BFFF: Our Origin Story

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.

Molasses Crinkles like Mom used to make

Today, it’s been eleven years since my mom died.

“I’m thinking about your mom today,” my best-friend-of-almost-50-years texted this morning. “Makes me want to make molasses cookies.”

My mom passed down a lot of great cookie recipes—oatmeal raisin cookies, peanut butter cookies cross-hatched with a fork before baking, a powdered-sugar-dusted concoction that was a favorite with my nephew Keith, chocolate chip cookies (which she always called Toll House cookies, because she was old enough to remember when Ruth Wakefield of the Toll House Inn in Massachusetts invented them in the 1930s). But her molasses crinkles were a lunchbox legend.

As soon as I read Donna’s text, I could think of nothing but those molasses cookies. Fragrant with ginger, cinnamon, and cloves and baked to just the right degree of chewiness, they melt in your mouth.

I don’t have a copy of the recipe written in my mom’s own handwriting (although there’s probably one at camp), but it was one of the first recipes I copied into the now-tattered half-size loose-leaf binder in which I began to collect favorite recipes when I was 18.

I don’t know where this recipe came from originally, but I’m sure it’s very old. I copied it word for word, so it still includes old-fashioned phrases like “roll dough into balls the size of large walnuts” and “bake in a quick-moderate oven.”

I have to admit that I often don’t bother to follow one of the most important lines of the instructions, and it’s the part that makes them molasses crinkles, rather than plain old molasses cookies: after you mix and chill the dough, form it into walnut-sized balls, roll the balls in granulated sugar, place them on a greased cookie sheet, and flatten them slightly with the bottom of a glass (dipping the glass in sugar between cookies so it doesn’t stick), you’re supposed to “sprinkle each with 2 or 3 drops of water to produce a crackled surface.”

When I was in college (the first time), a friend’s mother sent her a box of cookies she called gingersnaps. They were spicy and crunchy and delicious, and they did snap when you broke them in two, just like store-bought ginger snaps, the only kind I’d ever had before. I asked for the recipe, and it wasn’t until years after I had painstakingly copied it onto page 38 of my recipe book, under the heading “Sue Mackenzie’s Mom’s Gingersnaps” (and made the recipe many times), that I realized that her recipe was identical to my mom’s molasses crinkles recipe on page 15, only baked a bit longer for crunchiness, and without the sprinkle-with-2-or-3-drops-of-water step. (Also, according to this recipe, you can roll the balls of dough in granulated sugar “if desired.”)

I made molasses crinkles today (of course!), and I did everything just the way my mom always did. Well, okay, not quite. I always substitute butter for two-thirds of the Crisco shortening in her recipe, which makes them even more melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Besides the fact that butter is almost always better in cookies (and the fact that, unless I’m making whoopie pie filling, it’s hard to bring myself to even look at a cup and a half of Crisco, let alone put it in a recipe), Crisco is no longer the frugal option it used to be. In Mom’s day, it was cheap—far cheaper than butter, and even cheaper than margarine—which I’m sure is why she used it in baking. Nowadays, it rivals butter in price-per-pound. I could probably still buy margarine more cheaply, but, despite having been raised on it, I won’t touch the stuff. Sorry, Mom.Molasses_cookies

Almost-like-my-mom’s Molasses Crinkles

Mix together:

1 cup softened butter

1/2 cup Crisco

2 cups brown sugar

2 eggs

1/2 cup molasses

Sift together and stir in:

4-1/2 cups flour

4 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. salt

1 tsp cloves

2 tsp. cinnamon

2 tsp. ginger

Chill dough for at least two hours. Form into balls the size of large walnuts. Roll balls in sugar and place 2 inches apart on greased baking sheets. Sprinkle each with 2 or 3 drops of water to produce a crackled surface. Flatten with the bottom of a glass, dipping it in sugar between cookies. Bake in a quick-moderate oven (375 degrees) just until set, but not hard, about 8 minutes. Cool on cookie sheet for one minute, then on wire racks.

Another April, long ago…

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Seventy-three years ago, on April 6, 1942, my parents got married. It was a Monday, at 2:30 in the afternoon. (Why they chose to get married on a Monday is a mystery to me; maybe it wasn’t that uncommon back then, or maybe the church was tied up every weekend with all the couples who were rushing to get married before the husbands were sent overseas to fight.)

My father was nearly 30, and my mother had just turned 22. Both had graduated from the University of Maine, but they were several years apart and hadn’t met there. In fact, although they were both Maine natives, they met, in the summer of 1941, in Connecticut, where my father was working as a metallurgical engineer and my mother was working for the Aetna Life Insurance Company (and living at the “Y” with several other girls from Maine).

From all accounts, it was a whirlwind romance; my mother told me once that my father produced an engagement ring on a Labor Day weekend trip home to Maine, barely two months after they had met. “I said, ‘Oh, no, Bill, it’s too soon,’” she told me, “and I made him keep the ring until Christmas.”

They were married just a little more than three months later, in Bangor, where my mother had grown up, and where her
father still lived. For their honeymoon, they traveled to Littleton, New Hampshire, in the White Mountains (yes, in early April!), where they stayed at the historic Thayer’s Inn, built nearly a century before.
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Flume honeymoon

If you look closely, you can spot my mom, sitting on the railing at the top of the gorge.

They snowshoed up the trail to the Flume Gorge; from the photos they took, it was a spring not unlike this one, with plenty of snow still in the woods.

On their way back from New Hampshire, they stopped in Bethel to see my father’s mother and grandmother, who ran a RWW_returning_from_honeymoon_1942small restaurant (Farwell & Wight’s) together. They strapped on their snowshoes again and hiked up a mountain, to the old Farwell homestead (abandoned nearly two decades earlier, when my great-grandparents moved down into town). There, they liberated an old spool bed, already an antique, which was first theirs, then eventually became my sister’s, then my niece’s, and is now in the guest room at camp.

They moved into a tiny, boxlike house in Newington, Connecticut, then, after the kids started coming—four of them in the next seven years—a bigger house with a bigger yard (and a sidewalk running all around it—a racetrack for my brothers’ bikes). Eventually they moved to Westfield, New Jersey for my father’s job.

From my mother’s accounts of those years, I think she loved being a young wife, raising her family in a place filled with other young families, baking up a storm (“a pie, a cake, or a batch of cookies, every day”), coffee-klatsching with the other neighborhood wives (“we’d all get together and call in our grocery order, and they’d deliver it to wherever we were having coffee that morning”), taking camping trips in a leaky tent with all the kids and the family’s cocker spaniel.

Then in the mid-1950s, itching to get back to Maine for at least part of the year, they bought a lot on North Pond in Woodstock and started to build a camp, and that quickly became a major focus of their lives. My parents always knew that one day they would retire together “to a house on a hill in Bethel,” and spending their summers on nearby North Pond was a step in the right direction.

My mother was married for just over 16 years, and was a widow for nearly 46. I never knew my father, who died a week shy of his 46th birthday, and more than eight months before I was born. My mother wore her rings until the day she died, and I believe she always considered herself my father’s wife.

The day after she retired, in June of 1982, my mother left Connecticut for Maine, there to stay for the remaining 22 years of her life (except for her trips to Alaska and Colorado and England and Scotland and France and Germany and Australia…).

She started a journal that day with these words: “June 22, 1982—Your 70th birthday, Bill, and a very good day to close out my Milford life and get ready to carry out our dream of retirement on a hill in Bethel!”momanddad

I Heart Locke’s Mills…and I have a column!

I have a new writing gig! I am (at least for now) the weekly correspondent to The Bethel Citizen for Locke’s Mills, the village where I live.

Note: Just to clear up any confusion, it’s true that I am a resident of the town of Greenwood, but I also live in the village of Locke’s Mills, just as people who live in the village of Bryant Pond are also residents of the town of Woodstock. It’s a Maine thing, I guess. Wikipedia says: “The village of Locke Mills, on State Route 26 in the northern part of Greenwood, is the town’s urban center and largest settlement.” To further muddle things, most modern mentions of the village call it “Locke Mills,” but our local historian, Blaine Mills, points out that all historical references from the 19th century call it “Locke’s Mills,” so that’s what we put on the signs that welcome visitors to the village, and that’s what I try to remember to call it.2015-03-23 001 2015-03-23 001

For writers, the weekly column is often considered to be a sort of holy grail—the most sought-after outlet for their writing. After all, as Peter Cole wrote for The Guardian, columns “are defined by ownership; the column ‘belongs’ to its author who has that ultimate journalistic luxury, a slot, guaranteed space over which he or she presides and has, in some cases, near total control over content.”

Wow, heady stuff! The “ultimate journalistic luxury”!

I’m taking over the Locke’s Mills column because my friend Betsey, who has written it for the past few years, has given it up. A couple of weeks ago, she wrote in her column that it would be her last one, and encouraged anyone who wanted to take it over to contact the editor.

Remarkably, no one has (so far) expressed interest in the fame and fortune that go along with being a correspondent for the local weekly. Since I already write features and cover school board meetings for the paper, and since I hated to see my own town village, where I’ve lived for over 25 years now, go without a local column (and since someone asked me if I would do it, and I’m very bad at saying no) I decided I would take it over.

When I was growing up in suburban Connecticut, my family subscribed to The Citizen by mail, to keep abreast of the news during the long ten months of the year when we couldn’t be in Maine. The local columns were always my favorite part of the paper.

Back then, there were correspondents from settlements like Middle Dam, Magalloway, and Greenwood City, and I used to like to read about whether the ice was out, where the smelts were running, and who had paid a visit to whom, and to imagine what life was like in those exotic places.

But Locke’s Mills has always been the village closest to my heart. It was the place my sister and I came to by motorboat every day in the summer from our camp on North Pond, leaving our aluminum Duratech Runabout tied to the rickety dock at  Bob’s Corner Store (and, before Bob bought the store, Lee’s Variety) while we walked barefoot along Route 26 to get our mail at the post office.

If it was a hot, sunny day, we would scamper as fast as we could across the burning pavement in front of the gas pumps, to get to the cool grass of the tiny town common where the war monument stands.

From there, we’d walk on the edges of Mellen Kimball’s and Willard Farwell’s lawns, beneath the maple tree near the dam, then along the edge of the mill’s gravel parking lot, where we’d often find wooden treasures to pick up—dowels or glue pins or a screwdriver handle with a bright red enameled finish—to add to our collection.

Back in those days—the 1960s and early 1970s—the mill was running two, or maybe even three, shifts a day, black smoke pouring almost continuously from the tall smokestack. Although there were often acrid whiffs of paint and glue in the air, there was also always the quite pleasant scent of burning hardwood sawdust. It was a smell I associated with summers in Maine, and one the year-round residents of Locke’s Mills probably associated with prosperity.

Before they were torn down, there were several big old houses along lower Main Street, and there would often be kids playing on the porches or steps. I was shy and tried not to look up as we passed, but if one of them called out hello, it gave me a little thrill, as if I were really part of the town, not just a summer visitor.

Since we were here for only two months, we didn’t have a post office box. Our mail came addressed simply “General Delivery, Locke’s Mills, Maine” and we had to go to the post office window, presided over at various times by Connie Blanchard, Mac Packard, or Joyce Hathaway, and ask for it.

If my mother had asked us to pick up hamburger or chicken for supper, we continued on to Hathaway’s Country Store, where Willy Hathaway ran a first-class butcher counter. Then we walked back to Bob’s, careful to watch out for broken glass or metal pop-tops along the road (although by the end of the summer our feet would be tough enough to step on almost anything with impunity).

At Bob’s, we picked up bread and milk and the Lewiston Sun that had been saved for us, our last name scrawled on the upper corner of the front page. Then we counted out our change to see how much we could spend on penny candy from the huge wood-and-glass case in front of the beer cooler.

Sliding doors on the back opened to give us access to red and black licorice twists and shoelaces, Tootsie Rolls, Atomic Fireballs, Mint Juleps, Bit o’ Honeys, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Smarties, and SweetTarts, with which we eagerly filled the tiny paper bags that were kept stacked on top.

When Lee owned the store, he would open our bags and dump the contents onto the dingy hardwood top of the checkout counter, sorting the pile with a grubby finger as he counted, but once Bob took over, he just asked us how much we had in our bags and took our word for it. We never would have dreamed of cheating him by so much as a penny.

Then we’d carry our purchases back to the boat, tuck them up under the deck, and head home. My sister, who drove the boat, always arrived back at camp with her bag of penny candy still full, while most of mine seemed to somehow disappear on the trip.

Now the Locke’s Mills column is mine, in which to write about nearly anything I want. Most of the local columns in The Bethel Citizen are short, tending to run between 200 and 500 words, and my editor suggests a “mix of news/activities and mild opinion.”

In my first column, for this week’s paper, I wrote that “I hope to continue Betsey’s tradition of making this column a mix of local items and town office news, with some of my own thoughts and opinions thrown in for good measure.”

Chances are there will be a good dose of sentimental reminiscing about my favorite village, too.

On becoming a badass

I am almost 56 years old. I am overweight, I’ve never been remotely athletic, and physical work has never been my favorite thing. Exercise and I were not always on particularly friendly terms.

But this winter I’m becoming a badass, and I owe it all to firewood (and snow removal, but that’s a post for another day).

We heat our rambling, somewhat ramshackle, late-19th-century house with wood, and only wood. There’s an oil furnace in the basement, but we haven’t burned a drop of oil since 2004, when we installed an outdoor wood furnace.

Last winter, before the sap rose, Tony cut three loads of tree-length firewood and had them delivered to our yard. The pile sat there throughout the spring, summer, and early fall, until we moved home from camp and fired up the wood furnace.

Tony scrounges a certain amount of furnace wood throughout the winter—tops and limbs and the occasional dead hardwood. But the bulk of our firewood comes from the prodigious pile—about 20 cords—that gets unloaded beside our driveway every year. More than half of that pile goes into our furnace. We cut and split the rest and sell it, usually by the quarter-cord, to people who run out of dry wood in late winter.

Years ago, Tony had a firewood business that included three dump trucks of various sizes and a conveyor for loading them, and he delivered hundreds of cords of wood every season. Now that we no longer have a dump truck, all of our firewood is sold as pick-your-own. Think of it like driving to a farm to pick apples or strawberries or corn, only a whole lot less convenient.

People who don’t have trucks borrow them from friends, get friends to haul their wood, or make multiple trips with the trunks of their cars full. I once saw a subcompact car leave the driveway with a full trunk, the backseat stacked to the roof with firewood, and another sizeable pile on the front passenger seat.

All the wood we sell has to be cut into 16-inch blocks, split with the woodsplitter, loaded into our ancient and ailing garden cart, pushed across the driveway, and stacked in this specially-sized shed Tony built several years ago. Each of the six sections holds two quarter-cord stacks.

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Tony does the sawing. If it’s a weekend, and Will is home, he does the splitting; otherwise that’s Tony’s job, too.

This winter, for the first time, piling the split wood into the cart, hauling it to the sheds, and unloading and stacking it has become my job. Around January, I mentioned that, once in a while, I wouldn’t mind doing something more practical for my daily exercise than walking or snowshoeing or yoga, and suddenly I had a whole new exercise program.

Here are some things I’ve learned since I became an expert firewood hauler/stacker:

I can haul 60 sticks in the cart at a time.

There are approximately 420 sticks in a half-cord.

It takes just over an hour to haul and stack half a cord, which I figure is at least the exercise equivalent of a 30-to-45-minute walk. Maybe more.

But the most important things I’ve learned confirm what Mom always said:

Hard work is its own reward.

Fresh air gives you a healthy glow (and a good appetite, not that that’s ever been a problem for me).

And it really is possible to enjoy being outside in just about any kind of weather, as long as you dress for it. (I always thought that was just her way to get me out of the house when I was a kid.)

I’ve never been a big fan of cold weather, and this winter—especially this month!—has featured a lot of the coldest weather I can remember. I’ve hauled and stacked about eight cords of wood—over 16 hours’ worth—since the beginning of February, so I’ve been out in the cold a lot.

On Monday, when the wind-chill temperature was well below zero, I stacked a full cord. On Tuesday, when it was a little warmer, but not much, I stacked a half-cord of split wood, then spent another hour helping Tony haul several loads of four-foot sticks for the furnace.

I have been well supplied with fresh air and exercise this winter, thanks to that woodpile. I have developed actual biceps muscles.

And—bonus—thanks to the fact that four-foot, unsplit logs are really, really heavy, I’ve learned the proper technique for using a pulp hook, something I never thought I’d master.

Thanks to you, firewood pile, I am now an aspiring badass.

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Happy Friday-the-13th birthday, Mom

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My mom would have turned 95 today.

She was born on a Friday the 13th, and regarded 13 as her lucky number. She was always especially pleased when her birthday fell, as it does this year, on a Friday.

She also would have been pleased to reach a milestone birthday. After a certain age, all birthdays are milestones, but the ones ending in zeros and fives draw a bit of extra attention. And despite her unassuming nature—blending into the background was something of her specialty—my mom never minded having a bit of fuss made over her birthday.

Since her birthday was the day before Valentine’s Day, over the years she was feted with a lot of lopsided, garishly-frosted, heart-themed cakes. I hope there weren’t many years when she was left with a pile of messy bowls and beaters by a daughter whose interest in baking did not extend to the clean-up phase, but I’m sure there were a few.Scan_20150213 (8)

In 2000, when she turned 80, her birthday fell on a Sunday, and my siblings and I pulled off an elaborate two-day surprise event. We told her that those of us who lived nearby would take her out to dinner on Saturday evening, then surprised her at the restaurant with a small crowd that included all five of us, plus some of her grandchildren.

The next day, while she sat in church, enjoying a few birthday greetings from friends and probably thinking that it had been a nice party, if a bit understated for an 80th birthday celebration, we worked frantically just below the sanctuary. We decorated the basement function room with crepe paper and balloons, brought in platters of food and an enormous cake, and greeted out-of-town family and friends who arrived to fill the space while the church service continued upstairs.

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When she was brought downstairs after church, the party was a complete surprise to her. It was a wonderful event, blending her church family and the dozens of local children she had babysat over the years with her brothers and sister-in-law, nieces and nephews, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and lifelong friends.

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At the time, my mom was vigorous and healthy (she would celebrate her 81st birthday, the following year, while on a three-week tour of Australia and New Zealand with a high school friend), and none of us would have guessed that it would be her last milestone birthday—or, at least, the last one to end in a zero or five.

I’m glad we got to have that celebration, and I wish I were in the kitchen right now, making her a lop-sided, garishly-frosted, heart-themed cake to celebrate turning 95.

I’d even wash my own dishes.

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I had a mother who read to me

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I’ve been waiting all week for today: it’s National Readathon Day! (“Or,” said my son the bibliophile, “as I call it, ‘Saturday.’”)

The idea is that we should all spend from noon until 4 p.m. today curled up with a book. After recently reading the three novels in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead series, I’ve been wanting to reread her first novel, Housekeeping. I picked it up at the library this week and have been saving it for this afternoon.

Yesterday I was sorting through a box of my kids’ old picture books, some of which were mine when I was little. I was thinking, for the thousandth time, how grateful I am that I had a mother who instilled in me a great love of reading. Besides reading to her own kids and grandkids, my mom, in her retirement years in Bethel, became “Gramma Wight” to half the kids in town, and she read to them, too.

Just then I flipped open a dog-eared copy of One Morning in Maine and found, tucked inside the cover, the words I read at her funeral, nearly 11 years ago. Here’s an edited version.

My mom, an elementary school librarian, loved words, and she taught me to love them, too. In Milford, Connecticut, where I grew up, we subscribed to two daily papers, and she read both of them, cover to cover, when she got home after a long day of teaching other people’s children to love words.

She loved newspapers, magazines, Scrabble, crossword puzzles, and, most of all, books. She read to me when I was too young to understand the words, and she read to me when I was, in my own opinion, too old to be read to.

Family lore says that I learned to read at the age of three and a half, beginning with street signs and soon progressing to books, which I loved, too. This was a source of great pride and delight to my mom, although, true to form, whenever I overheard her brag about it, it was always with a tinge of dismay, as in, “She’s always got her nose in a book!”

My mom read me poetry—Robert Louis Stevenson and Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost—and anything she regarded as “good” books—Charlotte’s Web and Little House on the Prairie and Winnie the Pooh.

(She did not introduce me to the Hardy Boys books, but when I discovered them on my own, she was smart enough to realize that, no matter her opinion of their literary merit, anything that kept me reading under the covers with a flashlight long after bedtime had some value, after all.)

These are some excerpts from my old favorites. Perhaps your mom read them to you, too, or—if you are lucky enough to have called her “Gramma Wight”—perhaps my mom read them to you.

“Mr. and Mrs. Mallard were looking for a place to live. But every time Mr. Mallard saw what looked like a nice place, Mrs. Mallard said it was no good. There were sure to be foxes in the woods or turtles in the water, and she was not going to raise a family where there might be foxes or turtles. So they flew on and on.” (Robert McCloskey, Make Way for Ducklings)

“Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night / Sailed off in a wooden shoe— / Sailed on a river of crystal light / Into a sea of dew. / ‘Where are you going, and what do you wish?’ / The old moon asked the three. / ‘We have come to fish for the herring fish / That live in this beautiful sea; / Nets of silver and gold have we!’ / Said Wynken, Blynken, and Nod.” (Eugene Field)

“When she reached the Green Meadows, Old Mother West Wind opened her bag, turned it upside down and shook it. Out tumbled the Merry Little Breezes and began to spin round and round for sheer joy, for you see they were to play in the Green Meadows all day long until Old Mother West Wind should come back at night and take them all to their home behind the Purple Hills.”  (Thornton W. Burgess, Old Mother West Wind)

“Who has seen the wind? / Neither I nor you: / But when the leaves hang trembling, / The wind is passing through. / Who has seen the wind? / Neither you nor I: / But when the trees bow down their heads, / The wind is passing by.”  (Christina Rossetti)

“She held back the swinging curtain of ivy and pushed back the door which opened slowly—slowly. Then she slipped through it, and shut it behind her, and stood with her back against it, looking about her and breathing quite fast with excitement, and wonder, and delight. She was standing inside the secret garden.”  (Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden)

“‘No!’ said Ramona, and stamped her foot. Beezus and Mary Jane might have fun, but she wouldn’t. Nobody but a genuine grownup was going to take her to school. If she had to, she would make a great big noisy fuss, and when Ramona made a great big noisy fuss, she usually got her own way. Great big noisy fusses were often necessary when a girl was the youngest member of the family.”  (Beverly Cleary, Ramona the Pest)

“How do you like to go up in a swing, / Up in the air so blue? / Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing / Ever a child can do! / Up in the air and over the wall, / Till I can see so wide, / Rivers and trees and cattle and all / Over the countryside— / Till I look down at the garden green / Down on the roof so brown— / Up in the air I go flying again, / Up in the air and down!”  (Robert Louis Stevenson)

 

“‘How do you do Nothing?’ asked Pooh, after he had wondered for a long time.

‘Well, it’s when people call out at you just as you’re going off to do it, What are you going to do, Christopher Robin, and you say, Oh, nothing, and then you go and do it.’

‘Oh, I see,’ said Pooh.

‘This is a nothing sort of thing that we’re doing now.’

‘Oh, I see,’ said Pooh again.

‘It means just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.’

‘Oh!’ said Pooh.”  (A.A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner)

 

“’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe. / All mimsy were the borogoves / And the mome raths outgrabe. / Beware the Jabberwock, my son! / The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! / Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun / The frumious bandersnatch!”  (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass)

“Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is both a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”  (E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web)

“Pippi had not forgotten her father. He was a sea captain who sailed on the great ocean, and Pippi had sailed with him in his ship until one day her father was blown overboard in a storm and disappeared. But Pippi was absolutely certain that he would come back. ‘As soon as my papa has built himself a boat he will come and get me.’ Pippi was sure that her mother was now in Heaven, watching her little girl through a peephole in the sky, and Pippi often waved up at her and called, ‘Don’t you worry about me. I’ll always come out on top.’”  (Astrid Lindgren, The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking)

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