How to bake a blueberry cake like Gramma Wight’s

   blueberry cake 2020

Start with the berries. Go out the front door. (At camp, that’s the door on the lake side; the door toward the road is the back door.) Go down to the edge of the lake and pick two cups of berries from the clump of wild high-bush blueberries that has (without fuss or fertilizer, attention or interference) been producing berries for pancakes, muffins, and cakes for more than half a century.

If you tie a cut-down plastic milk jug around your waist with a piece of clothesline rope, you’ll be able to use both hands to pick; this is helpful.

Blueberries on bushGo barefoot, and wear shorts, because to pick the ones on the lake side of the bush you have to stand in the water.  (Gramma Wight did not wear shorts. She wore skirts. I do not wear skirts at camp—or anywhere else, for that matter, if I can help it.)

The best time to go is early in the morning, because if you get there before the sun burns off the dew, there will be fairy dresses to admire, stretched between the branches of the bushes and spread out on the little patch of grass behind them.

Use Marjorie Standish’s Melt-In-Your-Mouth Blueberry Cake recipe, from her first cookbook, Cooking Down East. Marjorie says this is “undoubtedly the most popular recipe ever used in my column.” There is good reason for that. 

Marjorie was a great cook, a true professional. She wrote a recipe column for the Maine Sunday Telegram for many years, and her cookbooks are classics. People call her “Maine’s Julia Child.” There’s no real reason to make any changes to her recipe at all, but I modify it with the addition of a crumb topping, because who doesn’t like a nice crumb topping?

You’ll need: two eggs, separated; a half-cup of shortening (next time I might experiment with using butter instead, but today I went with Marjorie’s recommendation and used Crisco); a cup of sugar; a teaspoon of real vanilla; a cup and a half of flour; a teaspoon of baking powder (I like Rumford brand because it’s aluminum-free and doesn’t give your baked goods a weird, metallic aftertaste); a quarter of a teaspoon of salt; a third of a cup of milk; and two cups of blueberries. (Marjorie’s recipe actually only calls for a cup and a half, but I like to use two cups if I have them. The cake will come out just fine, not too heavy or soggy, and it will have a lovely amount of blueberry taste in every bite.)

Separate the eggs and beat the whites until stiff. It’s best to use Gramma Wight’s old Pyrex mixing bowl for this; the red one should be the right size.

If you’re a purist, you can use the ancient hand egg-beater that is hanging on the pegboard to the left of the sink. Be sure to clean the cobwebs off it first; it probably hasn’t been used in a while. But it’s okay to use the electric mixer if you’re not feeling energetic. It’s a lot of work to beat egg whites stiff with a rotary egg-beater.

Add some of the sugar from the recipe to the beaten egg whites to keep them stiff, about a quarter of a cup.

Cream the shortening in a bigger bowl; the yellow Pyrex one is perfect. Before you put the shortening in it, turn it over. That “R. Wight” on the bottom, in faded Magic Marker, was put there several decades ago, so that the big yellow bowl would always be sure to come home from potlucks and picnics, after the cole slaw or potato salad or brownie pudding was gone.

Add the sugar, vanilla, and egg yolks and beat until nice and fluffy. It’s best if you’re able to use free-range local eggs, because they have the loveliest dark yellow yolks. My farmer friend tells me it has to do with the higher protein content of their diet, from eating bugs and grubs along with the usual grain. Whatever the reason, using local eggs will give your blueberry cake a nice, rich color.

Sift together your dry ingredients, but first, measure out your blueberries in a two-cup glass measuring cup—the chipped spout won’t matter—and mix just a little of the flour from the recipe with the berries so they won’t settle to the bottom of your cake; a couple of teaspoons should be enough.

If you still have the green Pyrex bowl that originally came with the set, it’s about the right size to sift the dry ingredients into, but if it has disappeared or gotten broken over the years, the stainless steel bowl that fits into the copper-bottomed Revereware saucepan (for use as a double-boiler) will work just fine.

Add your dry ingredients alternately with the milk, mixing with the old wooden spoon—just dig around, and you’ll find it in the drawer with the sharp knives (don’t worry; none of them are actually sharp enough to cut you), the broken vegetable peeler, and that heavy little glass thing nobody wants to throw out because one day someone might figure out what it is.

Gently fold in the beaten egg whites and then, even more gently, the blueberries. You don’t want to crush the berries—Marjorie used a rubber scraper for this step, but you may find that the rubber scraper from the knife drawer has gotten all cracked and crumbly over the winter. If so, don’t worry; just use the wooden spoon. But be gentle!

Spread the batter in a greased 8” x 8” pan. Marjorie says to sprinkle the top lightly with granulated sugar, but I do love a nice crumb topping. So mix half a stick of softened butter with a quarter cup of brown sugar, a half cup of flour, and a half teaspoon of cinnamon. Use a pastry blender—that ancient one with the crazily bent wires that was brought to camp fifty years ago because it “wasn’t good enough for home” will work just fine.

Sprinkle the topping onto the batter and bake it at 350 degrees for 50 minutes, or until it springs back when you press the center.Blueberry cake

Put it on a wire rack on the table to cool while you go to a meeting, or out for a walk, or to the dump and the post office. If you’re lucky, there will be a piece left for you when you get back.

Heart. Soul. Gentle. Kind.

Mark with banjo

Last Saturday, the world lost an extraordinary human being.

Mark Brandhorst was so well loved, and by so many, that it is impossible to imagine him gone, or to believe that his light will not shine on in everyone he ever touched with his grace and kindness.

“A gentle soul.”

“An open heart.”

“The kindest, most gentle person I have ever known.”

“Your heart was home to so many, with always room for one more.”

Heart. Soul. Gentle. Kind. Over and over, his friends and family shared the same words as they tried to convey the depths of their grief and come to grips with their loss.

Mark nurtured his relationships with the same devoted care with which he nurtured his gardens. For many years I knew him only as the stepfather of Tony’s niece and nephew; throughout their lives, he worked in harmony with their mother, Sarah, to provide them with security, stability, compassion, and love.

Although for decades I had known him only slightly—I knew, for instance, a little about his talents and affinity for visual arts, music, and gardening, and that he was something of a rock star in what many would call the “back-to-the-land/crunchy granola community” of western Maine—I am grateful that over the past few years, I had a chance to get to know Mark a bit better.

When I interviewed him as part of a story I was writing for the Bethel Citizen about the Better Late Than Never Band, for whom he played the banjo with enthusiasm, I learned that we had some things in common.

We were both members of the “I wasn’t born in Maine, but I got here as soon as I could” club; both of us arrived in 1976, shortly after high school, and knew we never wanted to leave.

Anyone who knows me knows that my family’s camp on North Pond in Woodstock has been the center of my universe for my entire life. Living at camp all summer, and just three miles away during the rest of the year, has given me the opportunity to come to know “my” pond intimately in every season.

For Mark, Hall’s Pond, as well as nearby Singepole Mountain, were the geographic center of the universe. Prevented from driving by a seizure disorder, he cultivated an intimate acquaintance with the woods and waters near his home.

In social media posts and animated conversation, he shared his keen observation and appreciation of the incremental changes each day brought to the pond and its surroundings.

To be so closely connected to a particular body of water, to be able to be there—on it, in it, beside it—every day, in every season and every kind of weather, was, I think, one of Mark’s greatest joys in life.

Although he didn’t drive, Mark traveled frequently with family and friends. Wherever he went, he shared photos on Facebook that made it clear that what he loved best about traveling was not visiting popular tourist destinations, but exploring, in depth and with great appreciation, whatever the outdoors in that particular corner of the world had to offer.

Over the past couple of years, Mark and I talked now and then about hiking together. He shared trail maps and directions to some of his favorite hiking destinations with me, and always reminded me, “The offer stands to come explore my woods someday.”

And I always thought I would, because I thought there was plenty of time.

I never got to know him as well as I wish I had, but here’s the thing about Mark: you didn’t have to know him well to know everything about him that was important.

He had the eye of an artist, the soul of a gardener, and a heart as big as the wide world he embraced with so much love, compassion, and enthusiasm.

He was kind. He was gentle. He went out of his way to help people.

The world is a better place because Mark was here.

On my mom’s 100th birthday…

My mom, Ruth Elizabeth White Wight, was born on a Friday the 13th, a century ago today.Laura_Ruth_Leon_May_9_1920

She was the eldest of four children born to Leon George and Laura Marcella Trundy White, and the only girl.

Although her parents were living in Bangor, she was born at her grandparents’ home in Searsport. Her mother had gone there to await her arrival, because her father, who worked for the Great Northern Paper Company, spent the work week driving around to remote logging camps to deliver the payroll, coming home on Friday evening and leaving again on Monday morning.

The first of her brothers, Leon Jr. (whom my grandfather called Junior, but everyone else called Shume) was born just 13 months later. Her next brother, Don, arrived three and a half years after that, and Gib was born five years after Don, nearly ten years after my mother.

From what Mom could piece together about a subject that was only ever discussed in whispers, my grandmother suffered from “female trouble” and never fully recovered after delivering her last child. Seven months later, she ended up in the hospital. After a few days, she seemed to be improving, and my mother, as the oldest, was allowed a short visit.

My grandmother was sitting up in a chair, and she told my mom that she was much better and might be able to get up and walk a bit by the next day, and to come home soon after that.

She said, “Ruthie, your hair’s hanging in your eyes!” and, taking a bobby pin from her own hair, she pinned up the errant strands of my ten-year-old mother’s unruly black hair.

The next day, my grandmother suffered a sudden hemorrhage and died.

“I kept that bobby pin for years,” my mother told me, not long before her own death. In fact, she said, it had been in her jewelry box for seven decades, disappearing, somehow, only recently.

(When, later, my sister and I were sorting through her clothing and jewelry, we ran across several bobby pins, caught in the crevices of drawers or tangled in the chains of necklaces. With each one we found, I caught my breath, wondering…but they all looked the same, and who could tell?)

White family Leon & 4 kidsThus, at the age of ten, my mother became a caretaker, and a stoic. She helped with her younger brothers, changed the baby’s diapers, and endured a series of live-in housekeepers who were paid to keep the laundry done and the floors clean and the children fed, but not to nurture them, listen to them, or love them.

My mom buckled down, excelled in school, and took on far more responsibility than she should have had to. She stayed out of trouble and never rebelled.

Well, almost never. As a teenager, late at night she would sometimes climb quietly out of her bedroom window on the second floor of the square yellow house on Boutelle Road, use the drain pipe to shinny down from the porch roof, and ride her bicycle up and down the streets of Bangor.

She didn’t join up with other rule-breakers, or drink, smoke, or shoplift. She just rode her bike, alone, savoring a small taste of freedom.

She came close to being found out only once, after she rode through a patch of fresh tar, and the housekeeper nearly caught her scrubbing it out of her clothes in the bathtub.

In 1937, at 17, she graduated as the valedictorian of her high school class and headed to the University of Maine to major in English. She expected to have to live at home and commute, but when she was awarded a scholarship that covered her tuition, her father told her she could live on campus instead.

“I felt like I had been set free,” she told me.

She graduated, went to Hartford, Connecticut to work for the Aetna Life Insurance Company, met my father, Mither_4_kidsmarried, and had four kids in six years. She grew and canned vegetables, baked cakes, pies, and cookies, sewed clothes and curtains and quilts, and knit hundreds of pairs of mittens (literally, hundreds—maybe even thousands).

Sixteen years after they were married, when my mother was 38 years old, my father died suddenly of a heart attack. A week later, she packed the kids into the station wagon and drove them to Maine, to spend the summer at the family camp they had been building for the past three summers.

Scan_20150115 (4)By the end of the summer, she realized that she was pregnant with her fifth child. Instead of wailing and gnashing her teeth, she decided there was nothing she wanted more than another baby, and she would treat my birth as some sort of miraculous gift.

Against incredibly daunting odds, she figured out how to support five kids as a single parent, kept us all fed and clothed and out of juvenile detention, and sent us all to college.

Even more remarkably, she turned us all into adults who are, I believe (and I think most people who know us would agree), conscientious, competent, kind, and funny—the qualities we were raised to value most highly, as she did.

Mom made sure we knew we were a real family, at a time when a family without a father risked being seen as Scan_20150213 (5)something less than whole.

She may not have been able to give us everything we thought we wanted, but she gave us everything we needed, and more.

Happy 100th birthday in heaven, Mom. Every single day, I think of you, with love.

Finding stillness

MeditationThere is a Zen proverb that says, “You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day—unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.”

 

I was asked recently to write a few paragraphs for a future issue of our monthly church newsletter on the subject of “Why I go to church.”

With no particular deadline, I’ve been treating this assignment as I do most open-ended obligations, which is to say that I’ve pushed it to the back of my mind and given it no thought whatsoever.

This past Sunday morning I was sitting in church at the start of the service, wondering to myself why I was there. I had left a lengthy and detailed list of things that absolutely had to get done before the end of the day on the kitchen table at home, and attending church was not on it.

My list included such pressing tasks as “Go to the dump” (it’s not open again until Wednesday, and something in the kitchen trash was starting to smell rather ripe), “Write essay for writers’ group” (how many months in a row can I bring a piece of writing that’s either old or unfinished before they start thinking about kicking me out?), and “Make Oreo turkeys” (I know: this one may not sound Oreo turkey 2019pressing, but I’ve made these ridiculously fussy creations out of Oreos, miniature peanut butter cups, malted milk balls, and candy corn every November since 2010, and I’ve sent a dozen or so to the Shakers at Sabbathday Lake every year since Will started working there, and this is the last November that he’ll be there, and how could I even think about disappointing Brother Arnold?).

My list also included a number of things that should have gotten done that day, but which I knew perfectly well probably wouldn’t, like making a Christmas tree out of dowels to display ornaments in the Museum Shop at work (I still had another eleven days to get it done before our Black Friday sale, so the project probably wasn’t last-minute enough to rise to the top of my mental panic list), completing the library’s annual fund mailing (a task with which at least five people on the board of trustees had offered to help, but which, instead, I was doing all by myself because I don’t know how to delegate and besides, I wanted it done right), and cleaning the bathrooms (with any luck, now that early winter ice has made my driveway so treacherous, nobody who doesn’t live here will see my bathrooms until spring anyway).

The First Universalist Church of West Paris is more than a century old, and it has the most amazingWPUU stained glass original stained glass windows on all four sides. On sunny mornings, like last Sunday, the large window in the east-facing rear wall of the sanctuary positively glows. It can lift your spirits just to look at it—even if you’re heading home after the service to take out the smelly trash, and glue Oreos and candy corn together with sticky icing.

Unitarian Universalists are my people, a fact that is brought home to me nearly every Sunday, not only by the readings and sermon topics, and the spirited discussions downstairs over refreshments following the service, but also when I open the hymnal and see that we’re going to be singing about world peace, environmental stewardship, or social justice.

Where else can I go and join a chorus calling for “Bread and Roses,” echoing the voices of the women who marched in the textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912?

Where else will I get to sing my favorite UU hymn—Holly Near’s “We Are a Gentle, Angry People”—and think deeply about what it means to be both gentle and angry, to be “singing, singing for our lives”?

That morning, as the service began, my mind was active, unquiet, searching, filled with random thoughts. I wondered if I would be home by 11:00, and, if I was, if I would have enough time to get out for a short hike after going to the dump, and still get back in time to write that essay and make those turkeys and possibly, although not likely, scrub a toilet or two.

I wondered how I was ever going to get everything on my list done, and if there was ever again in my life going to be a time when I didn’t feel overwhelmed by tasks and responsibilities and meetings and projects and lists.

I wondered if there was anything, anything at all, that I could do, while sitting there in church, that would advance my progress on any of the pressing tasks on the list at home on my kitchen table.

And when I realized that there wasn’t a single thing I could do about any of it, I suddenly understood why I was there. The feeling that washed over me was unfamiliar, but so welcome, as if I had been unknowingly longing for it.

The feeling was stillness.

There are weeks—too many weeks—when just about the only waking hour during which I don’t check something on my phone, fret about falling behind, or wonder if I have my priorities straight is that hour when I sit in church.

I don’t always go, but when I return after a week or two away, sitting in that wooden pew can sometimes feel as luxurious as sinking into a featherbed.

So, although I may go to church for the stained glass, or for the words of the speaker, or for the fellowship, or to sing about bread and roses, or even for the refreshments, there is one thing above all the others that keeps me coming back, one thing I don’t find anywhere else, except perhaps, at the top of a mountain.

I come because I’m too busy to sit in meditation for twenty minutes. I need to sit for an hour.

I come for the stillness.

Bob’s Corner Store: Part One

Bob’s Corner Store: Part One

Last week’s story by Sam Wheeler in the Bethel Citizen, “Looking back at Bob’s,” brought on a wave of nostalgia, as I recalled my own eleven-plus years behind the counter at Bob’s Corner Store in Locke’s Mills.

I set out to write about those years, but quickly realized that my connection to Bob’s extends back much further than May of 1978, when I was 19 years old and had just landed my dream job—running the cash register, stocking the shelves and beer coolers, and pumping gas for Bob Coolidge.

So I’ll save my reminiscences about working there (and I have many!) for my next post, and, for now, write about my earlier memories of the store and its longtime proprietor.

Bobs Corner Store 3_26_2011 003

This photo was taken in 2011, when Bob was no longer the owner of the store, but except for the paint colors (it was always white, with green trim, when it was Bob’s), it didn’t look much different.

Like many “summer people” on North, South, and Round Ponds in Woodstock and Greenwood (I didn’t yet know that we were sometimes referred to as “summer complaint”), I traveled to the store by boat nearly every day in July and August from the time I was old enough to walk, talk, and demand penny candy.

My sister, Leslie, and I would take the family motorboat, a 1958 13-foot aluminum Duratech Runabout (my brothers will be sure to correct me if I’m wrong about those details), from our camp on the east shore of North Pond to the village of Locke’s Mills to pick up bread, milk, and the daily newspaper at Bob’s Corner Store (or, as it was known until the early 1970s, under the ownership of Lee Mills, Lee’s Variety).

My sister was nearly ten years older than I, and was therefore in charge of our mom’s list and, of course, the money.

She also always drove the boat. It was powered during those years by a cranky 18-horsepower maroon-and-white Johnson outboard, which was really far too much motor for it. We always carried a splintery old canoe paddle with us, and when the motor broke down, as it often did, we had to take turns paddling back to camp.

Quite often, there were visitors at camp—cousins, friends, or, later, nieces and nephews—and there would be five or six kids in the boat, all of us clad in bulky orange kapok life jackets. The weight of extra passengers came in handy when the water level of the lake was high, allowing us to sit low enough in the water to get through Johnny’s Bridge without scraping the steering wheel on the rough concrete overhead.

We still had to duck our heads to fit under the bridge, of course, or even lie down in the bottom of the boat, where spilled gas and oil mingled with remnants of the bacon rind and freshwater mussels we used for bait when we fished for white perch and sunfish.

Then it was on through “the channel,” where we tried to avoid letting the propeller hit any of the dozens of underwater stumps (we always carried extra shear pins just in case), past the picnic area, through the taller bridge under Route 26, and on to the store.

Damp and smelly, we jumped out onto the dock and clambered up the steep slope to the parking lot, dancing across the hot pavement in our bare feet. (There was never, that I can recall, a “No Bare Feet” sign on the door of Bob’s Corner Store.)

After picking up the items on our mom’s list, my sister doled out the change into our waiting palms. This was the moment we had been waiting for, and we swarmed the old wood-and-glass candy counter, filling tiny brown paper bags with penny candy for the trip home.

When Lee owned the store and presided over the cash register, he would dump each bag out and push our licorice sticks, Swedish fish, Mint Juleps, Tootsie Rolls, and Atomic Fireballs around on the wooden countertop with a thick, grubby finger as he carefully counted each piece. But after Bob took over, he just asked us how much we had in our bags and took our word for it. None of us wouldBob at store ever have dreamed of cheating him out of so much as a penny.

One evening at camp when I was five or six years old, for reasons I can’t remember, my sister took a red felt-tipped pen to my face, adding a sprinkling of bright-red freckles to my cheeks and nose, and I refused to wash them off. When Bob spotted them on our trip to the store the next morning, he began calling me “Chickenpox,” and he never really stopped.

Although I already knew that Maine was the only place for me, and that one day I’d come home and never leave, at the time, I was just a “summer person.” I always wondered if Bob would forget me during the long ten months of the year when I was exiled in Connecticut, but on my first trip to the store each summer, he’d call out, “Hi there, Chickenpox!” and I’d know I was back where I belonged.

Eventually, when I turned twelve, and the family rules permitted me to operate the boat by myself, my mother bought a new six-horsepower outboard motor that was slower, safer, and less prone to breakdowns.

Jen Will & Tide in boat 002

Oh, yes…we still have the 1958 Duratech boat!

By then, Leslie was out of college, grown up, and married, and it became my job to lead the daily expeditions to Bob’s. I became the keeper of the money and my mother’s list. After I’d paid for the groceries and the newspaper, I divided up the change and we’d each fill a bag with penny candy. Then I’d shepherd the younger kids back down to the boat, and make sure they were securely buckled into their life jackets before we pushed off from the dock.

We’d try to ration our candy to make it last until we could make the trip again the following day, but somehow most of it seemed to disappear in the boat on the way back to camp. Someone usually remembered to save a stick of black licorice and a fireball for my mom, although I have a feeling that an hour of peace and quiet back at camp was all the reward she really needed.

Ten Good Things About April

T.S. Eliot wrote, “April is the cruellest month.”

Here in the mountains of western Maine, it nearly always snows in April. I know this, but it still gets me every year. There’s usually ice on the ponds for at least two thirds of the month, and a big, dirty pile of snow on the north side of my house until almost May.

A hundred miles south of us, people are raking their lawns by April first and posting photos of April laundrydaffodils on Facebook by mid-month, while, this year at least, we haven’t even started to think about putting our boots away. We’re still looking ahead to the satisfying ritual of watching the mud in the driveway dry up, because we’re still waiting for the snow and ice on top of the mud to melt.

April is when we pay for every sunny day in the 50s with three days of mixed precipitation and below freezing temperatures.

The icicles that have dangled from the eaves for four months finally give up and crash down into the still-buried flower gardens, only to be replaced with new ones.

It’s cruel, all right.

Okay, so I do realize that when T.S. Eliot wrote, “April is the cruellest month,” he wasn’t talking about the weather, or at least, not the kind of April weather we’re accustomed to in northern New England. (Eliot spent most of his life in England, where apparently there is such a thing as spring, and his biggest quarrel with April was that its mild weather and blooming lilacs were incompatible with his morose state of mind.)

But there are other reasons that I find April a hard month to love.

There’s April Fool’s Day, for one thing. I hate it. I’ve hated it for about as long as I can remember. Wikipedia describes it as “an annual celebration commemorated on April 1st by playing practical jokes and spreading hoaxes.”

I don’t like practical jokes. At all. I believe that, in general, I have a pretty good sense of humor, but on April Fool’s Day, I turn into a cross between someone’s straitlaced grandmother and a petulant four-year-old, declaring, “That’s not funny!” when I turn on the kitchen faucet and get doused by the sprayer, around which someone has wrapped a rubber band. (Okay, that hasn’t happened in about twenty years, but, clearly, it left me with long-lasting resentment.)

As far as “spreading hoaxes” goes, why anyone finds that funny or clever in this age of everyday misinformation, disinformation, and manipulation by Russian bots is beyond me. It’s hard enough to distinguish between factual reporting and hyperbole in the media without devoting a whole day to deliberately spreading “fake news.”

There’s also the fact that my mom died in April, fifteen years ago. It was a cold, crappy, drizzly day, which is pretty much how I think of all of April now. Not only that, but I’ve always considered eleven my favorite, luckiest number, and she died on April 11th. And it was Easter. While I may still love Cadbury Creme Eggs to dangerous excess, Easter hasn’t felt quite the same for me since 2004.

April may well be my least favorite month—especially in a year when the snow began accumulating in mid-October and is still piled high on the north side of my house, and on the trails I’d like to be hiking in sneakers instead of snowshoes by now—but I’m at an age now when I’ve begun to really understand the wisdom of the folks who have always admonished, “Don’t wish your life away!”

In the spirit of finding something to appreciate about every minute, hour, day, and month—even the cruel ones—here, in no particular order, are Ten Good Things About April.

1) My parents’ anniversary was April 6, 1942. Although they were married for only sixteen yearsApril parents wedding before my father’s sudden death, their union made possible not only my own life (which is pretty great), but those of my four wonderful siblings and all of our own offspring. It also gave me rich fodder for my writing, real and imagined, about their lives and times.

2) April 10th is National Siblings Day. Mine are simply the best. I think of them all every day, but having a day devoted to siblings gives me an opportunity to celebrate not only the five of us—siblings in the “traditional” manner, by birth, and united in our fierce and steadfast love for one another—but also my four amazing grown kids, who include every possible combination of full siblings, half siblings, and step-siblings, and love each other just as fiercely.

April sibs in boatApril kids

 

3) Author Beverly Cleary was born on April 12, 1916 and is still going strong, having just turned 103. Her children’s books about Ramona Quimby showed me that an ordinary kid with an ordinary life could get through the rough patches by being smart, outspoken, and a little irreverent, and taught me that “great big noisy fusses were often necessary when a girl was the youngest member of her family.”April Ramona

4) April is National Poetry Month, and I have always been grateful that my mother, an English major, read to me throughout my childhood, and that, interspersed with Ramona and Beezus, Pippi Longstocking, and The Big Book of Fairytales, there were selections from The Complete Poems of Robert Frost, A Child’s Garden of Verses, Now We Are Six, and many other well-worn, much-loved volumes of poetry.

5) Maine’s new governor, Janet Mills, has designated April as Maine Libraries Month, and I couldn’t love her more for it. In my family, libraries have always been regarded as hallowed ground, and librarians as somewhat akin to rock stars. My mom was a librarian. My son is a librarian, and so are at least a couple of cousins. I serve on the board of the Bethel Library and my niece is a board member of the Forbes Library in Northampton, Mass. You could say that the love of all things literary runs strong in my family.

6) My second birth daughter, the irrepressible Caitlin, was born on April 8th and I don’t think anyone who knows her believes that it would be going too far to say that the world has never been the same since she arrived (yes, during a snowstorm) and loudly announced her presence on…

April Cait

7) …Opening Day of Major League Baseball season. Cait was born an hour or so after the Red Sox defeated the Yankees, 9-2, at Fenway Park. Both Dwight Evans and Jim Rice homered in that game, and I’m pretty certain that the fact that I watched the entire nine innings while in labor has something to do with Cait’s lifelong love of baseball in general and the Boston Red Sox in particular, as well as her ability to name every member of the team by the time she was three years old.

8) National Pet Day is celebrated on April 11th, and even though my own pets are convinced that April pet dayevery day is National Pet Day, I always enjoy the opportunity to share yet another photo of them on social media.

9) April contains a week-long public school vacation, and even though I graduated from high school more than forty years ago, I’ve never forgotten how it felt to leave school on a Friday knowing the next nine days were mine to do with exactly as I liked. And even though I haven’t always worked at jobs with a school schedule, whenever I have, I’ve come to realize yet again that it wasn’t just the students who left school the day before vacation with an extra spring in their step. There may be snow in the yard and mud in the driveway, but April vacation comes along at just the right time to let teachers believe they may survive the school year after all.April empty

10) In addition to the aforementioned (alleged) nationwide celebration days that fall in April, the month contains several others about which I (and probably most of you) have been woefully ignorant…but no more!

From now on, I’ll be helping to combat my generally negative feelings about the month by April grilled cheesecelebrating National Peanut Butter and Jelly Day on April 2nd, National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day on April 12th, and National Pigs in a Blanket Day on April 24th.

How on earth did I never know that April 4th is National Hug a Newsperson Day? Plumbers have their own day, too—April 25th is National Hug a Plumber Day.

April 18th is National Velociraptor Awareness Day, and I’m at a bit of a loss as to how to best celebrate that one, but it’s fast approaching, so let’s all see if we can figure it out.

And perhaps it would be best not to warn my boss about this ahead of time, but tomorrow, April 16th, is National Wear Pajamas to Work Day.

April pajamas (2)

 

The end of an era

Cynthia and Peg (2)

My camp neighbor and friend, Cynthia Lamb, passed away a couple of weeks ago, after a long and quietly remarkable life.

“It truly is the passing of the last torch from the early settlers on the Mann Road,” wrote my brother Andy when I shared the news in a family email.

In 1954, when my parents bought a lot on North Pond in Woodstock, Maine, only a few camps had already been built on our road.

Two had been built before the road was put in, by floating the lumber and other materials across the lake. One, known as “Camp Comfort,” had been there in some form since the 1890s, tucked into a cove on the wild shore; the other was just a few years old. Four more had been built in the past year or so.

The road itself had been roughly bulldozed along a mile-and-a-quarter stretch of the pond’s east shore when the owners of the Mann Company, which operated mills in West Paris and Bryant Pond and conducted logging operations throughout the area, came to the realization that waterfront lots had a value beyond that of their standing timber.

The ponds of Greenwood and Woodstock had been home to a scattering of summer homes since the late nineteenth century, but post-WWII prosperity brought a bit of disposable income to both local families and vacationers “from away,” and rustic retreats quickly gained in popularity.

My brother Steve was old enough to recall that, although the Mann Company was selling lots for camps, they were priced according to the worth of the harvestable timber that grew on them. Our parents chose our lot in part because of its location and the huge boulder that sits at the water’s edge, but also because the trees on it were predominantly hemlock, making it cheaper than the pine lot next door.

They paid two hundred dollars for a steep but buildable lot with a hundred and fifty feet of lake frontage.

Sixty-five years ago, a pair of Mainers living in exile in New Jersey but longing for a piece of their home state to call their own, and their four young children, ages almost five to almost eleven, could afford to make their dream of a lakefront camp come true.

So could a young casket-maker and undertaker from West Paris and his wife, a beautician. Like my parents, Sayward and Cynthia Lamb purchased their lot in 1954 and began to build their camp the following year.

For three summers, my father and Sayward loaned each other tools or ladders or an extra pair of hands as they built their camps, a hundred yards or so apart.

After my father died suddenly at the beginning of the summer of 1958, my stricken mother (who was—unwittingly—pregnant with me), in addition to planning and carrying out his funeral, consoling her children, and attending to various end-of-the-school-year details, made the same preparations for the yearly escape to Maine that my parents had made together in previous years.

She also made the decision to keep the family station wagon and sell my father’s “get-to-work car” (“a green ’53 Chevy sedan with 3-on-the-tree,” recalls my brother Greg, to whom such details were important) to Sayward Lamb.

Sayward, who surely bought the car primarily as a way to help my family out, was nevertheless glad of the opportunity to purchase a rust-free “southern car” that had never been through a Maine winter, and he drove all the way to New Jersey from Maine with a friend to pick it up.

“It was a combination of comforting and queasy to come in the road and see it there in back of their camp,” says my brother Andy, who was eleven that summer.

I was less than four months old the first time I met Sayward and Cynthia, and they will always be a part of my earliest memories of camp.

Sayward was the president of our private camp road association from the time it was formed until the day he died. He was a fixture on “road work day” each summer, standing up to ride on the ancient grader as it was towed behind someone’s car, working the levers to smooth the spring ruts.

Cynthia occasionally did my mother’s hair at the beauty parlor attached to their home a few miles away in West Paris, where she went to work a few days each week, returning to camp in the afternoons for a walk on the road and a swim.

Her daily walks on the Mann Road formed a habit she maintained throughout her life, and while my own mother had a definitely relaxed set of standards when it came to “camp clothes,” in all of her summers at the lake, I never saw Cynthia out walking   in anything that couldn’t be called an “outfit”: often she wore tidy capri pants with a matching top, coordinated sandals, and earrings, and she always—always!—had perfectly polished toenails.

Growing up on the lake, my sister played with the Lambs’ older son. (I wish I could find a photo that I know exists, of Leslie and Jimmy proudly paddling their just-completed homemade houseboat, taken just moments before it sank.) When I was old enough to learn to catch frogs and salamanders, I hero-worshipped the Lambs’ daughter, Natalie, who was a few years older and knew all the best places to find them.

Cynthia Rhubarb Festival

After I joined the same UU church in West Paris that Cynthia had attended all of her adult life, I got to spend time with her there on Sundays and at special events.

By the time I was three or four, I had taken to escaping out the back door of our camp, climbing the steep hill to the road, and trekking over to the Lambs’ camp, where I would press my nose against the screen door of their kitchen and ask Cynthia for a peanut butter sandwich.

My exasperated sister would usually show up a few minutes later to retrieve me, at the behest of our mother, who was mortified to think the Lambs would assume she never fed me.

Between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s, the number of camps on the Mann Road grew to about twenty. Of those, several, like ours, are still owned by the offspring of the people who first built them. But Cynthia was the last of those original “early settlers,” as Andy called them.

After Sayward passed away a decade or so ago, I stopped in to visit with Cynthia as often as I could, and often joined her on walks with our neighbor Joan. We would walk the mile from Cynthia’s camp to the Gore Road, where she always insisted on touching the edge of the tar road with her foot “to make it count”—even though it meant climbing a steep hill to reach it.

Cynthia had boundless energy. Even after a fall outside her camp, when her family put its collective foot down and forbid her to stay there overnight alone, she would sneak up to camp from her home for the day to sweep the steps, wash the windows,  and go for her walks on the road.

It will never be quite the same on the Mann Road again. In my sixty summers at camp, there has never been one without Cynthia. It really is the end of an era.

Cynthia and me

My last visit with Cynthia, last November.

 

 

 

“The dearest friend I never met”

Sandy

Last Sunday, I lost a dear friend. Sandra Martin Morgan made my world a brighter, better place with her sharp wit, her plainspoken wisdom, and her genuine kindness…and all without us ever having met in person.

Four years ago this month, I took over writing the Locke’s Mills column for our local weekly newspaper, the Bethel Citizen. In my first column, I included some bits of news about the municipal budget, wrote about attending Maine Maple Weekend at Brian and Suzanne Dunham’s farm, and added a link to this blog, with a note that “my latest entry includes some reflections on Locke’s Mills and why it means so much to me.”

Soon after that first column appeared, I received a comment on my blog from a new reader.

“Loved this!” Sandy wrote. “I mentally went on the journey with your descriptive walk through Locke’s Mills…I moved away 40 years ago and still miss my home town. I was born in Greenwood Center near the shores of Twitchell Pond and still write a blog about growing up there. Your blog was like a trip back home and oh, so well written. Thank you and I will be looking for more of your columns in the Citizen which I receive each week by mail!”

She signed up to follow my blog, I signed up to follow hers (pasturetopavement.wordpress.com), Sandy and I began corresponding via email and Facebook, and our mutual admiration society was born.

That’s how it began—as a mutual admiration society. It wasn’t exactly a friendship—not yet.

After all, Sandy and I had never met; she had moved away from her beloved hometown just about the same time I landed here, and we had just missed each other.

Before we could really be friends, we needed to learn more about each other. Facebook helped, and so did our respective blog posts, through which we learned about each other’s childhoods, families, and friends.

I learned that she was Brian Dunham’s mother. And Ethel Martin’s daughter. And Roland, Rex, and Curt Martin’s Sandy and Rexsister. And a cousin (first, second, third, or a few times removed) to just about everyone else I had come to know in my 40 years in and around Greenwood.

I came to Greenwood just a year or two too late to read her weekly columns in the Norway Advertiser-Democrat. For a decade, from the mid-1960s until the mid-1970s, she kept the world abreast of the happenings in her Rowe Hill neighborhood, and, in particular, at “Rocky Top,” the hillside farm where she raised her four children, chased after wayward livestock, and, whenever she could, found a few minutes’ peace to write.

Sandy and Alan before concert 1981I arrived too late to hear her perform, often with other members of her musically talented family, at talent shows and other events at the Locke’s Mills Town Hall.

And I was too late to sit down with her in person, perhaps over a cup of tea and one of her Gram Martin’s toffee squares, and hear her stories of growing up in Greenwood Center, or of skiing over the pastures of Rowe Hill, or of bravely making a new life for herself in middle age.

But, through our lively correspondence, we soon learned how much we had in common, not only our love of Greenwood, but also our affinity for—among other things—cats, cookies, quirky characters, Kris Kristofferson, and the poetry of Robert Service.

Now and then, we exchanged small gifts through the mail. I sent her Christmas cookies and homemade granola, and she sent me a copy of her book, Just…Thinking, a collection of her newspaper columns, which her four kids had surprised her by publishing in 2010.

One day last summer I tore open a package from Sandy to find two volumes of Robert Service’s poetry, and a note in which she chided herself for not being able to locate the third volume, which contained some of our favorite poems.

A couple of months later another package arrived, and another note—unable to find her own copy to pass along to me, she had scoured eBay for a copy of The Spell of the Yukon for me, to complete the set.Sandy_RS books

Some of our most satisfying online conversations were about our shared passion for writing, and what it has meant to us both.

“Writing has saved my life several times,” she once wrote to me. “If that is too dramatic, it has helped me climb out of dark holes a number of times. It has kept me on an even keel and keeps me from feeling sorry for myself.”

After her success as a local columnist for the Advertiser-Democrat, Sandy went on to cover human interest stories, take photos, and write a regular feature for the paper’s monthly supplement, “The Western Mainer,” in which she interviewed local entertainers.

She also covered local stories for the Lewiston Sun and wrote occasional features for the Maine Sunday Telegram and Portland Press Herald.

She freelanced for regional magazines, as well as for Grit, Farm Journal, and Yankee, and published several volumes of her poetry.

Sandy_house

Although Sandy left Greenwood more than 40 years ago to live in Albany, New York, she never lost her love for the characters and special places of her hometown.

Just a year ago, with the help of her son Gary, she published her memoir, Salt Pork and Dandelion Greens: Growing Up Greenwood, a collection of essays she originally wrote for her blog. Poignant, evocative, and often hilarious, it immediately struck a chord with her many friends and relatives back home.

Sandy and I jokingly called each other “the dearest friend I’ve never met.”

“You have become such a good friend without our ever having met and I feel as though I have known you forever,” she told me recently. “One of these days I am coming up and taking you up on using your house for a few days…that is such a sweet offer.”

How I wish we could have shared that cup of tea at my kitchen table, and a couple of Gram Martin’s toffee squares. Sandy, I’ll miss you so much.

Rinsing out baggies (and other ways Mom was ahead of her time)

Plastic bags drying

When I was growing up, I always feared that when my friends came over, they would notice what was hung out to dry on the clothesline in our backyard.

It wasn’t just that my mom, who was almost a full generation older than many of my friends’ mothers, wore the world’s most inelegant underclothes (think yellowed long-line bras, hideous girdles with dangling garters, and opaque tan support stockings) or that, in the interest of thrift, we continued to use our sheets and towels until they were faded and ratty.

No, the real embarrassment of our backyard clothesline came from my mom’s practice of washing out plastic bags and hanging them up to dry.

Bread bags, sandwich bags, cereal bags—there was no such thing as a “single-use plastic bag” in my mother’s vocabulary. That remarkable invention, Ziploc bags, first appeared in 1968, and it’s quite possible that when my mom died in 2004, she was still using and reusing the first box she ever bought.

“Rinsing out baggies” became code for all of her penny-pinching habits—she also saved and reused twist ties, bread bag tabs, envelopes, coffee cans, peanut butter jars, and yogurt containers.

In later years, living alone, she turned off lights and appliances whenever she wasn’t using them, and even regularly traipsed down to the basement to shut off the circuit breaker for her electric water heater. (“I’ve found I only need to turn it on about every second or third day,” she said of the water heater. “The second shower is kind of lukewarm, but I don’t mind.”)

And she used a serrated knife to slice new rolls of paper towels across the middle before putting them on the dispenser because she had figured out, long before the “select-a-size” marketing people did, that half a sheet is almost always all you need.

As mortifyingly embarrassing as all of these practices were when I was an adolescent, not only did they eventually become a source of pride for her adult kids (our mom was an environmentalist before it was cool!), but now we do many of the same things in our own homes. (Steve’s peanut butter jar collection is legendary.) Well, maybe not the water heater circuit breaker thing, but I bet at least one of us environmentally conscious cheapskates has experimented with a timer. (I suspect you, Greg.)

It turns out that Mom was onto something.

Residents in the town next to mine are currently considering a proposal to ban single-use carry-out plastic bags in town businesses. It’s a hot-button issue that has a lot of people talking, and arguing.

Vector illustration of a no plastic bags symbol. Could be used for stores no longer offering plastic bags or to illustrate the concept of eliminating plastic bags.

To promoters of the ban, it’s one small thing we can do to help save the environment from a fraction of the upwards of one trillion plastic bags that are currently used each year, of which the vast majority (about 99.5%) are not recycled.

To opponents, it seems like a big step to give up the convenient handled plastic bags we’ve all gotten used to using to carry our groceries home in, and remember to bring reusable cloth bags to the store with us instead. In addition, some retailers object vociferously to being told how to run their businesses.

And some people just can’t imagine how they’d dispose of used cat litter without plastic grocery bags. With three cats, I admit that thought crossed my mind, too.

Thinking about the proposed ban, and participating in a few discussions about it, has gotten me reflecting about single-use plastic bags in general, not just carry-out grocery bags, and how pervasive they are in our lives.

We start each morning with the daily paper, which, even though it is delivered to a relatively weatherproof box, lately comes encased in a long, skinny plastic bag. I top my breakfast yogurt with blueberries and raspberries from plastic bags in my freezer, and Tony opens another plastic bag to take out bread for toast. Cereal comes in boxes lined with plastic bags.

As it turns out, all of these plastic bags, which I used to toss in the trash, make perfectly serviceable receptacles for used cat litter. What a revelation!

Plastic bags in treesPlastic bags take centuries to decompose in landfills, and as they do, they slowly release toxic chemicals into the soil.

In fact, they never completely degrade, but instead wind up as microplastics, bits of plastic that range in size from microscopic to less than five millimeters long (about the size of a grain of rice), cause a host of environmental problems and, ultimately, end up in the food chain. Microplastics have been found not only in seafood, but in sea salt, beer, bottled water, and tap water.

Worldwide, we use over one million plastic bags per minute—most for only a single, temporary use, like bringing home groceries, carrying out the trash, or holding frozen peas.

Mom might have rinsed out baggies because she was a cheapskate, but she was also doing her part, long before the creation of the EPA, and years before we first celebrated Earth Day, to help save the planet.

Plastic bags reduce-reuse-recycle-logo

My mom was a superhero

RWWight

Today, February 13th, would have been my mom’s 99th birthday.

I think my siblings and I were all a bit stunned by her death, almost 15 years ago, at the age of 84. While that may sound like a pretty average life expectancy, our mom was never what anyone would call average, and I think if you had asked any one of us, we’d all have said that we expected her to live well into her nineties. Or maybe forever.RWW_returning_from_honeymoon_1942

My mom, who was married for just 16 years before she became a widow for nearly 46, was the quintessential strong, independent, capable woman. Growing up in the 1920s and ’30s, and a young housewife in the 1940s and early ’50s, she may not have thought she was preparing herself to work full-time while singlehandedly running a household and raising five children, but when she was thrust into that situation, she took to it with both vigor and grace.

Family_1959Barely a week after my father’s sudden death in June of 1958, she loaded my four siblings into the family station wagon and drove to Maine to spend the summer, because that was what they had planned, what she had promised them, and anyway, as she once told me, “I couldn’t think of what else to do.”

On North Pond in Woodstock, she took on the role of general contractor, supervising the completion of the family camp they had been in the process of building over the previous three summers. (My brothers, ages 14, 12, and 11, and my sister, age eight, were the laborers.)

But wait, there’s more: as I wrote in an essay several years ago, “By mid-summer, my mother began to suspect something, and by summer’s end she knew: she was pregnant.”

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It is to my mom’s great credit that I never felt, even once, that she believed that her life would have been better/easier/less stressful if I hadn’t been born. Not when I brought home stray cats, and, sometimes, turtles, mice, frogs, and snakes. Not when I accidentally let 18 chestnuts go down the drain of the bathroom sink. Not when I slouched around sullenly, wearing overalls and letting my hair hang in my face, for about six years of my adolescence. Not even when I ruined her perfect record by becoming the only one of her five kids to drop out of college—twice.

Even before the circumstances of her life turned her into a superhero, my mom was unusual for a woman of her generation. She had graduated as the valedictorian of her high school class, and had completed a four-year degree from the University of Maine before she met my father in 1941. She had moved to Hartford, Connecticut on her own after college and worked for a year or so at the Aetna Life Insurance Company.

My arrival early in 1959 delayed her ability to go back to work, but once I was old enough to be in school, she landed Mither_school_librarya job as a school librarian and began taking graduate level courses in the evening. She worked her way up to a position as head of the library department for the 17 elementary schools in the small city of Milford, Connecticut, where she had moved the family after my father’s death.

Mom_garden_1942

Around home, my mom did all the things most of my friends’ mothers did: she knit, sewed, quilted, gardened, Ruth_Wight_in_old_canoecanned, baked, and kept house. She also did most of the things my friends’ fathers did: she mowed the lawn, hung the storm windows, sealed the driveway, raked leaves, shoveled snow, and occasionally dabbled in plumbing, carpentry, and automotive repair.

She felt a strong commitment to the concept of community service. She was active in her church, volunteered for Welcome Wagon, March of Dimes, and the American Heart Association, and served on the boards of several nonprofits.

She continued to do all of these things throughout my life, and I grew so accustomed to having a mother who could do anything and everything that I’m afraid I never fully grasped what a wonder she really was, at least until after she was gone.

Mither & Alice in FranceUp until just a couple of years before she died, she was volunteering at the library, traveling (she turned 81 while on a tour of Australia and New Zealand), babysitting (over her more than 20 years of retirement in Bethel, she was known as Gramma Wight to dozens of local children, in addition to her own “real” grandchildren), and taking on projects nearly as ambitiously as she always had.

Now that I’m nearing 60, I have a far greater appreciation for the energy she had, especially when I choose to stay home instead of attending a meeting or community event, when I gripe about having to go to work, or when I sit down in the evening and tell myself I’m too tired to pick up my knitting.

It’s taken me a while to realize it, but my mom really was a superhero.

Mither_reading_at_campScan_20150213 (2)