Some caretakers reported glitches, from an exorbitant heating bill in an Italian farmhouse to finding that their nearest neighbor was a kennel of barking dogs. In some cases the homeowner's ad was not quite representative of the assignment. A "guy Friday" posting for a Caribbean compound lured retirees Pat and Larry Hilliard from their home in Falls Church, Virginia, to the tiny Netherlands Antilles island of Saba. According to the homeowner, he needed only "a few hours' help Monday-Friday, gardening and odds and ends." Before leaving, the Hilliards, both in their late 50s, speculated with great excitement about their Saban routine. "We'll grow a garden, do a lot of walking and hiking, try out all the restaurants, read," Larry wrote in their newsletter, The Saban Sun.
Not quite. What sounded like paradise turned out to be a sort of tropical work camp. During the several weeks the homeowner was present, he set an arduous schedule. The Hilliards mulched and mowed more than two acres of gardens, watered the owner's private jungle in a drought, and cleared vegetation during unexpected torrential rains. In the absence of car rentals, grocery shopping in the village of Windwardside meant trekking on foot over mountainous terrain. By the end of their first month, Larry had lost 13 pounds.
The simply furnished one-bedroom, one-bath cottage was less luxurious than the Hilliards' condo, but its view was of the spectacular Mount Scenery range. The island's beauty notwithstanding, the Hilliards left in July, well ahead of the year commitment requested by the owner. "I guess our 'surprise' had more to do with our own expectations and preconceived notions," Larry readily admits. Would they caretake again? "Definitely," says Pat. "But I'd be sure to ask how much and what type of heavy manual labor is involved."
Above all, it takes adaptability and resourcefulness to make caretaking work. "You have to be able to think creatively," says Harry Denkers, 55, whose family weathered rugged living on an island off the coast of Maine. When they first set foot on Seguin Island, the Denkerses marveled at the scent of bay leaves—and life's unexpected turns. Land-bound Canadians, they would be caretaking a lighthouse on this rocky island three miles from the shore.
The Denkerses had been among hundreds of applicants for the summer position that was advertised in The Caretaker Gazette. They were the first family with young children chosen by the Friends of Seguin Island, which manages the isle. In summer 1996 Lawrene, now 44; Harry; and their two preteen daughters honed skills they had developed on their Ontario farm. They replaced shingles, repaired walkways, laid down flooring, and maintained the 64 wild acres that are home to seals, sea birds, and a 19th-century lighthouse. They also greeted thousands of visitors to the island.
The Friends of Seguin Island clearly detailed the caretakers' duties. "There were no surprises as to our responsibilities, only the surprising beauty of the place and how attached to it we became," Lawrene says. For three months the family lived in the spartan caretaker's quarters that adjoin the small museum. Once a week a boat took them to the mainland for provisions. They were enchanted by the remote beauty and became lifelong friends of mainland residents.
For one week every summer since then, the family returns to Seguin Island to prepare the grounds for its new caretakers. There is always winter's damage to undo: shingling, painting, checking for water-line leaks, fixing the overworked sump pump, and rebuilding outdoor stairways.