodge was originally a farmhouse owned by the Smith family. In 1907 the Massachusetts Association of Women Workers bought it and transformed it into a subsidized vacation destination for female laborers. Thousands of women had stayed here over the years, seeking brief respites from their work. That a great deal had happened here made the move home less final in a way; we were only the most recent custodians of a well-used house that would, we hoped, outlive us. We might be here for the balance of our adult lives, but in the end, like the vacationing women, we were just passing through.

.  .  .  .  .


The sitting room (top and above right), originally two rooms, features cozy window seats, a stenciled floor, and an Eero Saarinen Tulip Table. The exterior (above left) remains mostly unchanged from the original building. (Photographs by Michael J. Lee)


We moved from a 600-square foot studio in New York to the eight-bedroom home. For a little while we trailed each other from room to room out of habit. A developer had opened its floor plan and painted everything white. It was habitable but not necessarily hospitable. 

Rambling around the house, Greg and I talked about everything that needed doing. I bought more grey paint, but this time all the swatches appeared blue when I got them home. There was a fair amount of self-applied pressure to get it right, in part out of a desire to honor the house, and in part because we knew this was where we would be for many years; we wanted to furnish it in a way we could grow into. We knew what we wanted to feel in the house — a welcoming sense of comfort and ease, a home filled with places to connect and escape, to retreat and to socialize — but we didn’t know how to get there. 


The home office (above), which abuts the dining room (below), features a glass desktop resting on chrome sawhorses. (Photographs by Michael J. Lee)


Luckily, Amy knew just how to do it. She lived in Southern California by then and had founded an interior design firm. My friend, who used to be my client, took me on as hers. By some combination of incessant phone calls, Pinterest boards, and patience, she guided us through the design process. Cape Ann is still both fundamental and mysterious to me, but Amy helped me figure out how to live here. Life on the page still feels elemental, as if I am most alive when engaged in it, but now I have a physical refuge, too, a home that feels like my own skin. 

Alice Munro writes that a story is more like a house than a road. “You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time.” 


The guest room features a unique striped ceiling. (Photograph by Michael J. Lee)


If stories can be like houses, houses can be like stories. This one contained multitudes long before I showed up with my rowdy bunch of co-authors: Greg, two babies, and Amy. 

Everyday in this house my family grows into versions of themselves I haven’t seen before. My sense of Cape Ann is changed for having lived in it. I am trying to write good stories in it, and am guaranteed nothing but the most satisfying and addictive brand of failure. Someday our kids will feel that same pull toward the world I felt as a child, an insatiable thirst for somewhere — anywhere — else. When they come back, I’ll be here, wandering around the house that brought me home. 

Michael J. Lee is a freelance photographer in Boston. Interior designer Amy Meier is based in Southern California.

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