My friend PJ lives at Kennebunk Beach in a grey-shingled seaside cottage hemmed by a white picket fence and lush rosa rugosa. From the broad porch of this historic home, built in 1888 as a wedding present for the youngest daughter of Captain Nathanial Lord, PJ hears children squealing with delight as they dart into the refreshing waves that lap Mothers Beach just across the road. 

On many afternoons at 4, PJ likes to pour San Pellegrino Sparkling Pompelmo into an ice-filled glass, then settle into her favorite armchair to watch “Judge Judy.” Which is exactly what she was doing last week when a raging thunderstorm hit coastal Maine and knocked out electrical power throughout the area.

“The house was so quiet,” she remembers, until she started hearing occasional “chirps.”  As she tracked down the source of the chirps, she realized all five smoke detectors in the house were working desperately to come back to life. “They’re hard-wired,” she explained, “so if one goes off, or makes a noise, they all do.” 


Within an hour, PJ’s house resounded like a meadow full of crickets. CHIRP here! CHIRP there! CHIRPS everywhere! Then, every smoke detector in the three-story house burst into full soprano. As the alarms reverberated through her home, PJ realized it was time to alert the fire department.


“I went out to the porch and called the non-emergency number of the fire department and calmly told them I had a little problem,” PJ says. She answered a quick barrage of questions: Where are you now? is anyone in the house? How many floors?

She’d hardly put the cell phone back in her pocket when she heard sirens wailing as the big hook and ladder truck zoomed down Sea Road. Coming from the opposite direction along the beach was the Fire Chief in his red and white suburban with lights flashing. Trailing behind him was an ambulance with a crew of EMTs. 

“There’s no fire,” PJ assured the fireman who raced up her sidewalk wielding an axe.  “Please stay outside and I’ll check,” he said. Two minutes later he confirmed the situation: no fire. But every alarm was now hitting High C. Steadily.


“Come with me and I’ll show you something,” he said. Together they went downstairs to the basement and stood in front of the circuit box. “Watch this,” he said, clicking a switch which deactivated the alarms. Immediately, blissful silence. The fireman then reached up and pulled the nearby smoke detector off the wall. 

There, in the innards of the device, blissfully spinning a gossamer web around the “beep thing” (as PJ calls it) was an itsy-bitsy spider. “The smoke detector activates when there’s motion,” the fireman said.

PJ was relieved but chagrined. “I work hard to keep my house neat and tidy,” she says. “This has to be the ONLY cobweb in the entire place!”

Before Kennebunk’s Finest left the scene, PJ asked if she could take the fireman’s photo.“Sure,” he said, “we love photo-ops! But remember — clean your smoke detectors once a year and replace them every 10 years.”

A lesson for all of us, courtesy of an itsy-bitsy spider.