Should “town columns” be a thing of the past?

Nearly four years ago, when I started writing the Locke’s Mills column for the Bethel Citizen, I was excited to have a weekly platform from which I could not only help my neighbors to keep abreast of happenings in our small town, but also reminisce, ramble, and report on just about any topic that interested me.

As I wrote back then in a blog post about taking over the column, “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.’”   

(If you missed that post, or want to revisit it, click here to read “I Heart Locke’s Mills—and I have a column!” from March 24, 2015.)  

In the tradition of many of the Citizen’s local correspondents over the years, I have filled my column with a lot of personal musings. In particular, since I became an enthusiastic day hiker a few years ago, I have written about my hiking adventures, whether solo or in the company of other humans and/or Eli the Wonder Pup. 

I have also written about local history, the weather, seasonal changes in the day’s length, and a host of other topics. 

With the newspaper under new editorship, changes are inevitable, and one of those changes is a reduction in the space to be devoted to the so-called “town columns.” Local correspondents have been asked to adhere to a “just the facts, ma’am” format, to concentrate on actual local news (imagine!) and to keep our columns to 300 words or less. (That’s about the length of this introduction, so far.)

From reading today’s Bethel Citizen, I’ve learned that at least one local correspondent is giving up her column, and I won’t be surprised if others join her. In fact, I considered it, too.

 But I’ve decided to continue writing a (much briefer) column for the paper, because I want to make sure that when there are events in Locke’s Mills, there is a space to promote them, and because I want the tradition of local columns to continue in the Citizen, even if they are no longer the homey, chatty forums many readers have enjoyed for decades.  

Since I still expect to have far more to say than I can fit into 300 words, I’ll use this blog to supplement my newspaper column, and try to post here as regularly as I can. 

So, welcome to my loyal Bethel Citizen readers! Here’s this week’s Locke’s Mills newspaper column, my last without space and content restrictions:

 

Locke’s Mills, 12/27/18

I hope everyone had a good Christmas! Since I’m writing this on the Sunday before, I can’t tell you about the actual day, but the days leading up to it have been filled with family, food, and fun, so I’m expecting more of the same for the holiday itself.

The biggest challenge of the season has been keeping Eli the Wonder Pup away from the tree, the bottom half of which has gradually become bare as we’ve moved one ornament after another up higher, out of his reach.

Overset EliEli was particularly naughty on Friday, when he missed his daily hike due to the pouring rain that lasted all day. I made up for it on Saturday by taking him for a long walk in the continuing drizzle while uncle and aunties Will, Annie, and Cait were off to Boston for the day to visit niece Lila and her parents.

Sunday was a much nicer day, and Will, Tony, Eli, and I hiked to and around Overset Pond, which wore all of us out in good shape.  Overset Will

I’m sorry to say that this will be my last lengthy, chatty Locke’s Mills column, at least for the time being. All of the local columnists received word last week that, due to financial and space constraints, beginning with next week’s paper, our columns should be no longer than 300 words and should “talk about what is going on in your towns (as opposed to personal things).”

For comparison, my column has usually run at least twice that length, and occasionally, when I’m especially verbose (like this week), up to 1,000 words, so this will mean quite a change for me.

When I first took over this column, nearly four years ago, I planned from the outset to make it a mix of announcements of upcoming events, whatever local news I could gather at places like the post office and The Local Hub, and informal chatter about whatever struck my fancy.

After all, I was following in a long tradition of Bethel Citizen correspondents who, each week, shared their adventures, big and small, as well as those of their families, friends, and even their pets.

What longtime reader of this paper can forget Viva (Yates) Whitman’s reports, back in the 1980s and early ‘90s, on the doings of the Yates siblings, among them Russell (Joe), Linona (Peggy), and Laura? They were all senior citizens at the time, and their activities consisted mainly of visiting back and forth and driving each other to doctor’s appointments, although I do remember an episode involving brother Russell’s search for a particular brand of footwear that seemed to stretch over several weeks.

Lorraine (Mills) Larson wrote the Locke’s Mills column for many years, and during that time we probably knew as much about the personalities and misadventures of her cats and dogs as we did about those of our own pets.

Past correspondents from far-flung places like Magalloway and Wilson’s Mills shared their news, and although I didn’t know anyone in those places, I read every word.

And, of course, for several decades there were Colista Morgan’s columns, written from the shores of her beloved pond in Greenwood City, detailing that week’s outdoor adventures, by foot or in her trusty rowboat.

Although my parents were both Mainers (my father grew up in Bethel and graduated from Gould Academy in 1930), they met and raised their family in Connecticut. We spent every summer at our camp on North Pond, but I had the misfortune, the rest of the year, of growing up in exile, homesick for what I knew was my true “spiritual home.”

It was Mrs. Morgan’s column, more than any other, that helped me to stay connected to the woods and ponds and mountains during those long ten-month stays in wretched suburbia, and when I was about 12 years old, I wrote to her to tell her how much her weekly essays meant to me. (It pains me to admit it, but I believe that I also included a few of my angst-filled adolescent poems in that first letter.)  Colista note

She wrote back, and thus began a correspondence that would last for 30 years.

Fifty-two of Mrs. Morgan’s essays were later published by the Bethel Citizen in a wonderful collection called Pond Continue reading

But I LIKE Comic Sans!

Back in 2005, when I was opening a bakery, I looked for a fun, casual typeface for all my signs and labels. I wanted a font that said, “Relax! There is nothing in life so serious and dire that a whoopie pie won’t help to lighten the mood!” I wanted my customers to walk in and say, “Well, here’s a fun little place with great cinnamon rolls in the bakery case, crazy colors on the furniture and walls, and a lovable, funny proprietor in the kitchen!”

Bakery label

I chose a font that seemed to say exactly what I wanted. How was I to know that Comic Sans, which was created in 1994 by then-Microsoft designer Vincent Connare to evoke hand-lettering of the sort most often seen in comic books, was—by the time I stumbled across it and thought, perfect!—the subject of worldwide ridicule?

OK, OK, so I understand that the fun, lighthearted Comic Sans is not an appropriate typeface for, say, the resumé you’re sending to Pompous & Stuffy, Inc. Or your Aunt Sally’s gravestone. Or Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s angry letter about LeBron James’ betrayal. Or this sign, warning people of the imminent danger of death at an electrical substation:

Comic Sans inappropriate use

But does this casual, innocent little typeface really deserve the amount of vitriol that has been expended toward it over the past 15+ years? Does it deserve to be the subject of the “Ban Comic Sans” movement that has exploded in articles, blog posts, and even a Ban Comic Sans Official Website (which asserts that using Comic Sans in the wrong context is like wearing a clown costume to a black tie dinner)?

Just because people make mistakes about where and how Comic Sans can be appropriately used, do we really have to blame the font, and call for a total ban?

Google “Comic Sans,” and the first result is the Ban Comic Sans website. Among others near the top: “What’s so wrong with Comic Sans?”, “Comic Sans Criminal: There’s help available for people like you!”, and “Comic Sans: The font everyone loves to hate.”

Now, because of all of this negative press, when I look back at my “pie lady” logo and the “Amy’s Bakeshop” I so proudly painted on my sign, had embroidered on hats and aprons, and used on every label on every pie, cake, and loaf of bread that left my bakeshop, I’m a little mortified.

To tell you the truth, it’s not unlike the nagging feeling of doubt I get when I look back at photos of Amy at MHS croppedme from high school and realize that maybe (just maybe) farmer’s overalls, flannel shirts, and my father’s gold pocketwatch hanging on a chain around my neck did not combine to create the stylish look I thought they did. Aughh! What other significant aesthetic mistakes have I made in my lifetime? (Don’t answer that, please; I have a feeling they may be too numerous to list.)

Holly Combs, who runs the Ban Comic Sans website with her husband, Dave, says, “Comic Sans is in the hands of people that shouldn’t have it. Secretaries and librarians, they don’t use it well.”

Besides the fact that Ms. Combs’ statement is offensive to secretaries and librarians (implying that if they had access to a clown costume, they wouldn’t have the good sense not to wear it to a black-tie dinner), it’s probably not even true. After all, it wasn’t Dan Gilbert’s secretary who chose Comic Sans for his vitriolic missive—he owns that mistake all by himself. And librarians? Please! Do you really think a segment of the population most often caricatured by horn-rimmed glasses, sensible shoes, and the constant admonition to “Shhh!” is going to suddenly go rogue with a font that has been described as frivolous and irreverent?

People seem to take their hatred of Comic Sans quite seriously. Comments on the Combs’ website include “It is a disgusting font – immature, frivolous and visually jarring” and “conveys silliness, childish naivete, irreverence.” There is even—I am not making this up—a book, due out in April, titled Thou Shall Not Use Comic Sans.

It all makes me feel kind of sorry for poor Vincent Connare, who undoubtedly has many worthy accomplishments to his credit, but is probably doomed to be best remembered for creating the typeface that font geeks love to hate. He has surely spent a disproportionate amount of time and energy responding to Comic Sans detractors, which is why he has included a page titled “Why Comic Sans?” on his own website, in which he explains that “Comic Sans was NOT designed as a typeface but as a solution to a problem with the often overlooked part of a computer program’s interface, the typeface used to communicate the message. There was no intention to include the font in other applications other than those designed for children when I designed Comic Sans. The inspiration came at the shock of seeing Times New Roman used in an inappropriate way.”

That’s right, Connare was “shocked” when he saw Times New Roman used inappropriately. And I think you’ll agree that Microsoft Bob’s friendly, helpful pup Rover would never speak in Times New Roman.

MSbob

Because that would be like showing up to make balloon animals at a kids’ party…in black tie.

Who was a good boy?

img_3035

Today we said goodbye to the best dog in the world.

Our black Labrador retriever, Remy, was twelve. Some dogs have longer lives, but I’d like to think that few have better ones.

We brought him home on October 23, 2004, an eight-pound ball of energy who ate socks, chewed scan_20161222-2shoes, peed on the floor, and cried at night when he missed his mom. For the first few nights, I slept on the kitchen floor beside his crate to comfort him.

We quickly abandoned any idea of a no-dogs-on-the-furniture rule, and when he graduated from the crate, he slept on the couch. In his later years, we removed the back cushions from one couch to make more room for him to stretch out, covered it with blankets, and designated it “Remy’s couch.”

For years, if it wasn’t too cold or too hot, he went to work in the woods with Tony, where he kept watch for squirrels on the landing and raced beside the skidder on the twitch trails. Each day, as soon as he finished his breakfast, he waited patiently for the words, “You want to go to the woods?” then barreled out the door and into the cab of the truck.

He was almost always with us. We talked to him constantly, and he developed a fairly extensive understood vocabulary. Although he didn’t always choose to respond to commands, he knew quite a few. Besides the usual “sit,” “stay,” “come,” and “lie down,” he also learned “shake,” “speak,” “whisper,” and “go back.”

That last was how Tony taught him not to crowd the door when he wanted to go in or out, and it always made us laugh to see him scoot backwards on his butt. If you were armed with a biscuit and repeated it often enough, he’d “go back” clear across the room or yard.

He learned quickly that any question beginning with “You want…?” usually meant something he did, in fact, want, very much.

“You want a treat?”

“You want to go for a walk?”

“You want supper?”

And his favorite, always: “You want to go to camp?”

Camp was to Remy just what it has always been to me: the center of the universe. He knew it as the place where the fun is more fun, the relaxation is more relaxing, the company is more wonderful, the freedom freer, and the food tastier (and much more likely to come his way, thanks to hot dogs that rolled from the grill, outdoor picnics on the deck, and inattentive visiting children).

At camp, he learned a specialized vocabulary that included “swim,” “stick,” “ball,” and “go get it,” march-24-paddle-004and when he was a young dog, he would launch himself from the dock, several feet above the water, to fetch whatever was thrown for him. Again. And again. And again.

And he learned the word “culvert”—how many other dogs know that one? He loved to go into the larger culverts on the camp road, splashing through them and emerging on the other side.

At camp, he learned “shut the door.” The closer on our screen door has a habit of catching about four inches shy of fully closed, especially after a cat has gone in or out through it. Remy learned to thrust it open with his head and shoulders whenever we asked him to “shut the door,” and let it slam shut. (Of course we viewed this trick as evidence of genius.)

He also picked up a lot of words we didn’t really teach him on purpose, like “biscuit” and “treat,” “supper” and “breakfast,” “ride” and “walk.”

In fact, he figured that any conversational reference to a walk was an invitation to go for a walk right now!, and we learned to spell it if we were talking about a walk we had taken in the past or might take in the future.

He always knew when we were talking about him, picking up on his name or “dog” or even “d-o-g” in conversation.

When a rogue pet rabbit from next door started coming into our yard and threatening our garden, we accidentally taught him the phrase “wascally wabbit” and for years any mention that there might be something “wascally” in the yard would send him into a frenzy of barking at the window.

But there was one phrase that seemed to puzzle him, from the first time he heard it until the last time we shouted it loudly enough for him to hear.

“Who’s a good boy?”

img_1153His expression was always one of bewilderment. Sometimes he looked around, as if to say, “I don’t know—who is a good boy? Is there someone else here?”

Maybe it was because, somewhere in his blessedly simple mind, he may have understood that he was not always what everyone would call a model canine citizen.

I’ve always said that I raised my dog pretty much the same way I raised my kids: Hands off and hope for the best.

As a result, Remy was an inveterate beggar, stationing himself under the table at every meal.img_1751

Obedience was never his strong suit. Although he certainly knew the meaning of “come,” he often ignored it.

He quickly outgrew chewing things up inside the house, but when he was outdoors, he considered anything small enough to lug off as fair game. We designated one outside wall of the camp as “Remy’s Wall of Shame,” covered with half-eaten sandals, toys, plastic flowerpots, and pool noodles. We frequently had to go looking for missing objects on the banking behind the camp, where he usually took them to chew them up.

A couple of years ago, when he’d gone months without stealing and destroying so much as a flip-flop, and we’d finally decided he’d outgrown that particular bad habit and had begun to relax our guard, in one week he destroyed two cell phones and a pair of glasses.

But in his twelve short years, Remy gave us so much unconditional love, so much laughter, so many memories, that a few pairs of flip-flops, a few plastic beach toys, the occasional $500 pair of glasses…they never really mattered.

roman_and_remy_4_11_13-006Last night I cooked him chicken for supper, and he got an extra Kong full of peanut butter for dessert. I changed the bandage over the inoperable, infected tumor on his leg.

Each of us—Tony, Will, and I, the same three people who picked him up and brought him home as a puppy and have loved him as if our hearts would burst ever since—said a long goodnight to him before he settled onto his couch.

This morning we were all with him at the vet’s, holding him, petting him, loving him. The ending was very gentle, a testament to modern veterinary medicine and the particular knowledge, skill, and compassion of our vet.

Today I’m so, so sad.

But I know that in time, when we share stories of Remy’s Best Days Ever (the Great Whoopie Pie Theft, the Time He Got Two Suppers, the Infamous Woodchuck Incident), I’ll laugh.

I’ll take comfort in knowing that he had a good life. He was warm and secure and well-fed.          I believe he knew how much he was loved.

And the answer to that question that always made him prick up his ears and raise his eyebrows and tip his head in befuddled concentration?

It was you, Remy. It was always you.

first-and-last-moments-at-home

Remy’s first and last moments at home.

FitBit works for me (and I’m as surprised as anyone)

fitbit

For the past six months, I’ve been working pretty hard to get fit and healthy, and it’s been going surprisingly well. I say “surprisingly” because, like so many other people, I’ve tried and failed repeatedly to get in shape throughout my life.

I’ve been asked if I’ve stopped eating bread (no), gluten (no), butter (no), or sugar (no). I’ve been asked if I take supplements (no) or drink weight-loss shakes (no). I’ve been asked if I’m hungry all the time (no).

Today I got this Facebook message from a friend:

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It’s true, I’ve been using a FitBit Flex, which I put on my wrist the day after I received it from my kids for my birthday last March, and have removed very rarely, except to charge it, since then. Although I resisted the activity tracker craze for quite a while, my FitBit has turned out to be just the gimmick I needed, and I usually tell people it’s the key to my success.

I never in my life thought I would hear words like “in awe of your fitness success” directed at me. I started to reply right away, but my enthusiastic message got so long that I told my friend I was going to turn my reply into a blog post instead. So here it is—my wholehearted endorsement of a gadget I didn’t know I needed until I put it on.

Dear friend-who-shall-remain-nameless-(but-who-is-neither-fat-nor-old!),

Ha! I’ve certainly never considered myself a mentor when it comes to fitness, and I’m not sure that 40+ years of mostly hopeless struggle to lose weight followed by 6 months of relative success qualifies me to dispense advice! But I will say that something about the FitBit has really clicked for me.

I don’t necessarily think using a FitBit will work for everyone the way it has (apparently, so far, fingers crossed) worked for me, because I think when it comes to getting in shape, everyone responds to different techniques, but I’ll tell you what I like about it and why it seems to be a good choice for me.

I’ve heard for years that the key to “changing your relationship with food” (which we all used to call “going on a diet,” until we finally started to figure out that diets don’t work—let’s repeat that together: “Diets don’t work!”) is avoiding mindless eating.

I figured if I could just learn to pay attention to what I was eating, I’d have this weight loss thing licked. If I could just learn to taste and savor everything, and eat when I was hungry, and stop when I was full, I was pretty sure I’d eventually end up at a healthy weight.

Some method of keeping track of food was in order. I’ve never successfully tracked what I eat for more than about a day (I used to use a notebook and pen, but that was never going to last), but I find it easy enough with the FitBit program on my iPhone that I’ve been doing it every day for 6 months now. Every. Single. Day. And I don’t hate it.

Virtually anything you’d ever want to eat is in the database already, and you can usually choose from several ways to measure portions–grams, ounces, tablespoons, cups, or something like “1/8 of a large pizza.” It really only takes me a total of a few minutes a day to enter everything I eat, and I’m pretty scrupulous about it.

I’m finally figuring out what normal portions look like, although it took a while. For the first couple of months, I felt like I was eating toddler portions, and I realized (aughhhh!) I’ve probably been eating double and triple portions of many things for most of my life.

As long as I can get that portion thing down, I don’t have to make anything off-limits—not even bread, butter, chocolate, cheese, ice cream, or cheesecake—and because of that, this is the first time in my life that I can remember losing weight successfully without feeling deprived.

I once, 20 years or so ago, lost 35 pounds (mainly by seriously restricting all forms of fat) and promptly gained it all back because I viewed it as a “diet” instead of a “lifestyle change” (that’s an overused catchphrase, but apt).

Every “diet” has a specific endpoint, and when that one ended, all I wanted to do to celebrate losing 35 pounds was eat peanut butter, chocolate, and cheese. I was obsessed with peanut butter, chocolate, and cheese. It did not end well.

On this plan, if I want peanut butter, chocolate, and cheese, I eat them. And I know if I want them again tomorrow, I can eat them again then. It’s amazing the psychological difference that makes.

I like being able to see how many calories I have left for the day…I confess to being a bit of a calorie hoarder, especially if we have company or I’m planning a special dinner. Even though it’s probably healthier overall to eat more calories earlier in the day, I like going into late afternoon with upwards of 1000 calories left—it feels like going shopping with plenty of cash in my wallet.

I love being able to make the connection between activity and calories burned. If I’m more active, I get to eat more. It sounds simple, but I guess I needed to see the actual numbers to have it click.

I like having daily goals for steps, miles, and calories burned. I can be a little compulsive when it comes to streaks (when I started this, I already had an unbroken streak of almost four years without missing a single day of exercising for at least 30 minutes, although it hadn’t helped me lose any weight), so I just kept 30 active minutes as my goal. But I almost always end up with between 60 and 120 minutes a day now, and I always meet my step goal (10k) because, again, I’m a bit compulsive.

I really like wearing my FitBit at night and tracking sleep, because it makes me feel completely justified about being a cranky bitch if I can look at my sleep record and say, “No wonder I’m a cranky bitch; I was awake five times and restless all night!”

Maybe it’s just me, but I love having something new to blame for my crankiness, having badly overused the usual culprits (hormones, hot flashes, husband, and housekeeping) for years now.

The Flex, which cost around $100 six months ago, is down to about $80 now, and that’s a damn good deal. I’m not much of a gadget person myself, but if my FitBit were to suddenly stop working (I’ve had no trouble at all with it so far), I’d get another one in a minute.

So there you go.

xoxox

Amy

fitbit_girl

 

Picking blackberries on August 24th

I picked blackberries today.

I’ve actually been picking a few almost every day, at least on the mornings when I walk around the lake. There are at least three different places where I can count on finding a handful, and sometimes (like when I’ve left camp without remembering to eat breakfast first) they’re the only thing that sustains me on the almost-five-mile walk.

Blackberry bushes often grow up on land that has recently been cut over, allowing the sun in. Actually, the first thing to spring up among the leftover slash from a timber harvest is usually wild raspberries. My mother was a genius at finding wild raspberry patches, and the fastest and most tireless picker. For several years there was a patch along the camp road that we considered our own, where we picked gallons of raspberries, which my mother turned into jam and pies.

After a few years, the raspberries gave way to blackberry bushes, which then gave way to poplars and striped maples and other fast-growing trees, and eventually the forest grew back. No raspberries have grown there for more than 40 years, but when I pass that spot on the road, I still think of it as the raspberry patch.

Then, as now, there were always places along the road to pick a few blackberries. On August 24, 1972, I walked about a quarter of a mile to a prolific blackberry patch across the road from the lots where two camps had been built a few years earlier. I put on long pants and a long-sleeved shirt, tied a cut-down gallon plastic milk jug around my waist, and set off.

I was thirteen. I was an odd and solitary adolescent, and going off alone to gather blackberries was just one of many odd and solitary practices I engaged in that summer. I had just survived two years of junior high hell and in less than two weeks I was headed to high school, which promised to be every bit as hellish.

I had a lot to think about, and during my last days of summer vacation I spent even more time than usual by myself. I took long, broody walks and contemplated the unfairness of my life, puttered around in various boats while trying to figure out how to get my mother to leave me in Maine when she went home to Connecticut on Labor Day weekend, and climbed up to Buck’s Ledge to lie on the moss and write bad, angsty poetry.

Anyway, on that day, 44 years ago, I came in through the back door of the camp with my bucket of blackberries and my slumped shoulders and my best adolescent sulk.

My mother was just hanging up the phone (it’s not important to the story, but I can’t help but note that it was THIS phone, one of the last hand-crank phones in the U.S.phone), and she turned to me and said, “You have a niece!” and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and positively beamed.

I’d been an aunt since the age of eight. I already had two nephews, and although I was pretty thrilled with them, I’d been secretly hoping for a niece, just as my mother had been secretly hoping for a granddaughter. I know she was imagining the tiny sweaters she would knit, and I think she started cutting fabric that same day to make the first of that generation’s dozens of hand-smocked dresses.

katydress

I was imagining all the things a niece and I would do together. I was imagining perfecting my junior-high home ec skills and sewing her a teddy bear, with a pinafore on which I would embroider her name—Katy with a “y.” I was imagining teaching her to bake cookies. And pick blackberries.

I was imagining a little person who would see me not as the glum and lumpy teenager I was, but as something I had never been in my life—cool. Never mind that I had never had even a prayer of being one of the Cool Kids—I would be the Cool Aunt, and that would be a million times better.

First Niece was born in Ohio, which was way too far away. But only a couple of months later, she, along with her parents, came to stay with us in Connecticut for several weeks while they found a house to buy in West Hartford, near my brother’s new job.

Throughout my high school years (which were in some ways exactly as awful as I’d feared) I spent a great deal of
time with First Niece—at our house, at their house, and, in the summers, at camp in Maine. I sewed her a teddy bear. We baked cookies. We picked blackberries.

In a million ways, she helped to make my adolescence bearable. And she thought I was cool.

She actually thought I was cool.  

Well, we were both pretty cool.

Well, we were both pretty cool.

She’s all grown up now. She’s smart, and she loves knitting and books,
and she’s studying to be a librarian. My mom would be so, so, so proud of her.

She’s funny and compassionate and outspoken and a little quirky. I’m so, so, so proud of her.

And I like to think that it’s in some small way due to my early influence that she turned out to be so incredibly cool.katyKaty 14 months

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.