A pensive post for Mother’s Day

I wrote this for Mother’s Day several years ago, when my own mom had only been gone for five years, but I’m sharing it here because after twelve years, I still feel the same way: she will always be my teacher, and there is still10338256_10203917938254695_2965250666516006632_n so much to learn. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

“She will always be my teacher. Our time here is short, even when we are fortunate to live long. I cherish every moment. A mother’s heart is as big as the world. There is still so much to learn.” — poet and writer E. Ethelbert Miller, on visiting his 90-year-old mother in a nursing home, from NPR’s Weekend Edition, May 10, 2009.

 

It’s Mother’s Day. This morning on my walk I thought first about my own mother, of course, and some of the things she did and said that I will always remember, and some of the ways in which she taught me and scolded me and loved me. Then I thought about my children and some of my own mothering moments, and I wondered if the things that seem significant to me are the things they’ll remember best…and I decided they’re probably not. I doubt if my own mother ever knew, for instance, that, to me, one of the defining moments of her motherhood occurred early on a summer morning when I was six, after she had stayed up all night long installing a flush toilet in the camp all by herself (because my brother Steve was marrying a “city girl”). When I got up the next morning and started to head for the outhouse, she opened the bathroom door with a flourish and said those magic words… “You can flush!”

That moment taught me so many things: You can do anything you make up your mind to do. You don’t need a man around to take care of the “manly” projects. Finish what you start, even if it means you have to stay up all night. (OK, I’m still working on the “finish what you start” part, but I have been told that when I’m involved in a project I’m like “a dog with a piece of meat,” and I know just where that tenacity comes from). It’s a good thing to welcome your children’s friends and partners and spouses into the family…sometimes you do it with a pie or a cake, but sometimes nothing says “we’re happy to have you here with us” like indoor plumbing.

I’ve been thinking all day about mothers, motherhood, and mothering, and about some of my favorite mothers. I’ve been mothered by countless women throughout my life, whether or not they realized it, and in the years since I’ve been, technically, motherless, I’ve been fortunate to find mothering when and where I need it. Sometimes it’s as obvious as a hug, or something written in a card that makes me feel especially loved, but often it’s much more subtle…maybe it’s a friend’s reaction to my bragging about the kids that seems as proud as if she were their grandmother, or that slightly bossy note in an older woman’s voice that I didn’t even know I’d been missing, that tone that says, “I’m a mother and I’m used to people doing what I tell them.”

In Meredith Hall’s heartbreakingly beautiful memoir, Without a Map, she writes:

I have a friend who donates blood every time the Red Cross holds a drive. When I tell her that I admire her for her generosity, she says, “I only go because I need the mothering so much. It feels good to be touched. The nurses are kind and make me feel loved.”

If we are lucky, we get the mothering we need, wherever we can find it.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of my favorite “other mothers”:

Peggy_Amy

Our BBSE.

To Peggy, the matriarch of our family since my mother died. We call her the BBSE – the Best Big Sister Ever – but she has mothered me in so many ways ever since Steve had the good sense to start dating her when I was two or three years old. (Which was it – 1961 or 1962?) I don’t remember a time when she wasn’t part of the family. (And she would have happily continued to use the outhouse at camp, but we’re all grateful that she was Mither’s excuse for putting in a flush.)

Amy&Les (1)

One of my first, and best, teachers.

To Leslie, who was the Baby Princess for nearly ten years, but never complained, at least to me, about losing that status when I was born.Maybe she was lucky in a way – she got a real live baby to practice her mothering skills on when her friends had to make do with dolls. Or maybe her kids were the lucky ones. I wonder if she ever dug her fingernails into their wrists hard enough to draw blood?

Amy&Winnie

At 13, I wasn’t that easy to love, but Auntie Winnie never stopped.

To Winnie, who passed away almost five years to the day after my mother.“Besides your mommy and the doctor and nurse, I was the first person who got to see you when you were born,” she used to tell me, and I always knew that she had loved me unconditionally from that moment on. Unconditional love, the almost exclusive province of mothers, is not something to be taken lightly; most of us are fortunate to have it from one mother, let alone two.

To Aunt Leota, who worked in a bank and wore perfume and makeup and had the softest skin. I thought she was the most beautiful, best-smelling mother in the world, and she sometimes let my uncle and my cousins keep the Red Sox game on even during dinner.

Wights&Baxters

That’s Auntie Bet on the right, on a visit to camp in the mid-’50s.

To Auntie Bet, my mother’s dearest friend for more than 60 years, who modeled strength, independence, and intellect, and who helped to teach me the value of women’s friendships.

To Mrs. Abercrombie, Mrs. Walkama, Mrs. Mendelson, Mrs. Hower, and Miss Diggs. I was so lucky that my first five teachers were all such nurturing, motherly women, who understood that at five, or seven, or nine, I was really still just a baby.

IMG_0911 (2)

In spite of the dog poop incident, she treats me like one of her own.

To Donna’s mom, who once scrubbed dog poop out of my clothes with Lestoil when I tripped on the way to her house and fell in it, instead of sending me home to my own mother…who is “Italian by marriage” and still sends me home with food when I visit…who wrote on my graduation card two years ago, “We love you and brag about you as if you were our own daughter.”

To Maria’s mom, who let us monopolize her TV room and fed me about five nights a week for a while in high school when Maria and I went on an extended Star Trek binge, who worked seven days a week with her parents on their farm, and who epitomized the phrase “the salt of the earth.”

To Ev Nickerson, who allowed me underfoot in the kitchen of the Sunday River Inn, and taught me to make yeast breads.

Diddy

There will never be another Diddy.

To Diddy, who shared my love of baseball and gave freely of her time, recipes, baked goods, and advice – both solicited and unsolicited – when I was a clueless 20-year-old newlywed.

Katie&Ida

One of the world’s best mothers-in-law.

To Mabel and Ida…if you believe the sitcoms, stand-up acts, and popular culture in general, two wonderful mothers-in-law in a lifetime are a statistical improbability, but that’s what I was fortunate enough to have.

To Cynthia, long-time camp road neighbor and friend, who gave me cookies and peanut butter sandwiches when I showed up at her door as a three-year-old, and whose family shared so much of my family’s early camp history from the 1950s and ‘60s.

To Joan, my camp road walking partner, who is just enough older to seem motherly at times, but who shares my memories of growing up on the lake as a summer kid.

To all the others who have mothered me, and to all mothers everywhere – Happy Mother’s Day.

 

Fashion after 50

Blog_hats“I really want to get to the ‘leggings every day’ way of life. I just can’t find those flowing tops,” says Donna, my best friend of over 50 years.

She is the one person in the world who understands me best, and we are having a conversation, via texting, about the ongoing struggle over what to wear.

We’re not talking about how to select an outfit for any given day, but about how to build a wardrobe that reflects who we are, while still being presentable enough to prevent us from being picked up as vagrants when we leave the house.

We are 57 years old and fashion took a backseat to comfort a long time ago. Our mental list of clothing items that Blog_leggingscomplete the sentence “Life is too short for…” has grown to include:

▪  Tight shoes, shoes with slippery soles, and any kind of heels. We are thankful that sneakers and sport sandals are considered appropriate footwear in so many situations these days, but if they weren’t, it’s entirely possible that we’d be wearing the same chunky orthopedic shoes we used to mock behind the backs of our elementary-school lunch ladies.

▪  Pants that are too high-waisted, too low-waisted, or have constricting waistbands. The midsection has always been an area of particular concern. In our younger days it was because we were constantly trying tricks to minimize it, some of which even involved Spandex; now it’s because if we leave the house in the morning in a pair of pants with a poorly-fitting waistband, we know that by noon we’re either going to be unbuttoning the fly or experiencing abdominal discomfort.

▪  Uncomfortable underwear, including but not limited to bad bras, bikini underpants (let’s not go any further thanBlog_underwear that in the underpants department; in my childhood, “strings” were what you tied your sweatshirt hood with, and “thongs” was a synonym for flip-flops, and I prefer not to think about any other use those words may have in today’s fashion world), underwear with elastic that is past its prime, and anything called a “foundation garment” that makes you feel as if some body part or other is encased in a garden hose.

▪  Any garment that itches, pinches, chafes, rubs, or otherwise doesn’t “feel right.” I used to wear turtlenecks all winter without a second thought, until several years ago (it may have coincided with the arrival of hot flashes), when they started making me feel like I was being strangled, so they went into the donation box. (I’m a big thrift store donor, as well as shopper. Sometimes I even donate something I’ve just bought that doesn’t turn out to be as wonderful as I’d hoped; Donna and I call this “catch and release thrifting.”)

When I’m at home, I confess, my usual uniform is flannel pajama pants (always with pockets) and soft, well-worn t-shirts (long-sleeved or short-, depending on the season). Donna favors leggings and something from her impressive collection of cozy fleece tops. These clothing choices are ultra-comfortable, and our cats seem to appreciate the soft laps they provide.

But, as much as we’d both like to, we can’t stay home with the cats all the time, and neither one of us has ever really been able put together a “going-out look” that is both comfortable and uniquely ours.

Blog_makeupFor my part, I’ve settled on a default wardrobe that includes three pairs of jeans (tan and black for my three-day-a-week, anything-but-blue-jeans job, blue for everything else), an assortment of about a dozen thrift store tops, sneaker-type walking shoes, and that’s about it. In the summer I’ll switch to three pairs of capris, a dozen or so summer tops, and sturdy sandals.

I’ve never given much thought to fashion (my daughters are nodding vigorously as they read this), but now that I’ve begun—finally, in late middle-age—to develop a sense of Who I Am, it would be kind of nice to put together a look that reflects that.

I’m very drawn, for instance, to highly textured hand-knit scarves and cowls in either jewel tones or earth tones…at least when I see them on other people. I know how to knit; I could just sit down and make myself a few. But I’ve never really been able to pull off any sort of scarf-like thing—they make me look like I’m either being treated for whiplash or have become hopelessly entangled in something.

Blog_LizPI have a friend, a writer and dramatist, whose look—usually all black, with just a hint of bright color in a layered t-shirt or tank top—I greatly admire. And it’s a fantastic look on red-winged blackbirds, one of my favorite birds, too. But when I tried it out, I only resembled a rather plump and ungainly crow.

I agree with Donna that leggings and “those flowing tops” seem like a wonderful idea (especially, for some reason, if the tops are in water color-inspired shades of blue, green, and teal), but I absolutely need big enough pockets to carry a tube of lip balm, my Swiss Army knife, an 8-foot tape measure, and my phone. I just do. Besides, I’m sure I’d be constantly slamming my sleeves and hems in the car door, or catching them on something.

So I guess for now I’m sticking with jeans and thrift store tops when I have to leave the house, and flannel pants (with pockets) and t-shirts when I don’t.

At least the cats will be happy.
Blog_cats

Tradition and transition

Change is hard. Last month, I mourned the closing of Norway, Maine’s 170-year-old independently owned hardware store, L.M. Longley & Son. Yesterday, I was saddened to read of the passing of its longtime owner, John Longley. A couple of years back, I interviewed John and wrote this piece. Although I wasn’t able to find a home for it, and it lost its relevance with the closing of the store, I’m posting it here to honor a good man and the business he nurtured for more than half a century. They will both be missed.Longleys_Interior

For well over a century and a half, residents of western Maine’s Oxford Hills have relied on a hardware store in downtown Norway for the parts and pieces, tools and supplies needed to keep their homes and businesses running smoothly.

The site on Main Street that is home to L.M. Longley & Son Hardware has been occupied continuously by a hardware store since 1844, when J.O. Crooker founded his business there during the fledgling town’s first half-century. The current six thousand-square-foot brick Greek Revival structure was constructed in 1867, and was one of only a few buildings to survive the devastating downtown fire of 1894, a wind-whipped conflagration that quickly wiped out more than eighty homes and businesses.

Iconic local businessman John Longley represents the third generation of Longleys to oversee the family company. At eighty-four, he continues to work six days a week, commuting from his home in Casco to supervise day-to-day operations.

On the day I visit, John has disappeared into the basement catacombs in search of parts needed for a plumbing service call. When he emerges, he’s clearly busy, distracted by the never-ending details of running a business that includes retail sales, plumbing and heating installation and repairs, and custom sheet metal fabrication.

It’s also clear that he’s not a man who welcomes interruptions. He’s not sure he really wants to talk to me, but after decades of serving the public, he’s too polite to say so. He agrees to let me ask “a couple of questions. Then I’ll decide about more.”

Searching for a hook that will win him over, I tell him I’ve had a lifelong passion for independently owned small businesses, especially hardware stores. I hope this doesn’t sound like shameless pandering, but it happens to be true. Just let me set foot on the oil-blackened hardwood floor of a century-old hardware store, and I’m transported back to the simpler days of the early twentieth century, as surely as if I had actually experienced them. In fact, when I was sixteen, in a letter to my older brother, I wrote that I didn’t know why I needed to go to college, when what I really wanted to do with my life was work in a hardware store.

John raises one eyebrow at this, but then he says, “Okay, I’ll give you fifteen minutes. And I’ll show you the metal fabrication shop, since you’ve expressed an interest.” Apparently, I’ve passed the first test.

In the end, he shows me everything—his office upstairs, the metal shop downstairs, the shelves and drawers and rows of stovepipe, plumbing parts, nuts, bolts, and washers—and we talk nonstop for more than an hour.

John’s grandfather, Leon M. Longley, grew up in a hardscrabble farming family in Raymond, but he envisioned a different sort of life. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, Leon left Maine for Massachusetts to train as a plumber. Returning home in 1898, he loaded some tools on his bicycle and rode from the family farm to bustling downtown Norway in search of work.

A talent for the plumbing trade, coupled with his natural business acumen and a growing need for skilled tradesmen in the rapidly expanding town, helped to make Leon a swift success. By 1902, when his son Forrest was born, he was well established, and he and his partner Ralph Butts had moved their business into the former J.O. Crooker Hardware building on Main Street. They renamed the store Longley & Butts, combining the retail hardware and plumbing businesses under one roof.

In the 1920s, Forrest Longley, who had gone to Boston to attend the Wentworth Institute, returned home to join his father in the business. By then, Ralph Butts had retired and the store’s name was changed to L. M. Longley & Son.

John, Forrest’s son, grew up in the business, working in the store and helping with deliveries and service calls. “I guess I always knew I’d end up here,” he says. But before settling in at the store, he tested the waters beyond his hometown. After graduating from the University of Maine with an engineering degree in the early 1950s, he served in the Army, then spent the rest of that decade working as an industrial engineer in the Midwest.

In 1960, he returned to Maine and went to work for his father in the hardware business. “I got my state licenses for plumbing and heating,” he says, noting that at one time the business employed as many as four plumbers. “Now we have one, and one heating guy, plus a guy who does sheet metal fabrication—he works part-time.”

For decades, the Longleys also ran a fuel oil business, but the complexity of ever-changing environmental regulations forced John to give that up a few years ago. “The business was kind of like a three-legged stool,” he explains, “with the plumbing and heating, the store, and the fuel business. Now the two legs that are left have to keep it propped up.”

Most of the store’s employees are part-timers who have retired from other careers. “I work here three days a week,” Earle Thompson, the genial older man at the register, tells me. “But I worked at Western Auto, just down the block, for forty years, so I’ve spent my whole career here on Main Street.”

More than anything else, customer service is what sets an independently owned hardware store apart from its chain-store competitors. L.M. Longley’s seasoned staff doesn’t hesitate to go the extra mile to locate a hard-to-find item, whether that means digging through stock in the cavernous basement or in one of the three bulging warehouses located behind the store, clambering up to a high shelf along one wall of the long, narrow retail space, or doing a computer search of suppliers.

At the counter, I mention to John and one of his employees, Dick Parsons, that I’ve been searching in vain for a particular type of garden rake for my husband, one with an ergonomically-friendly teardrop-shaped—rather than round—handle. They both look a bit puzzled, but twenty minutes later, as John and I are wrapping up our conversation, Dick comes to the office door, grinning and triumphantly holding aloft a garden rake. It’s exactly what I’ve been looking for.

I tell John that his track record with me is still perfect: over the years, anything I’ve come into his store looking for—a galvanized bucket, a lamp chimney, plumbing parts, or a doughnut cutter—his employees have been able to unearth for me.

He thanks me, nodding, and adds, “We try to stay current. If we don’t have what people need, we try to get it for them. This business doesn’t create a big flow of cash—it’s certainly not a gold mine—but it fills what I think is an important niche.”

Speaking Up

Speaking Up

 

Andy_camp

In honor of his birthday, I’m posting this essay I wrote about my brother Andy, Andy_letterand a letter he sent me a long, long time ago. It’s a testament to just how important that letter was to me that I still have it and still know where to find it…right on top of my messy desk with a few other treasures that still inspire me. Happy birthday, Andy, and thanks.

In May of 1969, I had just turned ten years old. Andy, the youngest of my three much-older brothers, was 22, a year out of college. Like the others, he had attended a top engineering school on an ROTC scholarship, expecting to serve in the Air Force upon graduation. But he was diagnosed during college with mild epilepsy, which prevented him from enlisting in active service, and instead spent the next several years doing what our straitlaced mother called “trying to find himself.”

My hometown in Connecticut seems, upon reflection as an adult, to have been determinedly insular. When I think about all of the significant and disturbing events that took place in the late ’60s and early ’70s—the escalation of the war in Vietnam, race riots and the assassination of Martin Luther King, the Kent State shootings—it should have been a terribly frightening time to be a kid. And while I do remember the TV coverage of those events (I know that my family had only a black-and-white TV at the time, and yet I could swear I remember scenes of red blood spilled on the pavement or in the dust, or splashed across the uniforms of soldiers) there was not much talk, direct or overheard, about current events in my home or at my school.

I puzzle now over why this was so. My mother subscribed to two daily newspapers, as well as Time magazine, and never went to bed without watching the 11:00 news. Even more significant, my oldest brother was an Air Force captain who spent most of 1969 in Vietnam, and his wife and two young sons lived with us during his tour of duty. Yet what I remember most about that time, besides playing with my little nephews, are the letters Steve and Peggy wrote to each other every day on blue air mail stationery, the occasional reel-to-reel tapes he sent so the boys could hear his voice, the single phone call—patched through a ham radio operator in Seattle—that he was able to make home during that year. It didn’t occur to me that he was fighting in a war; he was just…far away.

It was Andy who set about to open my eyes, in a letter he sent me two months after my tenth birthday. Enclosed in the envelope was a poem written by Mason Williams, of the abruptly cancelled Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, called “The Censor.” Andy had written the poem out on a doily; it included the lines “The censor… / With a kindergarten / Arts and crafts concept / Of moral responsibility / Snips out / The rough talk / The unpopular opinion / Or anything with teeth / And renders / A pattern of ideas / Full of holes / A doily / For your mind.”

If we don’t talk about our problems, my brother pleaded with my ten-year-old self, we will never solve them. He wrote of things right here in America that are “not very pretty at all,”—slums filled with “black, yellow, and brown kids,” millions of poor people starving “right here in ‘pretty’ America,” and then, most shocking, “what about hundreds of American kids my age who are dying every week in Vietnam—is that really necessary for the security of our country?”

Was it? I didn’t know; it had never even occurred to me to wonder about those things, which, until the day I got that letter, seemed inevitable, and certainly beyond the control of kids like me.

Over the next few years, Andy would continue to stir things up in my safe world, bringing music and literature into the home where my mother and I now lived alone. I gave up Tiger Beat magazine for his second-hand copies of Mother Earth News, and bubble-gum pop music for Dylan, Kristofferson, and Simon & Garfunkel.

On a few occasions, Andy and my mother had it out over his “bad influence,” and at one point she even asked him to refrain from talking to me about “inappropriate” topics, like war and inequality. Always a champion of social conscience and an open mind, he flatly refused, asserting that I had a right to more than one influence over my development.

I have never grown entirely comfortable with speaking my mind. To this day, I too often prefer to avoid uncomfortable topics, and I don’t always speak up when I should. But when I do jump in, whether through writing or speaking, to try to right a wrong, or call attention to injustice, or contribute to a debate, it’s because when I was ten years old, I was shown that I had both a voice, and a responsibility to use it.

Andy_Seabrook

No nukes.

Remembering A Mighty Girl

Wights and Susan Isham

Susan (far right) with her Sunday River Inn family.

Recently, on the Facebook page “A Mighty Girl,” I read about several strong, self-sufficient women who took on the world in different ways. At the age of 67, Emma Gatewood became the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. Drew Gilpin Faust is the 28th president of Harvard University. Maggie Doyne opened an orphanage in Nepal at the age of 19.

“A Mighty Girl” highlights inspirational female role models of the past and present, from Marie Curie to Malala Yousafzai, and encourages girls to “be the leaders, the heroes, the champions that save the day, find the cure, and go on the adventure.”

On Friday afternoon, in a tragic automobile accident, our community lost a mighty girl.

With her wide smile, indomitable spirit, and huge heart, Susan Isham was a friend to everyone she knew…and she knew everyone.

Easygoing, professional, and dedicated, she was a sought-after food service employee who made hospitality an art form.

She worked at the Sunday River Inn for more years than I can count, starting when she was a teenager and eventually becoming its ultra-capable manager. She could take reservations, rent skis, fold towels, and make dinner for 60—all at the same time, if needed.

As a single mother, she taught her daughter the value of self-reliance, as she taught it by example to everyone she knew. I doubt she ever realized just how many people she inspired with her capability, strength, and positive attitude.

As strong and self-sufficient as she was, Susan was also incredibly generous with her time and resources. She was a tireless community volunteer, and she never turned away anyone in need. She fed them, counseled them, and restored their spirits, and when she sent them back out into the world, they knew that someone had their back.

She stayed in her hometown for nearly all of her life and made treasured and lasting connections with her community. She was a loving mother, grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter.

My niece Sara, who grew up with Susan at the Sunday River Inn, wrote, “You have been so much a part of our family over the years and we are all the better for having felt your love, grace, and optimism. May your family find peace in the prayers of all the hearts you have filled in your too-short lifetime. Godspeed to your spirit!”

No one whose life was touched by the spirit of this mighty girl will ever forget her.

Sitting right here, watching the leaves turn color

Leaves_2012_1

I wrote this three years ago on Columbus Day, when we were pushing back hard against the end of summer, and stayed at camp until mid-October. This year, we moved home three weeks earlier, on September 21. We had fall projects to tackle, and the nights were turning cold; a few mornings in the 20s have convinced us it was the right decision. But yesterday afternoon, with the temperature reaching 70 degrees, the sun shining, and the fall foliage as beautiful as I’ve ever seen it, I couldn’t resist spending a little time at camp. I went for a last kayak paddle around the lake, then I sat on Sunny Rock for a while…just sat right there and watched the leaves turn color.    

October 8, 2012

One year, when I was about thirteen or fourteen, on the evening before we were to leave to return to Connecticut from Maine at the end of the summer, as we ate our last camp supper on the screened porch, my mother looked out at the lake and said, in an almost defiant tone, “Some year, I’m going to sit right here and watch the leaves turn color.

I was a teenager—self-absorbed, unsympathetic, dismissive. I wasn’t thrilled about leaving camp, either, but hey—at least I’d get to see my friends, and school might not be too bad this year, and there would probably be some boy on whom to develop an unrequited crush. It was the end of the summer, not the end of the world.Leaves_2012_2

A year or two later, as we were packing up to leave again at the end of another summer, my mother sighed. “This year was going to be the year when I would get to sit right here and watch the leaves turn color.” It must have been 1974, the year my father would have turned 62, the year he would have planned to retire and move back to Maine. They would have stayed on at camp as long as they wanted to that fall—sitting right there, watching the leaves turn color—then relocated for the winter to the snug little year-round home “on a hill in Bethel” that they had always talked about.

Fate, in the form of unexpected widowhood, then my (equally unexpected) arrival, intervened. My mother eventually did retire to Bethel, in 1982, but I don’t think she ever really did get to “sit right here and watch the leaves turn color.” She plunged directly into a hectic retirement schedule that included volunteering, church activities, bridge club, and babysitting (she was “Gramma Wight” to half the families in Bethel), and by Labor Day it was time to get back to her house in town before things fell completely apart without her.

Now that I live three miles away from camp, I’ve been pushing back against the end of summer just a little harder every year. Last year we moved home from camp on September 29th, and we’ve already beaten that by over a week this year. Of course, we’ve had a fire going in the woodstove almost steadily for several weeks, and we’ve probably burned at least two cords of wood that should probably have been earmarked for heating our “real” house during the “real” heating season. But when you’re married to a logger, wood seems cheap and plentiful (it’s not, really) and it doesn’t seem like such a big deal to heat a drafty, uninsulated summer camp in order to squeeze a couple more weeks from the season. (Next year, we’re thinking, with some insulation in the roof and walls, we could target November first. In the more distant future, with new windows, and some heat tape on the water line, could we make it to Thanksgiving?)

Leaves_2012_3_moon

We’re planning to move home this coming weekend—really! I know I’ve been saying that for the past two or three weeks, but every day I see something—a sunset, a flock of noisy geese, the full moon reflected in a lake that’s as still as a mirror—that makes me think, if we had moved home yesterday, we’d have missed this. Life is so much simpler here that it’s hard to think about leaving.

Besides, I’m doing it for Mom…sitting right here, watching the sun set. And the moon shimmer on the water. And the leaves turn color.

Leaves_2012_4_sunset

BFFF: Our Origin Story

Donna_and_Amy_bridge   Donna_and_Amy_bridgeThis weekend, my best friend, Donna, and I are celebrating the golden anniversary of our friendship—BFFF: Best Friends For Fifty. In comic book terminology, an “origin story” is an account or back-story revealing how characters gained their superpowers. This is ours.     

Fifty years ago this September, on the morning of my second day of second grade, I waited for the bus at the end of Marshall Street. My older sister, Leslie, the only one of my siblings still at home, had already left the house to walk to the high school, or catch a ride with her best friend Mary Lee’s older brother, Johnny, whom my mother trusted because he lived across the street and was our paperboy.

As on the previous morning, my mother had packed a peanut butter sandwich, an apple, and two cookies in my red plaid metal lunchbox, and taped two nickels—one for snack milk, one for lunch milk—inside the lid. She sat at the wooden table beside the kitchen window with me, sipping black coffee while I ate my Cheerios and milk and drank a tiny glass of orange juice. Then she drove me the tenth of a mile to the bus stop on the corner, because it was on her way to work.

The day before, on the first day of school, she had parked the car and waited with me beside the mailboxes that belonged to the two almost-identical ranch houses across the street until the bus came. But now, on my second day, I was an old hand at the bus routine, and she stopped the car to let me out, bestowed a quick kiss on my cheek, and was gone.

I was the first to arrive at the bus stop, ahead of the four Milewski siblings, who lived across the street from us, in a house almost hidden behind overgrown spruce trees. The Milewskis, two boys and two girls, had been the only other kids at the bus stop yesterday, and my mother had made sure we all introduced ourselves, but they hadn’t spoken to me again, and none of them had turned out to be in my grade.

This morning, though, a moment after my mother’s station wagon disappeared around the corner onto Ford Street, the front door of one of the houses across the street opened, and a woman in a flowered house dress stepped out, followed by a freckled girl with short dark hair, her bangs cut in a straight line across her forehead like my own.

I watched as they walked together down the path to the driveway, then down the driveway to the street, and across to the bus stop. The woman, who was much younger than my own mother, and tiny, walked right up to me, propelling the little girl toward me with a hand between her shoulder blades.

“This is Donna,” she said. “What’s your name?”

I told her, keeping my eyes downcast and pretending a sudden interest in the toes of my saddle shoes.

“What grade are you in? Who’s your teacher? Mrs. Mendelsohn! You’re in Donna’s class! You two must have met yesterday.”

Without raising my head, I studied Donna from beneath my lashes, and saw that she was doing the same to me. Had she been in my class yesterday? I couldn’t remember, nor could I recall her mother in the throng of parents who walked their kids to the door of the classroom on the first day of school. There were nearly thirty kids in my new class, and so far all I knew was that there were three boys named Michael.

“I need to ask you a favor,” Donna’s mother was saying to me. “Are you used to taking the bus?”

I thought about the question. The year before, I had gone to a different elementary school, Point Beach, because it was just down the hill from the house where my mother took care of a little boy while his parents worked. I walked to school then, with my friend Susan. But now my mother had a new job, as the librarian at another of Milford’s seventeen elementary schools, so I was attending West Main Street School, where Leslie had gone to school through the eighth grade. It was across the busy Boston Post Road, and too far for second-graders to walk in any case, so now I was a bus kid.

Yesterday had been my first time on the bus, but I had taken it twice—to school in the morning and home again in the afternoon, where Leslie was waiting to meet me. And when my mother got home from work, she had told me I was “an old hand” at the bus routine now, and would not need her to wait with me the next morning.

So I nodded.

“Good,” said Donna’s mother. “This is Donna’s very first time on a bus. Will you take care of her, and make sure she gets to school safely, and home again this afternoon?”

“Okay,” I said, relieved, because this was an easy job.

I took my duties seriously, leading the way up the bus steps as soon as the rowdy Milewski siblings had boarded. I steered my new charge to the seat directly behind the driver, Irene, where I had sat alone yesterday.

“This is Donna,” I told Irene importantly. “It’s her first time on the bus.”

“Yeah?” said Irene. She cracked her gum and said nothing more.

Donna and I rode the bus together, sharing a seat, for the rest of elementary school. That first day, I took care of her, as her mother had asked. After that, we looked out for each other—on the bus, at school, and everywhere else we went. We guarded each other from mean boys, mean girls, mean bus drivers, and mean teachers. We passed notes in class, spent hours on the phone, and wrote letters every day during the summers, when she was in Milford and I was in Maine.

We were Brownies and Girl Scouts together.

We grew up and went to high school and got our driver’s licenses together.Donna_and_Amy_Milford_1977

We’ve shared dozens of birthdays, hundreds of sleepovers, and thousands of tears.

When my first husband left for good, I called her before his car was out of the driveway.

When her brother had a terrible accident, I knew before I picked up the phone that she was calling with bad news.

Her mother calls me her second daughter. Donna had a place in my mother’s obituary, listed as her “third daughter.”

Over the years we have helped each other navigate relationship drama, workplace aggravation, and health crises—and now, menopause, arthritis, and absentmindedness.

After fifty years, we’re still taking care of each other.

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Hewnoaks Artist Colony is a magical place

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I haven’t been myself this week.

I mean that in the best possible way.

I have just spent the past seven days at Hewnoaks Artist Colony on Kezar Lake in Lovell, and it has been, for me, a unique and transformative experience.

It’s not the beautiful lakeside setting, the call of the loons, the breathtaking sunsets, or being able to stroll a few yards to the water’s edge whenever I want that have made this week a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.

As you probably already know, I have the remarkable good fortune to have spent every summer of my life beside a lake in western Maine, watching the sun set behind the mountains and drifting off to sleep to the call of loons.

(I don’t know what I’ve ever done to deserve this kind of luck, but believe me, I am grateful for it every single day.)

But here at Hewnoaks, I have lived alone in a remote cabin. I have risen every morning for a week and planned my day—or not planned my day—according to only my own needs, desires, or whims.

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My cabin, Alpine Hut.

There have been no meetings, no scheduled work hours, no errands, no laundry, no meals to prepare for anyone but me. At my cabin, there is no television, no Internet access, and only intermittent cell service (enough to text—sometimes—but not enough for a phone call).

I came here to write, and I have written—about 10,000 new words on my current big project, two to three pages daily in a journal, a draft of an essay, and this blog post.

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If it’s not quite as much as I hoped to get done when I came here, it’s because I decided to make the very most I could of this experience—to make the most of this rarest of times, a week of living alone.

I have gone swimming several times and canoeing twice. I have hiked up two small mountains and taken two long walks on nearby roads. I have carried a notebook and pen out to my cabin’s gloriously private backyard and sat under the pines for three late afternoons in a row, writing by hand instead of keyboard for a change, and listening to the remarkable variety of songbirds that fill the boughs above me.

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On top of Sabattus Mountain.

I have seen a moose, a water snake, a great many tiny toads, and an osprey.

I have seen, for the first time ever, an American redstart.

It didn’t occur to me until this, my final afternoon at Hewnoaks, just why this experience has felt so different from any other to me. It finally hit me today: in my 56 years, I have never lived alone. Not even for as long as a week.

I went away to college, where I lived with a roommate. I married at 20, and again at 30, and in between there was single motherhood. (During that time, although I often felt lonely, I was rarely ever alone, even in the bathroom.)

Living alone, even for a week, has given me the kind of time I don’t usually have for introspection. It has allowed me to focus on lifestyle choices—choices about food and exercise and sleep. It has given me the opportunity to live lightly on the earth, and to consider the impact of my choices.

I have slept when I was tired, eaten when I was hungry, exercised every day. I have prepared very simple meals and eaten a mountain of fresh fruits and vegetables. (The only thing I have baked this week was a sweet potato.)

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I have drunk only water and V-8 juice. I have eaten no meat and very little sugar (s’mores at a campfire with my fellow residents one evening).

I have generated one small bag of recyclables, one teeny-tiny bag of trash, and a big bag of compostables that I’ve kept in the freezer and will take home to my compost pile tomorrow.

I have walked up to the main lodge to check email and Facebook more often than I should have, but less frequently than I would have if it weren’t a rather rugged uphill climb all the way.

Now the challenge: to take what I’ve learned this week home with me. Can I eat more vegetables and less sugar, prioritize adequate sleep, avoid over-scheduling myself, keep on exercising (my streak is at 1,225 days now!), limit my Internet use, and make earth-friendly choices?

That will be my goal—to bring some of the magic  of Hewnoaks into my “real” life and see where it takes me.

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My bag of trash for the week, with my shoe for comparison. I do have big feet, but that’s still a tiny bag of trash.

 

Steve and Peggy–50 years!

Steve and Peggy wedding

August 14, 1965

On August 14, 2015, my oldest brother Steve and his wife Peggy will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. Actually, they’ll be celebrating it today, at a party with family and friends, and I’ve put off writing something for their “memory book” until just about the very last minute.

When Steve and Peggy were married, I was six years old, so I have a few memories of their wedding day, though not many. I was their flower girl, and it was the first time I had ever been in a wedding or, for that matter, participated in any formal occasion that required me to present myself with decorum, or at least not show up with smudges of dirt on my face or Band-aids on my knees.

I have no real memory of the service, except for worrying that I would trip on my long dress on the way down the aisle, and a dim impression that the church was huge and sort of castle-like, with stone walls and heavy wooden doors with enormous black iron hinges.

I remember more about the reception, where we were served a seven-course meal and there was dancing between the courses. I danced with my friend Susan; there is a photo of us somewhere, two little kids, up way past bedtime, holding hands and dancing by the kitchen door.

What I don’t remember anything about at all is Life Before Peggy. I think I must have been three years old the first time she came to camp to meet the family, the summer she and Steve met at Chute Homestead and started dating.

Because Steve is 15 years older than me, I don’t really remember when he lived at home before college, or much about his visits home while he was attending RPI. Most of my memories of Steve start with his marriage to Peggy, and thus are memories of Steve-and-Peggy.

I remember visiting the apartment where they lived during the first year they were married, when Steve was working at Pratt & Whitney and Peggy was teaching school.

I remember telling the kids in my third grade class that I was going to be an aunt, and not being believed.

I remember crossing the country by train with our mother and Leslie during the summer of 1967 to visit them in Tucson, Arizona, where Steve was stationed with the Air Force and where Keith had been born in May, and I remember their visit home to Milford for Christmas that year.Christmas 1967

In between those events, the Red Sox had won the American League pennant for the first time in more than two decades, and all I wanted for Christmas was a baseball bat and a Red Sox cap. As it turned out, back then it was impossible to buy a Red Sox cap in December, so my cap was a plain navy blue one, onto which Peggy had stitched a red felt B .

I was in fifth grade when Steve was sent to Vietnam. Keith was less than two and Eric only a few months old when they came with Peggy to spend the year of Steve’s deployment with us in Milford.

I had never had younger siblings, and even though it must have been a terribly stressful year for Steve, Peggy, my mother, and everyone else involved who was old enough to be aware of the emotional turmoil caused by the war, the separation, and the merging of two households under one roof, I was blissfully ignorant of nearly all of that, and I remember it as one of the best years of my life.

Keith and I played hide-and-seek, built forts from the sofa cushions, and closed all the doors to the hall in the middle of the house so we could make shadow puppets on the ceiling. My tiny upstairs bedroom could be accessed through a “secret door” from the bathroom, and Keith would often wake up early in the mornings and sneak in from Leslie’s old room, where he and Eric slept, to have me read to him while the rest of the household slept.

I loved having a little shadow, and I couldn’t even get mad at him the night he got up after he had been put to bed, found a permanent black Magic Marker, and “decorated” everything in my room, from the cross-stitch sampler I had painstakingly completed and tacked to the wall to the special ceramic bedside lamp with an old-fashioned girl in a full, long skirt that Peggy had given me when I was her flower girl.

Eric marked all of his first-year milestones while living with us—rolling over, crawling, then learning to walk—and, after proving that I could change his diapers without gagging or poking him with a diaper pin, I was allowed to babysit the boys on my own several times. (I was barely ten years old and had never taken a babysitting class, they were two rambunctious boys under the age of two, and this was long before cell phones, but I don’t remember anyone being particularly worried about leaving us all home alone.)

The year ended, Steve came home, and the family moved to Virginia for his last year or so in the Air Force. I visited them there during my April vacation, taking the bus from Connecticut to Newport News, where he and Greg, who was also there for a visit, picked me up in Steve’s convertible sports car. After our year of living together, I had missed Peggy and the boys terribly, and it was wonderful to spend a week reconnecting with them.

Steve and Peggy’s purchase of the Sunday River Inn when they left the service was a dream come true for me. I had always known that I’d be shaking the dust of Connecticut off my feet and heading for Maine as soon as I graduated from high school, and I finally had a home base here, and a reason to get here at other times of the year than summer.

I did, in fact, leave Connecticut for Maine a couple of days after my high school graduation, and I’ve never looked back. Somewhat to my mother’s dismay, I declared my legal residency with Steve and Peggy, changed my driver’s license to Maine, and, when I turned 18, registered to vote here.

My bond with the Bethel area, which originated mostly from our summers at camp and the romantic notions—with which we were all raised—of returning to our father’s ancestral home, has grown even stronger in the nearly 40 years since I moved here full-time. I’ve never thought of living anywhere else, and nowadays, it’s quite an effort to get me to agree to even leave Oxford County. But it’s hard to know if I would have felt so much a part of this place if it weren’t for Steve and Peggy, who, by the time I arrived, had already been absorbed into the community.

When Steve arrived here in the early 1970s, there were still many people who remembered our father and welcomed Bill Wight’s son “back home.”

And even though Steve, who has never shied away from controversy and has thus made quite a name of his own around here, jokes that I don’t like to admit our family connection, the truth is that by the time I got here, the password that opened doors for me was “I’m Steve Wight’s sister.”

But Peggy—Steve’s more level-headed, serene, and reasonable counterpart, our family’s BBSE (Best Big Sister Ever) and now our matriarch—has been a part of my life for so long that the first time I went into the hardware store in Bethel and asked to charge something to their account, when the clerk asked me whether I was Steve’s sister or Peggy’s, I honestly couldn’t remember, and said, “Peggy’s.”

I probably should have stuck with that story.

Happy Golden Anniversary, guys…I love you both so much!

Goodbye to a good man

Alden with Annie, Fall 1983

Alden with Annie, Fall 1983

June 25, 2015

My former father-in-law, Alden Kennett, died last night. He was a quiet, decent, moral man who was also smart and witty and filled with intellectual curiosity. He was my daughters’ grandfather, and for nine years I was privileged to call him “Dad.”

Although (except for a stint at “warden school” prior to becoming a Maine game warden) his formal education had ended with high school, he was deeply interested in a wide variety of subjects and he pursued them all with an intense scholarly passion.

He didn’t have just a passing interest in early American homesteading skills. He read books, visited museums, and watched documentaries until he had learned everything he could about a particular craft or trade.

He built himself a blacksmith’s forge and learned to use it. He designed and constructed a replica of an old New England sugarhouse, tapped maple trees on his property, and boiled down syrup. He procured an antique draw shave and a froe (and it’s thanks to him that I even know what that is: a tool for splitting wooden shingles), built a shaving horse, and, dressed in Colonial garb, gave shingle-making demonstrations at the Bethel Historical Society.

He was interested in local history, Native American history and crafts, genealogy, gardening, the Boston Red Sox, animal husbandry, and trees. After he retired from the Maine Warden Service, he became a certified arborist and had a second career with Sunday River Tree Service.

He grew an enormous vegetable garden, as well as raspberries, blueberries, and fruit trees. He raised chickens, turkeys, pigs, and, once, harking back to his youth on a dairy farm in rural western Massachusetts, a cow. He milked the cow by hand, skimmed the cream to make butter, and ordered rennet from a homesteaders’ supply catalog to try his hand at yet another new old skill, cheese-making.

Alden treated everyone with respect, and he never swore. (Well, almost never.) Instead of four-letter words, he had an assortment of old-fashioned curses that were so mild that whenever he used one, it lightened a tense situation so that no one else felt a need to swear, either. (And if they had, they’d usually be laughing too hard to get the words out.)

“Balderdash!” “Gee crickets to Betsy!” And my favorite, “By the bald-headed old pooch!”

In all the years that I knew him, I heard him swear just once.

He had raised two pigs for the freezer, and the day had come to send them to the butcher. Alden had assembled a crew that consisted of my then-husband, a friend or two, and perhaps a son-in-law.

While the womenfolk looked on, the men took on the task of loading the pigs into the bed of a truck. One pig, lured with the promise of an apple, stepped willingly up the ramp and into the truck, but the other—bigger and apparently wiser—was having none of it.

It took all of the men, pushing, pulling, and cajoling, before it finally set foot on the ramp. With a few more apples, a few more shoves, and a lot of grunting (mostly on the part of the men, but probably some from the pig, too), it was finally maneuvered up the ramp.

But before the men could utter a small, self-congratulatory cheer—and before they could detach the ramp and slam the tailgate—the pig had second thoughts, wheeled around, and charged back down the ramp.

There was a moment of stunned silence, then Alden said, rather quietly, “Damn.”

“Alden!” my mother-in-law gasped, shocked.

“Mabel,” he said, “if you can’t take the language, go back in the house!”

For Alden, his family was the mainstay of his world. He was kind and generous to everyone, but most of all to his children, his grandchildren, and his great-grandchildren. He loved and respected each of them, and they loved and respected him.

And so did I.