Note: The following is an update to Portraits of Thanksgiving, published in November 2010.
Back in my teens and early twenties, I thought posing for the family Thanksgiving photo was kind of annoying. Just about the time I’d be digging into my carefully allocated favorite foods—while declining any not-so-favorites still circling past me in the hopes I’d free up some precious plate space—the request would be made. “Look up…over here…and smile everybody!” I’d oblige, mid-mouthful, smiling just enough to not mess up my spearing and shoveling momentum. Even when I became a hostess rather than a guest, I’d pause only for a half-seated pose, saying “cheese” then “Who wants more gravy?” mid-route back to the kitchen.
“What’s the big deal?” I wondered silently. “We all know what we look like. Besides, I already have a shoe box full of these different-year-same-dining room-table-type shots.” And then, I found the old Polaroid.
Sometime in early motherhood, when the little girl things I’d taken for granted became vitally important pieces of a legacy I needed to preserve for my own girls, the dusty shoe box turned into a treasured archive. And digging way down to the bottom, we found a real gem—one of my first Thanksgivings captured in black and white.
The year was 1958. Nine of us are seated around my Nana’s table: myself, my cousins, my aunt, my uncle, my sister, my mother, and my grandparents. We’re all in various stages of spooning and serving and planning out second helpings when the camera freezes us for a happy, hectic instant. I am two-and-a-half, perched on a step stool beside my Nana in a frilly dress I still dimly remember. My mother, seated on my other side, has just turned 30. She’s beaming a wide, relaxed smile while her arm is poised like a safety spring to hold me, her youngest, from toppling over and taking the holiday festivities down with me. Nana, looking over her shoulder with a hasty grin, seems to be saying something vintage Nana like: “Hurry up and take the picture before everything gets cold!” The only evidence of my Dad in the portrait is the burst of his flash bulb in the upper corner of the mirror hanging over the table. Below, three generations of heads turning toward the photographer’s light for a few immortal seconds, are reflected in the mirror, too.
Now much older and a potential Nana myself, I’ve stockpiled a hefty share of special Thanksgiving prayers. For family and food, love and well-being. And always before saying them I think back to that old Polaroid print, knowing that it’s in the scanning of the grey setting that my here and now becomes vivid. Because all the adults—the grandparents and parents posing at that Thanksgiving table—are now long gone. After the flash bulb burst and my Dad sat back down, we all went back to our steaming plates, blissfully unaware that most in our precious gathering would, one by one, be leaving the table way too soon. Especially my Mum, who looked up from her holiday feast thinking she was posing for just another snapshot. How could she know she’d already lived two-thirds of her short life?
Forever freeze framed in my memory, the actual photo from 1958 is stashed in my attic archives, somewhere amid the decade-old Big Move to Rangeley larger boxes of unsorted knicky-knacky stuff I’m still saving for a someday project. Someday, I’ll take it out of the shoe box and preserve it like it really deserves, framed for all posterity amid the prints of my daughters’ birthdays, holidays, vacations and everything in between. Someday, sometime mid-February, when I’m finally ready to take up scrap booking to get myself through another Rangeley winter. Meanwhile, I’ll keep focusing on the newer pictures playing on perpetual repeat in my head. Set in a storybook of my own making, it stars me and my beloveds during another year of challenge and loss, of beauty, hope and abundance, of my wildest dreams unfolding before me. This Thanksgiving, as I pause, smile, and really look at my family around the table, I will celebrate being there with them, and how blessed I am that the people I can be close to again are the same like-minded souls I want to be close to…forever. This year, I’ll give special thanks for the medical miracles that touched my tiny corner of Maine. For the days we each got vaccinated with huge grins and waiting winter-white arms. And, especially, for the day I walked away from Maine Medical Center and my angels in scrubs with a brand new hip and a heart full of hope, flipping the page on my fear that the next stop was a wheelchair. Those memories shine like a billboard now, fading out the images of what could have been with the light of newfound freedom. And they pave the way for new ones, like recommencing cousins reunions where we update the 60-year-old Thanksgiving picture and toast to grey hair, grandkids and longevity.
I’ll gladly be sitting still for this year’s picture, aware that it IS a big deal to be another year older around the same old table. And I’ll still never lose sight of my antique Thanksgiving Polaroid. It’s a necessary backdrop, a reminder of my essence and my impermanence, a gentle warning that, in contrast, my here and now is too vibrant for me to dwell on portraits of my life gone by. Spirit willing, it lets me picture myself well into my 80’s surrounded in living color by my family and friends, focused on the blessings right in front of me.
Who needs Halloween this year? Not me! I’ve been wearing a mask and eating candy for months now. And I definitely don’t need to watch any of those special October freak fest movies. I have more than enough reasons for recoiling in horror and wanting to run somewhere and hide just watching the nightly news.
But long before the pandemic and all the nasty, spooky stuff going on out there, I never required a holiday or anything haunted to scare the bejesus out of myself.
“You never saw Alien?” someone asked the other day. Nope. Not at the movies, not on the tube, or on the Disney World ride. Never have. Never will. When it came out in the late 70s, I was still trying to unsee the guy who got his eyes pecked out on The Birds from when I was seven years old. I’d hear everyone talking about how this alien creature “just comes busting out” of some guy’s chest and I was all set. Plus it was back when I was starting to contemplate pregnancy and childbirth. And that was all the busting out I was gonna be able to handle.
Alien and other classic creature features must pale in comparison to the high-tech horror scenes streaming into living rooms these days. I can still only imagine. Maybe I’m some sort of alien myself for avoiding the flicks, while most other folks tune in at every opportunity, choosing to make themselves sweat, shake, gasp, and fear for their lives. I guess I just don’t find cringing on my couch in gut-wrenching terror a particularly good night’s entertainment. Besides, although I spend the bulk of my time living an idyllic lakeside existence, I still suffer through my share of moments filled with dread or apprehension and, by nighttime, I’m ready to settle in with a couple mindless sitcoms.
The adrenaline rush, I suppose, is why people want to watch today’s version of Leatherface buzzing up piles of human kindling with his chainsaw. They get a cheap high when witnessing someone’s dismemberment and their adrenal glands respond by pumping out high-octane juice. But since adrenaline’s real purpose is to boost physical strength—allowing a victim to flee from or fight off an attacker—I can’t help but wonder how it gets channeled through couch potatoes who routinely OD their circuits with terror. If I did choose to watch repeated zombie, creepy crawly, or bloody massacre scenes, wouldn’t I need to put the show on pause, rush out on my porch to scream my lungs out, and come back in for another dose? Wouldn’t I get used to tolerating higher levels of terror, seeking more and more harder core scenes to give me that extra surge of secretions I’d be craving?
No thanks. I’ll be content with hypothesizing about the effects of prolonged make-believe terror. Good thing, because given my baggage and the everyday real life little shocks to my system I manage to pile on, if I watched more than a few minutes of that stuff, I’d end up looking like lakeside Chucky myself! I’m still recovering from all the times in my formative years when televisions were still a novelty and my fun-loving family made me the entertainment: “I told her the UFOs were making the rounds in the neighborhood and our house was next. That got her going!” I never even got a vacation, just a new twist: “Right before dark, I hid behind the outhouse and scratched on it like a big, ol’ bear. She was a couple feet off the ground when she came outta there!” By the time I was 20, my nickname was Fidget. And I checked under the bed alot.
So, all things considered. I’ve had a steady enough stream of adrenaline coursing through me, thank you very much. A lifetime supply, I figure, administered in various doses by all sorts of jitters and jolts. Here are just a few:
Motherhood. Raising two wonderful and remarkably well-adjusted daughters has brought me way more joy than trepidation. But let’s face it. From the moment the maternity nurse handed over ownership of my own new life forms—and on through the gauntlet of gruesome possibilities known as the teenage years—I’ve had some fitful nights and more than a few nail biters. Now that they’re grown women, I can breathe a bit easier. Except, of course, when Helen, who worked at the Portsmouth Music Hall, told me she had been perched on a ladder somewhere near the proscenium dome getting ready for a production. Or when Becky, an Outward Bound instructor based in Moab, Utah, reported that she’d be “entering Dark Canyon” on such and such a day, or “down in Desolation Canyon” on another.
Blinking hard and saying: “Sorry, officer, I understand.” Hasn’t happened much, but once or twice is enough.
Commuting down Route 128 near Boston. I only subjected myself for short spurts back when I was making a name for myself along the tech corridor, but the flashbacks still give me cold sweats.
Being audited by the IRS. Before that, the word “fine” meant I was OK and all was right with my world. Not anymore, and certainly not in the context of a cryptic federal document.
Snakes! The hardest part of living in the woods is that, until you get really close, all sticks look like snakes. And vice versa.
Watching a pair of loveseats fly out of our trailer on the Maine Turnpike. They were wedged in there with all the logistical expertise that allowed Tom to successfully cart loads up here for more than 20 years. They were a matching set, carefully swathed in bubble wrap to protect their burgundy leather upholstery. Real leather, we were proud to say, to replace a gold tweed recliner and other ancient chairs we weren’t bringing back into our new living room. And they were heavy, built to last…or so we thought until a freakish wind shear reached down like the hand of God and levitated them up and out of our trailer just south of Portland. Thanks to adrenaline-induced superhuman strength, Tom was able to sprint into the center lane and haul the pair of them back over to the side of the turnpike before the next round of semis barreled past. The safety patrol guy that stopped to help said our leather furniture wasn’t the scariest thing he’d ever seen in the middle of the turnpike, but wouldn’t elaborate. When our heart rates returned to somewhere within the range of normal, I told Tom that Flying Loveseats, if nothing else, would make a great name for a punk rock band. Because weird, twisted humor is my go-to, my drug of choice for calming my nerves.
Hearing a long-eared owl claiming its nightly kill at the end of our driveway. Before we figured out this Rangeley relative of a screech-owl wasn’t a little old lady being ax murdered, we spent some chilling moments out on the porch in our skivvies wondering what it wanted from us. Now there’s a haunting sound that would give any trick-or-treaters brave enough to come out my way a kick butt dose of natural adrenaline!
Happy Halloween! Stay safe. May your treats be abundant and your laughter louder than your screams.
If ever there was a time to call a moratorium on April Fools’ Day, this would be it. With the pandemic and everything else going on in the world between last April and now, I just don’t need more shock and awe even if it’s supposed to be all in good fun. Besides, what would the jokes be about this year? Cancelled vaccine appointments? Lost stimulus checks? Scary fake rumors about Saddleback and fishing regs? Definitely not funny!
So, once again, when April Fools’ Day came around, I did unto others as I would have them do unto me. Nothing. No gags, no practical jokes, no tee-heeing as I watched friends and family make buffoons of each other.
I did break protocol a bit this year, though, just for a sanity check. I never used to flip my calendar until a week or so into the month. But standing in my kitchen the other day taking a long, mournful look at the snow squalls blanketing my yard, I couldn’t help but sneak a peek at the new month’s calendar page. “Ha! Real funny!” I snorted, verifying the date under the spring green landscape the calendar publisher thought would be accurate. “Maybe I should hang my Christmas stuff back up, put on some carols, and just let myself go full-out crazy.” Then I wondered…if I did go totally nuts in my little snowbound cabin in Rangeley, would anyone know? Tom might, but I’d have to be severely symptomatic. Beyond that, I probably wouldn’t get a phone call or even a silly email because, for years, I’d been begging to be left the heck alone. If I didn’t lend any credence whatsoever to first-day-of-April customs, I hoped those who did would bypass me in their celebrations. “Wish granted,” I sighed. As I let the calendar fall back to March, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of loneliness knowing that my pre-retirement days of commuting to a cubicle—where I’d enjoy the camaraderie of being suckered into some silly office prank—were over.
Apparently, some Medieval hoaxers felt the need to set aside a special occasion for ridiculing other villagers, so they proclaimed April 1 as “All Fools Day.” How thoughtful! And how noble that everyone in modern society from school children to scientists still sanctions a day for poking fun at each other! Could it be that those who perpetuate such rituals are fed up with Christmas compassion, are sick of Valentine sweetness and are dreading Mothers’ Day devotion so they reserve a day in between to cut loose with a little bad behavior? I’ll bet the worst of them—knowing that, come April 15, they’ll have forked over large reserves of hard-earned cash to the IRS—especially look forward to the day when they can lighten their own anguish by evoking momentary shock and discomfort on others.
Yup, I bowed out of the foolish festivities and called a truce years ago. After decades of allowing family members to entertain themselves at my expense, I begged them to let me off the hook. “How about from now on April 1st just slips by me uneventfully?” I asked. “Spare me further trauma.” Seems like they listened. They decided my longevity and sanity were worth a bit more than their glee at scaring me silly or watching me make an ass out of myself “all in good fun.” Besides, those who love me enough to play pranks on me have realized I don’t need any help from them to feel foolish. I manage to do that all by myself year-round.
Now, when I say “foolish”, I don’t mean I spend most of my days feeling like I’m walking around in slippers curled up at the toes and a floppy hat with bells on it. I’m referring to the occasional need to look around to see if anyone noticed me doing something ridiculous or, at worst, the desire to leap into a big hole if only one would open up right next to me. My stunts couldn’t hold together a Three Stooges script. But they do supply enough self-induced embarrassment over the course of a year to, I guess, spare me that extra special dose come April 1st.
I’ve made an August fool out of myself a couple times, for example, on account of keys. I wound up standing on the steaming pavement with curdled milk and sour kids in my shopping cart peering at my car keys through electronically sealed glass. And, even though I was in my 20’s, I’m probably still getting extra numskull credit for the time I locked myself out while sunbathing on the second-floor roof of my apartment house. The rest of the house, you see, had been converted into doctor’s offices, and the only soul who could get me into my third-floor apartment before sundown was a nurse working downstairs. I had to wait, overlooking Edgerly’s Funeral Home and Friendly’s restaurant half dressed, until she came out to her car at lunch. To this day, I’m still grateful she didn’t decide to brown bag it that day!
So, if I do something foolish but no one is around to see or hear it, have I really made a fool of myself? Nope, not in my book. But having witnesses who would otherwise be going about their daily business means I’m downright dopey. That was certainly the case when, as a young mother, I lost patience with a game my daughter Helen used to play with her little sister. She’d grab Becky by the hood of her snowsuit and, holding her at a 90-degree angle in the shopping cart (a common thread in my misadventures), emit a series of banshee wails in her ear until she screamed back. Having enough of it one day, I suddenly stopped shopping, whisked Helen toward me by the collar, and did a 30-second simulation of her howls and snarls into her left ear: “EEEEoooo.. .arf, arf. . .owoooo. . !” She was startled, but not nearly as stunned as her kindergarten teacher who saw my entire performance.
Another thing I’ve come to wonder is if I can blame major blunders on malfunctions other than my own. Or perhaps idiotic occurrences are mostly brought on by equipment failure between my ears? If you’re unsure of the difference—how I determine where the actual blame lies for certain snafus—let me offer a couple illustrations. I’ll begin with defective clothing, one of the most degrading malfunctions.
A family member who shall remain nameless once left her half slip behind on a downtown sidewalk. It just lost all elasticity and slithered to her ankles. Not her fault, especially since she was very slim. And not too terribly humiliating since she just stepped out of it without ever breaking stride. Nobody even noticed how this young woman deposited her undergarment on Main Street. She never really lost face and was able to blame the malfunction on the fashion industry.
I wasn’t so lucky the time at a cookout I tried to implicate poor manufacturing instead of myself. Squeezable mustard bottles had just come on the market and I managed to spray several bystanders and my host’s patio ceiling in an attempt to squirt some on my hotdog. When I couldn’t make any come out, I kept squeezing harder until the plastic nozzle with the arrow indicating “open” blew right off the top. “Foolish thing!” I grumbled. Everyone was sympathetic, though, because they knew the foolish thing wasn’t inside the bottle but behind it.
Whatever the causes, after so many episodes of being the poster girl of goofiness, I’m appreciating my April Fools’ Day abstinence. No more tee-heeing, muffled ineffectively behind perpetrators’ palms. No belly-busting bursts of giggling or fingers pointed in my direction as I hang my flushed face in disgrace. And, so what if I do something ridiculous all on my own? There was, after all, more than beautiful scenery beckoning me to a life of relative seclusion in a remote part of Rangeley!
Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart and you will never walk alone. — Rodgers and Hammerstein
My Year in Review slideshow was shaping up to be kinda dull. Same Rangeley lake blues and forest greens but, comparatively speaking, the picture reel I’d play back in my mind when 2020 was finally over lacked the color and variety of a normal year. No aquamarine tropical getaways with my fuchsia-tipped toes in the sand. No tie-dyed roller coaster or concert adventures. No festive candids of cousins or college girlfriends coming together again.
Then Dwight came into the picture. A red-shirted, striped-socked ambassador of goodwill and goofiness, he burst into my bubble and took me on an amazing virtual race around New England.
“Dwighto!” I yelled into the phone last summer, his college nickname coming back naturally like we’d been strolling around campus just yesterday. But, aside from Christmas cards and Facebook messages that now joked about Medicare rather than keg parties, we’d lost touch. “Ummm…whatcha up to these days?”
Probably some fund raising thing, I thought. Probably involving Big Macs and little kids. Hopefully not something that would make me want to haul out the “Sorry, I’ve already chosen my charities” card and hand it to an old friend I hadn’t talked to in 20 years.
He was taking on a new summer retirement project, he said, supporting the Ronald McDonald House Charities of New England (RMHCNE). Its mission, providing housing near major hospitals so families could stay close to their critically ill children, was near and dear to him. So, after almost 40 years in the McDonald’s business, he was doing more than serving on the board of directors.
Oh, here it comes, I said to myself. The big pitch. He was excited, telling me about RMHCNE this and that. In much the same tone he’d get if we ever asked him things like “What’s really in a Chicken McNugget?” Calmly, convincingly, he’d explain about the “100 percent white meat chicken with no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.”
But me being such a lousy listener, and him being such a smooth spokesman, at first all I heard during our phone call was “critical funds…blah…blah…blah” and “joining my mission.” Until he said something about “coming up to see you guys.”
“Looks like you and Tom are closest to Rumford,” he said, “and the McDonald’s on Route 2.” But he’d also be stopping by the Golden Arches in Farmington and then Bethel, if that was more convenient. “I plan to walk 20 to 25 miles per day.”
Wait…WHAT??? I perked right up. He was walking here. From Boston. And back again.
“Yup, walking,” Dwight confirmed as my investigative reporter instincts kicked into high gear. More than 1,000 miles in 58 days. To all seven Ronald McDonald Houses in New England, and 67 local McDonald’s restaurants in between. Starting at the Boston Harbor house in mid-August, then coming full circle by mid-October. If all went as planned, he’d be strolling toward Rumford around September 6.
Wow, I thought, not your average walk for charity! Or even your average walk, as in “I’m going out for a walk” where I’d be out and back in before Tom started to realize I’d left the house. And if he did, he’d know exactly where to come find me on my well-worn route.
“When I retired, I went from 60 miles per hour to zero overnight,” Dwight explained. “I got fat. And when I started doing something about it, I discovered I was really good at walking. A loooong ways without stopping.” In the process, he thought about the families he served as a long-time RMH fundraising volunteer. What was it like to need to stay by your critically ill child’s bedside as much as possible when you’re miles from home? What could he do to make a difference, to pay forward his gratitude for having five healthy grown children and six grandchildren? His walking meditation turned into a daydream, which then turned into a plan—an action plan for raising at least $100,000, for “keeping families close.”
“That’s SO cool!” I said. And so Dwighto.
Although he’d never admit it, Dwight had a flair for putting the extra on top of ordinary, for methodically and unpretentiously going above and beyond till he made everyday things better every day. He fairly strutted off the UNH graduation field into owning and operating one of the most successful fast food franchises in New Hampshire, then proceeded to give back wherever he could. And yet, apparently the managing, coaching, community-building guy still had a bit of a wild streak. The kind that prompted the rest of us to ask things like “You’re gonna do what?” and “Are you sure?” The kind that made me and my girlfriends once tell him he had “a Robert Redford thing goin’ on.” Blonde, blue-eyed with a sense of humor that easily tempered his serious side, Dwight had just enough Sundance Kid charisma to make you want to go his way.
About time I got to tease and compliment my friend in person, I thought as our phone call wound down. “We’d love to meet up with you,” I said. “Have a nice dinner when you…”
It took awhile for it to happen, crashing our conversation, crushing my enthusiasm. But suddenly my “aw crap COVID” consciousness came charging back, halting me at the brink of crazy talk territory. Dinner…inside? A couple drinks…like…in a bar? Sitting around reminiscing about 1977 as if it was still 2019? Shoot, no matter how our old friend managed to come close to our bubble, we all wanted to live out a long retirement, to keep walking toward new horizons, fishing favorite spots, doing whatever kept the gleam in our golden years.
“Dammit, Dwighto! Tom and I will see what’s happening by September. But we really are taking this Corona thing seriously.”
“Yeah, I hear ya,” he said. He was, too. Which was why, despite everything, he had to move forward with his mission. Not being able to host its usual annual fundraising events, RMHCNE had lost a huge source of funding for current operations. He was their hope, their crazy, brave inspiration for reaching out and coming together in a farther than arm’s length new world. COVID could put a few bumps in the road, but couldn’t stop him. So all spring and early summer, Dwight continued to train, walking up to 25 miles a day—mapping out his route, his stops and overnights—and driving it with his wife, Audrey. He practiced washing his clothes in hotel sinks, gleaned safety and health tips from his family, from athletes and Appalachian Trail hikers and from anyone who knew anything about backpacks, footwear, and hoofing it solo through the countryside.
“Let’s sneak up on it,” we agreed. We’d make a plan for how we could get together and how I might be able donate my social media skills to help spread his story. Full of early summer optimism, I flipped to September 6 on my desk calendar and scribbled “Dwight…dinner in Rumford?”
Then I did just that…snuck up on it. Like a sloth rather than the energizer bunny Dwight really deserved. When I should’ve been mentally chomping at the bit behind the starting block, high-stepping in warm up mode, the first time I saw his ginormous “Join the Journey Home” spreadsheet detailing all 10 legs of his route, all I could muster was a tepid “huh…” If so much simple, everyday living had to be re-routed around the damn pandemic, I wondered if a one-man marathon based on faith, trust and who knows how many hurdles along the way could possibly stay on track.
Went to college with this guy, isn’t he cool? For July and half of August, that was my angle, how I’d give a shout out about my one degree of separation from someone fearless and fascinating. From there, I wasn’t sure how I’d remain rooted in Rangeley and stay in step with Dwight’s story.
Then he took off. And brought me with him.
“Yippee! Dwighto’s off and running…or, I mean walking!” I yelled to Tom as I replayed the live video from outside the Boston Ronald McDonald House. It was August 17th—Departure Day—just like it said on the ginormous spreadsheet. And I’d been “sneaking up on it” still, out riding my bike over dirt roads and logging bridges, about as far away from Mile 1 down in Boston Harbor as I could be. “Wow. I guess he’s really doing this!” Tom marveled, leaning into the screen to watch his college “roomie” wave to the camera and start his long trek north. Clad in Ronald McDonald red and white striped socks, a bright red t-shirt showing Ronald reaching out to help, and long, baggy shorts—carrying a big backpack with flashing safety lights—he was one heck of a roadside sideshow.
Ready, set…GO! I’ve never been one to spring into action at the sound of a starting pistol. Ever since I had to sit on the bleachers for school field day, the only time I even try to beat feet is when I see a snake or want to gain ground at Six Flags or a U2 concert. But one look at my colorful friend becoming a blip on the horizon and I was scrambling for a way to walk a thousand miles in his shoes and bring others along, too. Fast. I finally opened the spreadsheet and my tool box and became Dwight’s walking buddy in the best way I knew how.
“Went to college with this guy, isn’t he cool?” I said a few days later when I shared a link to My Journey Home—Journey of 1,000 Smiles, a blog I ghost wrote from Dwight’s frequent updates. I maxed out the Google Maps walking route feature with my visual translations of his loop around New England. Then I almost went color blind to anything not red or yellow selecting the day’s shots from all the Happy Meal hued photos stacked in my inbox. McD’s welcoming crews, all thumbs up upon Dwight’s arrival, a myriad of golden arched meets and greets up the NH coast into Maine, friends joining him for a few miles and passersby handing him money and cheering him on—town by town, the pictures were like a slideshow set on fast forward. And keeping pace with a story line was exhilarating. Virtual or not, I hadn’t felt that much like a real roving reporter since back when I jogged an entire parade route covering a Ronald Regan campaign stop!
By the time I talked to Dwight from his hotel near the Portland Ronald McDonald House, I think he was getting used to me tagging along. What’s up? Where are you? Whatcha eating for dinner? Who’d you see today? How many McD’s have you visited so far? How much money is coming in? How’s the weather been? He’d barely get his sneakers off and sink into his hotel bed before I’d call and start playing nightly news anchor.
When Dwight actually came walking toward me outside the Boardwalk Inn in Rumford, it felt surreal to be three dimensional with him. Like we were in our own blog, simulating the next exciting episode for real. It was one of those sunny late summer days we locals love to brag about, and I was sitting at a picnic table that seemed like it was sent straight from Heaven. COVID restrictions aside, I’d forewarned our friend that dinner + Rumford wasn’t typically part of a memorable night on the town. So being able to “dine out” on the deck right outside his room was a dream come true.
Dwighto was so stoked to stop, sit and eat all at the same time he sat right down in his clown duds and devoured the sandwich, chips, ice cream, cookies, and whoopie pies we brought from the Oquossoc Grocery. Between bites, he entertained us with travel stories, about how more and more supporters were recognizing “the clown on the side of the road” and boosting his running tally with online pledges and drive-by handouts. He was digging down to the bottom of his quart of Giffords Chocolate Lovers when I posed the one burning question I’d been holding onto till I could get an up close (as possible) and personal answer: “How in the heck have you not tripped yet?”
“Not sure,” Dwight laughed. “But I think about it a lot, catching a toe on the pavement or rolling off the sidewalk.” Then he got serious again—Chicken McNugget serious. “Off the record” he said, “I do have really bad blisters on my feet, which never happened before in training. I’m toughing it out, though.” Later, he’d tell me that the almost 30-mile stretch from Farmington to Rumford he covered that day was one of the toughest of the entire journey. All he’d had for fuel since his early morning McMuffin was a couple small bags of peanuts and a granola bar. “Not densely populated with places to stop in for a snack along that section of Route 2, never mind a sneaker store, if you know what I mean,” he said.
Certainly did. That’s why I gave him the extra whoopie pies and cookies, compliments of the Oquossoc Grocery staff who wanted “to help him on his way” the next morning. And I relayed a tip from a seasoned hiking source. “Duck ’em,” I said. “Cover your bandages in duck tape so there’s no friction over your feet. It’s how Mainahs make do till they get down country again.”
Promising to stay in touch and get closer—crowded together and rowdy closer—as soon as safely possible, we called it a night and walked to our truck. Dwight was doing his “end of the day limp” and I was doing my everyday slow shuffle, hanging onto my hiking poles for stability and trying not to trip. “Good thing I’m a much better virtual walking buddy than an actual one,” I joked. If Dwight was surprised, he concealed it with a brotherly grin and a pat on the back. All night, I’d been hiding my hiking poles under the picnic table like I’d hid my cerebral palsy most of my adult life. Until recently, when the “mild” birth condition I’d always overpowered with bullish determination began pushing back harder than ever in its attempts to sideline my 64-year-old body. Now there was no more staying “off the record” with my loss of mobility.
More days than not, I was able to do 13-mile trips on my beloved e-trike. But my three to five mile jaunts—where people saw me as “the up and down the road lady”—were a thing of the past. And I was afraid that soon I’d just be writing about walking. Sitting at my desk moving my fingers instead of my legs.
Dwight’s story was on a whole different scale, but how did he do it? With everything at stake, how did he keep pushing forward without getting overwhelmed? “Hour by hour and, sometimes, step by step,” he confided. He always knew where he was on his 1,000 mile, 58-day, town by town spreadsheet, but didn’t drag the enormity of it down the road with him. “Some mornings it seems like 20 miles might as well be 200. Like I know I did it yesterday but today who am I trying to kid. And other times, I get on a roll and surprise myself. I look ahead and, wow, there’s my next stop already. I’ve done what I set out to do.”
Driving away from Dwight, I started seeing the topography of my everyday travels in a whole new light. No longer blurred in the periphery outside the truck tires, I imagined Dwight negotiating each twist and turn, rise and dip with sure, steady feet. “Dwight walked here,” I thought the next time I rode the maze of roundabouts and river crossings along Route 2 outside Rumford. I saw him laughing on his way past the giant statues of Paul Bunyan and Blue I promised he couldn’t miss, then heading on his way southwest.
Over to New Hampshire and Vermont, down into Western Massachusetts, across Connecticut and Rhode Island. Each state’s place markers in the long red chain on my Google Maps route came to life with daily pictures and running commentary as Dwight circumnavigated New England till the blog was one scrolling collage of “Go, Dwight, Go! You Got This!” signs and fan photos. Still animated from his visit, I could now see myself vividly in the journey. And the more I remembered Dwight’s words about not losing ground to fear and doubt, the more I left my editor’s chair and felt him walking with me.
“C’mon Joy, you got this!” I could hear him, along with my family, cheering me on as I put one foot in front of the other, back and forth, till I’d done a mini marathon out in the driveway. Day after day.
“You gotta do one other thing for me,” Dwight said the last time we spoke. He was nearing the home stretch and we were sorting through the pictures of his sixth Ronald McDonald House visit for an update to my “look where our hero Dwight is now” links on the RMHCNE Facebook page. “Please don’t call me a hero. There are plenty of real heroes out there. I’m not one of them.”
No one likes to argue with a clown, especially a clown with duck taped feet who is all “off the record” serious and “100 percent white meat” defensive. So I did what he asked and kept the title to myself. It was moot, anyways. Because by the time he strolled back to the finish line on a rainy October afternoon in Boston, he didn’t need my words of distinction. We all knew—the friends, families, and everyone who joined in along the way. Dwight had walked over 1,000 miles in 58 days, stopping at 67 McDonald’s restaurants and all seven New England Ronald McDonald Houses. Raising more than $125,000, he helped pay for over 840 nights worth of lodging for loved ones who needed to stay close to their child’s bedside.
Around Christmas, Dwight sent a thank you note—for the “amazing” blog, and the special summer picnic he said helped him recover and kept him on track. It was followed by a hard-bound photo book commemorating the Journey Home. I don’t need to flip through it often to jog my memory. But when I do, I’m thankful. For the bright red blip on my horizon who shifted my focus beyond the limits of 2020, the sorry situation, and the state of my shrinking world. For my old friend and walking buddy, Dwighto, my reluctant hero.
“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything!” my mother would repeat most days during breakfast. Never a morning person, I needed her constant reminders to stop belly aching and just eat so I wouldn’t miss the bus. Mean girls, gym class, homework hassles—all such commentary was censored while she jibber-jabbered in her usual Merry Sunshine style about the weather, the cute boy she saw bagging groceries, or whatever.
Except that one morning when she got uncharacteristically bratty. Finding out she’d been passed over during the previous night’s school board meeting as a candidate to become the next school nurse, she called the newly-hired lady “nothing but an old piss pot.”
“Jeez, Mum. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything!” I told her. And for the next few days, we both shoveled our Cheerios in complete silence.
Mum did eventually become the next school nurse, and good friends with the nurse she potty-mouthed. She had a wonderful time of it, too. But I never forgot the “do as I say not as I do” look on her face when I parroted her advice. Kind of like Kenny on South Park. Her eyes got big as saucers and she tried to use the collar of her bathrobe to muffle herself so she could mumble something unintelligible. Probably something not nice about me and my back sass.
Good thing neither of us has to go back to school this year during the pandemic! Instead of spreading gossip and nasty notes behind my back, mean girls would probably just cough all over me. And Mum would have to tackle way more than head lice patrol—and that mother who kept telling her a Table Talk snack pie was a nutritional lunch for her kid. She got the official school nurse home visit talkin’ to.
“Boy, we’d sure be sputtering and swallowing hard trying not to crab about the COVID!” I said during one of our recent morning chats. I’d give anything to have breakfast with Mum again, even a silent one. Heck, I’d settle for just blowing her a kiss on the other side of a nursing home window—like my friends whose moms are the same super ancient, wicked high risk age she’d be by now. It’s a blessing, I guess, that we never had to do any social distancing. We’ve got a pretty good spiritual closeness thing going on, though. Meaning I sit in my meditation rocker, appreciating the lake view she never got to see, and yack away while she listens. And after 46 years of practice, we are pros.
“Gosh, I wish Corona was just a beer again, and face masks were just for Halloween and hospitals,” I said. “And social distancing meant spacing out dinner dates and other commitments so Tom and I didn’t over extend ourselves, and our excitement came in small doses rather than a huge burst all in one weekend? That was awesome.”
Even though it’s getting harder, I am still finding nice things to say about life during the pandemic. Like how much I appreciate not having to go back to class—whatever the heck that means this year—or figuring out what it means for any offspring requiring me to suddenly embrace home schooling. How wanting but not really needing to go anywhere most of the time is such a blessing. How every day of thinking positive and not testing positive is a gift.
But I do have my moments of verbal despair, when I have to repeat my mother’s motto like a mantra to live up to my name, to keep finding the bright spots and, when I can’t, to just keep quiet. Moments when I feel like everyone, myself included, is being an old piss pot.
“What is wrong with people?” I mumbled at my laptop the other day. “Just wear a damn face mask and be nice to each other. It’s a piece of fabric for crying out loud, not 60 grit sandpaper strapped on with barbed wire!”
“I thought you said you weren’t gonna talk about it,” Tom said.
Aw, snap, he was right. “No more Corona this and COVID that!” I’d promised that morning, the 48th day of Junlygust in the Summer of ‘Rona. Ya see, contrary to what I always fantasized about before moving upta camp for good, it is possible to get up on the wrong side of the bed here. But you gotta be stubborn about it, and pretty much blinded by things that aren’t right outside your window. Like a pandemic. I wasn’t even sick with it, thank goodness, and neither were my loved ones. I was making myself sick over it. And, apparently, the filter between my thoughts and my mouth was wearing out, springing leaks.
Especially now that Junlygust has rolled into Augember, I definitely need to just clam up about the current Corona state of affairs, to not say the C words so I don’t end up bitching about the damn virus. For me, that means not reading, hearing or even thinking about it—basically blocking out all avenues of egress into my noggin and back out my yapper. Because, especially when I’m frothed up over you know what, my stream of consciousness lets everything that trickles in come rushing back out faster than spring break-up on the Androscoggin.
But I am getting better retreating into silence with a shrug and a smile. It’s pretty simple, really, if I follow a couple basic rules.
Pick the right screens and the right direction. Do I lift my head, back away from social media apps and TV to gaze out my actual window screens and get myself back out there? Or do I sit, scroll and scowl while my real life app—the custom primo one engineered for living the good life on big lake in Maine—just runs in the background? Of course, I gotta focus up and away into what’s real, what’s all around me. Because peering down into the virtual world—at statistics and reports and county maps with all the “COVID’s comin’ to get ya colors”—that can be a rat trap rather than a resource. Information without fixation, that’s my goal. To absorb enough to keep me safe, sensible and out in the sunlight on the best days of Indian Summer in God’s country rather than holed up like Gollum, illuminated by eerie laptop light.
Don’t dig too deep. Some days I’m making positive pandemic proclamations and managing to sing and dance about my “new COVID things.” Other days, I’m scrounging around to find one piddly nice thing to say, and coming up empty handed. That’s usually when I’m not following Rule #1. I’m picking the wrong screens and the wrong direction and, as my kids would say, “doom scrolling.” It’s the social media version of what self-help guru Wayne Dyer termed “looking for opportunities for resentment.” I’m endlessly looping through posts till I find something COVID-related to latch onto and vent about. Venting is good, natural, I’m told. It helps me feel less vulnerable and afraid. What’s not good, though, is when I start harping about all the mean ‘n nasty plague-ridden stuff people are saying and doing way outside my personal space. When I try so hard to place blame that I’m digging for resentment opportunities deeper and harder than an Oak Island excavator. And giving Tom a full-blown Facebook report. That’s when he has to give me his “are you really still talking about this” look, steer me out of my chair and back to a place of gratitude. Like out on the lake, or our backyard bike trail. Or even just standing in my well stocked pantry. Those are our places of gratitude, where we see that help is never very far away, where we can keep doing our very best with the chaos beyond our control.
Slip ups still come out of the blue, though. Days when I must stop myself from going on a rant. I start to say the C words, then unconvincingly change sentences mid-syllable like a shifty John Lovitz character on Saturday Night Live.
“Hey…did you see that new article about Corona morphing and coming back next year?” I started to say over dinner. What actually came out was: “Hey…did you see that new article about Cor…um…cor…about courses…yeah…Franklin County Adult Ed courses this fall. There’s a bunch of new ones.” And trying to repeat a morsel from my latest doom dredge, I almost said: “COVID cases are skyrocketing now that Florida re-opened.” But, instead, I managed to stammer: “CO…ah…COLD. It’s supposed to be a really cold winter.”
Mum would be proud, I think.
“I just can’t say enough nice things about how Rangeley is going above and beyond since all this started,” I said after our latest supply loop. Doing the “loop” sure has changed, but not necessarily for the worse. Thanks to the wonderful “essential” people doing most of our leg work and other errands that used to entail leaving the truck, groceries and dinner out can now be had with a couple emails, calls, and grateful double thumbs up to whoever loads up the Tacoma. Off loading back home, I noticed all our bags from the week’s haul were marked “Curbside Cloughs.” That’s how I’d signed my email list to my Rangeley Indispensable Grocery Angels (AKA the IGA), and I guess it stuck.
“Curbside Cloughs,” I giggled. “Well there’s two C words with a nicer ring to them!” And I won’t mind repeating them. Until we flatten the curve and, hopefully, find a cure.
Anyone who’s lived with me for more than a day knows I can’t carry a tune. And they also know that doesn’t stop me from trying. At the top of my lungs. Because singing makes me happy. Or, better said with proper self-talk, nothing can make me happy without my permission. I make myself happy with the sound of my warbling. Especially when I make up my own words.
But the other day, when I realized I’d been in COVID mode for three whole months, my self-help music therapy just wasn’t cutting it. Three months since the good ole days turned into the “new normal.” Three months since I first grasped the fact that I wasn’t going to travel off the mountain for a really, really, really long time. Three months since I’d been closer than hollering distance with my kids, my friends, my in-town party pals. The more I tried to put it all to music, the more I got a melancholy late Beatles vibe.
Yesterday, all my friends were not six feet away. Now it looks like COVID’s here to stay…
Well, that certainly wasn’t the song I needed in my heart to put a smile on my face! I needed more zippity do dah, a full-blown bright lights with a backup orchestra kind of melody. The kind that got Cinderella up out of the ashes and off to the ball, that got Peggy Sawyer to put on her tap shoes and head off to 42nd Street all the way from Allentown. I needed a spoon full of sugar mixed in with my spiced rum and sour grapes!
Luckily, it came to me. My Julie Andrews Sound of Music moment. Well…minus the stellar voice and the ability to dance around on uneven ground. But, in my head, I saw myself bouncing and pirouetting in a field of lupines at the base of Saddleback when I belted out the words. So…here it is, my version of My Favorite Things by Rodgers and Hammerstein. (For you younguns and/or those who only have a vague recollection of the original tune, please YouTube it so you can get the cadence just right and, hopefully, sing along with your own words!)
Rangeley is rising with yellow flags flying Essential workers who keep resupplying Curbside delivery for most everything These are a few of my new COVID things!
Zoom chats and FaceTime and DVR replays No shoes or hair dos and life in my PJs Feeling my heart soar each time my phone rings These are a few of my new COVID things!
Already “at camp” and not on vacation Not rushing up here for self-isolation Surviving and thriving since early this spring These are a few of my new COVID things!
When the news bites, when the facts sting When I’m feeling sad I simply remember my new COVID things And then I don’t feel…so bad.
Maine plates and low rates of local infection Face masks and good sense without rude objections Amazon stuff on my porch with one fling These are a few of my new COVID things!
Restaurant takeout on our new “pandem-deck” Some of it paid for with our stimulus check Government kickbacks without any strings These are a few of my new COVID things!
No need to juggle our friends’ invitations No need to clean house for high expectations Nesting like love birds without any wings These are a few of my new COVID things!
When the news bites, when the facts sting When I’m feeling sad I simply remember my new COVID things And then I don’t feel…so bad.
“Don’t forget, be here this Thursday afternoon for composites!” one of my sorority sisters would announce over dinner each spring. First time I heard it, I had a Hill Street Blues moment, wondering why we needed an appointment with a police sketch artist. There’d been a particularly rough night that weekend when one of the girls allegedly went missing in the alley between the Keg Room and the house. But, far as I knew, all sisters were currently present and accounted for.
In sorority lingo, composites meant composite photos, and no one could afford to be MIA for that. It was our chance to get gussied up and have our glam shot featured in the official University of New Hampshire Phi Mu lineup of ladies that year. The wall-sized composite would be framed and hung near the front entrance, making us the newest, brightest faces in a legacy of women that, at the time, seemed like it began in the dark ages. “For all posterity,” as my mother-in-law used to say when she’d sit for the camera. I didn’t think much about posterity back then. Or about needing to leave my mark on much. But I jotted a reminder in my calendar and yellow-highlighted it. Because I certainly didn’t want to be the hole in the tapestry—the weird “picture not available” girl with a name and white space instead of a face.
“Why didn’t I try harder to not look hungover or otherwise sleep deprived?” the girls and I wondered when we first saw ourselves in the finished composite. And I kicked myself for assuming that clear lip gloss and a touch of mascara was enough to make myself up for a portrait. Ah, well, good enough for black and white film, though, I thought. With our dark turtleneck sweaters and classic regal poses, we all seemed to fit right in—sisters from different mothers—captured in silver-toned sophistication for another year.
“It wasn’t that kind of sorority,” I tell people when they find out I was in one and start studying me from a new angle. How hard did she try to look like Farrah Fawcett? Did she wear mostly pink? Have PJ parties with Buffy and Mitzy? Nope, nope, and definitely not. We weren’t your typical stuck up/rich girl sorority. We were the party sorority. The one girls were comfortable calling their home after Alpha Xi Delta and Chi Omega didn’t invite them back. The one the frat guys came to looking for a fun date. We signed notes to each other LIOB for “Love In Our Bond” and sang Ramblin’ Woman, our theme song, every time more than a few of us got together and had a few too many. Still do.
And yet, surrounded by all that wild, kooky, unconditional love, I was alone. A solitary young woman bordered off from the composite whole. Oh, I had Tom, my then-fiancee, some dorm girlfriends, and family back home. But I kept myself freeze framed, under glass. On record, I was the fifth row from the top on the right-hand side of the Class of ’77. But in my heart, I wasn’t anyone’s girlfriend. Especially not my own. And I really didn’t like seeing myself smiling into the camera as if nothing was wrong.
It wasn’t so much being in front of the camera that bothered me. I was photogenic, so I was told, a poster girl for good orthodontia and clear skin. My mother used to call me her Ivory Soap Girl after the naturally pure-looking faces that sold soap back in her day. “Show me that smile,” she crooned each time I posed for a snapshot. For holidays, for prom, for first dates, for graduation. And then she was gone. The summer between high school and college, just weeks before I was heading off to UNH, she died so suddenly I went from “spreading my wings” to never wanting to lift myself off the ground. For years, I couldn’t put a picture of her out on display or look at a “happy” one of me for very long, couldn’t bear to see myself grinning into a camera without her in the picture. Her smile reminded me of my smile, the one she easily prompted in my pre-liftoff days when we’d sit around and chat about decorating my dorm room, about Tom, and all that girl-talk stuff I’d never be able to take for granted again.
I wouldn’t realize for decades that it was normal to want to isolate myself from other women, to feel awkward about sharing recipes, clothes, or hair styles. It was just me, I thought, arrested in development. I didn’t want to be motherless at barely 18. Didn’t want to admit it, discuss it, to be that much different from the other girls figuring out womanhood. So I faked it. I joined Phi Mu in my junior year and, although I deemed myself “not good girlfriend material,” they didn’t seem to notice. Immersing me, whether I accepted it or not, in the feminine energy of my new tribe, they kept me from shutting down, kept me partying and singing and playing along, until I was ready to open myself up again.
“Woah, would ya just look at how young and hot we were?” That was the general consensus when, forty-some years later, one of the sisters unearthed her copy of our composite and brought it to our summer reunion at Robin’s cabin. “Why didn’t I appreciate being that skinny while I was that skinny?” one of us asked as we all craned our chicken necks, adjusted our bifocals as needed, and peered at our respective pictures. Yup…or appreciate my smooth, symmetrical face, my naturally white teeth, my good hair day, and my miraculous contact lenses, I wondered as I honed in on my 20-year-old self. Because even though, relatively speaking, I stayed young and slim and evenly proportioned for a long time, I could not tarry in that moment, could not just be that Joy back then. I wanted to hurry up and graduate, marry my sweetheart, and get on with life. Meanwhile, I’d bury my grief, conquer my insecurities, trying to be even thinner, smarter, all-around better.
“Oh, how I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year I was twenty-six,” I told the girls later that afternoon, reciting my favorite Nora Ephron quote. “If anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don’t take it off until you’re thirty-four!” We’d stashed the composite and were splashing around in the lake—admiring how each other’s bathing attire covered without overly constricting our Nana-bods. We all laughed and reminisced about our skimpy two-piece suit days, pleased that each of us, along with our drink holder-sized margarita sippy cups, fit so well in our floating rafts without spilling over.
We laughed even louder when the whole bevy of us donned goofy tropical sunglasses for our official Phi Mu girls of summer group photo shoot. “It only took us 40 years, but we finally put some color into our composite!” I said, with a grin almost as bright as my heart-shaped flamingo shades. Forever “the writing major,” I dubbed us the “PHI a-MU-sing Besties” and offered to create a Facebook group. A special private one, we agreed, so we could tag posts of ourselves letting it all hang out without other friends and family members creeping on us. That way, even in the middle of winter, we could log on and relive all our fun and games. Except for the Cards Against Humanity game we played on Saturday night. Any mention of that, and all the definitions we had to learn from the Urban Dictionary, would stay officially off the record!
“Ya know, we really shouldn’t be so shy about strutting our stuff,” Deb said from behind her toucan glasses. “For a bunch of sixty-somethings, we’ve got it goin’ on!” Yes, time had been good to us, mentally and physically. We were healthy, active, engaged in our communities. We felt good about our jobs as mothers, as wives, as nurses, educators, scientists, program directors, as caregivers to parents passed and those still in need. We’d weathered life’s storms relatively unscathed. And, by gosh, we all had really nice hair and only a few well-earned wrinkles. “We’re having even more fun now than we did in college,” Linda declared, her bright blue eyes shaded by ice cream cone lenses. “But other than that, we haven’t changed.”
Yes and no, I thought. In the mirror, if I stood back far enough, I could still see vestiges of the fifth row from the top girl on the right-hand side of the Class of ’77 composite. But I had changed. On the inside, in my mind and in my heart. After years of convincing myself that Christmas cards and social media was enough—of asking why the heck I needed to drive all the way to Robin’s lake when I lived on my own—I was there. Really there. So much so, I wouldn’t need a picture to remind me. But when I saw one, all the colors and sensations of the moment would come bursting back to life. With me in it. Surrounded by beautiful, funny, talented, like-minded soul sisters, I’d recognize myself—not merely captured while wanting to be someone or somewhere else. Candidly caught in the act of living.
I call it there-ness. Being mindful in real time so photos don’t leave me vaguely bewildered, trying to recall being part of something that, apparently, I posed for. Being open so I don’t miss out on possibilities just outside my comfort zone. Showing up so I can be shown love and acceptance. After two Phi Mu reunions in a row, I knew I was finally getting the hang of the whole there-ness thing, of being one of the girls. I’d slowed down long enough, come to just the right place, to find my old college chums waiting, ready for me to catch up. When I did, I started becoming better girlfriend material all over the place. With my grown daughters, my “sistins” (sister+cousins), my sister-in-law (and love), and my almost long-lost biological sister. With the awesome Rangeley women who welcomed me to my forever home. And, especially, with my mother, my original best friend. She’s always in the periphery now, casting light.
Our next Phi Mu summer reunion would be even better, we decided as we left Robin’s. Maybe at Kate’s new house, or Donna’s. Until then, we’d meet up at Lynn’s, go see a show, go out to dinner. We wouldn’t wait for months on end to keep “the summer fun” alive.
But that was last summer’s fun. Before COVID-19 made it not such a good idea to cram into someone’s cabin to share every available inch of sleeping and eating space with women from five or six different states. Suddenly, connecting online seemed like a lackluster substitute for real face time. Until the Ramblin’ Women zoomed into cyberspace!
“Well hello ladies! Looks like we got our composite back, and it’s the Phi Mu version of Hollywood Squares!” I said, doing my best Paul Lynde impression. We were on our first of many Zoom chats, and I was thrilled to see how a shared giggle could simultaneously highlight so many side-by-side screen profiles. Fifteen of us had logged on, and were queued up beaming into our devices from living rooms as far away as Alaska and Australia. “Hiiiiii!” we’d holler, or “There she is!”—shouting out each other’s names like a bunch of laughing gulls flocking up after a long winter. For the next hour or so—one by one or all at once—we gave our coping with Corona reports. So far, we were all well and accounted for, taking it day by day, joking when we wanted to scream. Crying when we couldn’t help ourselves. I peered round and round the chat room at each lovely face, mine included, until the edges of my laptop screen disappeared and we were all back at Robin’s, socially not distancing in our usual style.
“Wow…so many friends in one Zoom meeting! How did you deal with the constant interruptions, or figure out who should be talking when?” I got asked recently. Easy, I said. Like we always did, with a lot of yelling over each other. You can’t live in close quarters with a big bunch of boisterous women and not know how to jockey for air time. And what about Zoom fatigue? Don’t I get exhausted having to work so hard interpreting nonverbal cues and mirroring facial expressions through my video monitor rather than in person?
Not yet, thank goodness. Matter of fact, my “composite” chats make me feel the exact opposite. They energize me. With girl power and gratitude and hope and new perspective. And each time I sign off, blowing virtual kisses into my web cam as the online visits end, I feel like I’m in the last scene of Love Actually. While the Beach Boys sing “God only knows what I’d be without you,” the lens pans out. From each face, each pair of friends reuniting, zooming out to infinity, until I see how perfectly I fit in the mosaic of all things worth holding onto for a lifetime. Love, actually, is all around me. And it’s held together with lots of girlfriend material—soft, stretchy, super comfy, really good girlfriend material.
Not exactly an earth-shattering proclamation. Or is it? Really depends on the context.
My step-mom, Prudy, once had a friend say that exact sentence to her, and it was the biggest deal either of them could imagine. It was back before Facebook, so they were face-to-face friends. Roommates, actually, who spent most afternoons gabbing about health concerns, families, or nothing much in particular. Except for one auspicious afternoon when Prudy’s friend turned toward her, her face radiant in the sun as she sat by the window, and said in a reverent whisper: “Today, I ate a sandwich.”
They couldn’t post, IM, text, or tweet their news. But they did want to shout it from the rooftop, Prudy told me. And, knowing her and her like-minded old lady friends, I believe they would’ve tried. If they hadn’t been stuck at Maine Medical. In the oncology ward. So they used all the energy they could muster boasting to the nurses and anyone else within earshot. After months of chemo, Prudy’s bedside bestie had finally eaten real food. A whole sandwich! The best darn sandwich of her life. And even though Prudy herself was still weeks away from being weaned off IV liquids, she could almost taste that sandwich each time she told the story.
Been thinking a lot about the Sandwich Lady lately. I never got to meet her or even know her real name. But I’ll never forget her, especially now that I really need to channel her life-affirming spunk, her finesse at making the ordinary extraordinary. More than ever, her story reminds me to see silver linings, to tune out idle chatter amid inspiration.
I talk a lot like the Sandwich Lady. Have been for years. Deep into retirement, and living pretty darn deep in the woods, my monologue usually goes something like: Today, I watched the lake thaw. Today, I washed windows. And on real noteworthy days, I include others, add cool modifiers, and switch to first-person plural: Today, we had a Zoom call with Helen and Becky. Today, we did the big town loop, and hit the PO, IGA, and the dump!
Most days, though, I didn’t really sound like the Sandwich Lady. Or act like her and Prudy. “Yeah, today you…whatever,” I’d mutter to my Facebook feed. “And we’re all sharing without really caring about this…why?” I’d chuck most “I’m doing blah blah blah and then I’m gonna yada yada yada” posts into my Whoop-Dee-Do bin and keep scrolling—paging down past the “here is today’s lunch” pics, the afternoon Starbucks “yum!” pics, and the yoga mat in the living room pics. I’d post something ho-hum just to fill the nagging “What’s on your mind, Joy?” space at the top of my timeline, and go about life as usual. Sleep walking in the virtual cloud, shuffling through my normal routine.
But that was all BC. Before COVID-19. Before “life as usual” got blown outta the water like the fireworks finale over Town Cove Park. Before the new normal routine shoved aside the old normal routine like a loaded logging truck barrel-assin’ toward the mill.
No more sitting around asking “So what?” to updates I used to deem useless. I’m too darn busy wondering “So…what the heck?” and “So…how…????” Weeks into “sheltering in place” there is nothing simple anymore about simple announcements, no such thing for me as social media overload. I drink in every drop, reading and reporting posts to my husband, my dog and, especially, myself because I suddenly find the sound of my own voice so reassuring. And whether news comes from a Rangeley friend whose naked face I still recall, or some Facebook “friend” from Australia who I’ll likely never see, doesn’t matter. We are all Corona comrades now and, together, our words make major headlines. Bright lights flashing again on Broadway type news!
“Today, I saw a robin!” I said reverently, my face radiant in the sun as I sat by my office/TV room window. It was the 84th day of April, and I was on day whatever of sporting the indoor Corona-wear I had to trade for the outdoors in the tropical sun drinking Corona and/or rum drinks beach-side wear I’d typically be struttin’ in April. My indoor Corona-wear is an ancient “camp” sweatshirt paired with baggy drawstring pants. I call ’em yoga pants, but that’s more of a stretch than the pants themselves. Because, lately, the only pose I’m doing with any discipline is “seated warrior,” in which I slump lower and lower in my computer chair and hold it as long as I can. That and sun salutations in front of the refrigerator.
It’s all good, though. Because, today, I started a really good book. I sat on my porch in the sun. And, tomorrow, God willing, I’ll get back on my bike. These days, those are pivotal proclamations, ones I shout to the rafters in true Sandwich Lady style. Actually, I’ve probably kicked her style up a few notches and decibels. I’ve acquired a manner of speaking which, like my everyday outfit, is my default mode. It’s not my inside voice or my outside voice because it only has one volume setting. Loud. I call it my anytime voice. Amped up by shouting out the truck window or off the porch from a safe social distance, it lends the proper oomph to my vital pronouncements.
They all seem so vital now, too, all the little thoughts I used to keep to myself, write on a to-do list, or put in a draft that might never get published. Maybe it’s because, thank God, I can’t really see the danger that’s supposedly all around me. But I know it’s there. So I keep trying to drown out the silent approaching threat by repeatedly squawking. About silly stuff that could turn serious. Fidgeting and chirping like a human version of a yard raven. And when there’s nothing specific to broadcast, my outbursts are more primal than ever. “Oh!” I say repeatedly. Or just “OK!” or “There!” No verbs, nouns, or extra syllables. Just me self-soothing with my own echo.
Tom calls it verbal processing. It’s a nice way of saying I could talk the ears off of a jackrabbit. Him, not so much. He’s never been a talker, never much felt the need chime in over my steady drone. Until COVID-19. Something about all this uncertainty and tension has been pressing hard on his TALK button, too. On the phone, online, or on our bicycles yelling to neighbors, Tom’s become a man of more and more words. We’re just a couple of old stereo speakers now, sitting side-by-side in our own private chat room each night—spewing, spinning, and otherwise verbally processing our thoughts.
“Well, today, I read a new virus report,” is usually how the couch dialogue opens. It continues for longer than we’d like in that vein, till we’ve tossed around all our hypothesis about what we think we know and what we hope to be able to do about it. We throw all our fears, our rants and pandemic postulations into our imaginary COVID Cuisinart and process away. And then, in honor of a rule we made on or about the 97th day of April, we stop churning negativity and balance out the awful-izing. Each one of us must express at least three things we are grateful for that day.
There’s quite a bit of duplication between the two of us and from day to day. But that’s OK. Repetition is nice. Especially when we both put just being together at the top of our lists. Tom says he wouldn’t want to be trapped in a cabin in the midst of a global pandemic with anyone but me, and I say likewise. That and our health. Now the weightiest and most incredibly complex object of all our thoughts and deeds, health is right up there in the blessings count. We sure are glad to have that for another day. And we’re thankful that, as far as we know, our family and friends are surviving with their sanity and optimism intact, too.
“Today, I’m grateful we got groceries again!” I said the other night. Not so long ago, talking like that would’ve sounded like I was reading a third grader’s diary. But now it’s far from simple. After seeing snippets of what social distancing food shopping entailed in bigger cities closer to supply hubs and fancy logistics, I wondered what kind of results I’d get way up here in Rangeley. My answer is: phenomenal. Let me tell you, some of those frenzied, bull horn blasted people packing the stores down country could learn a thing or two from the hard-working, inventive, adaptable folks at our tiny local grocery stores! If anyone ever told me I’d be emailing in my food order, calling on my cell from the parking lot for pickup—all the while trusting that my list would be filled without being able to actually see and/or touch each item—I would have laughed and fondly shook my head. But now I’m smiling with pride and admiration! Thanks to my community—to the folks keeping the “social” behind social media and the lifeline that turns online requests into curbside delivery—our pantry, our stomachs, and our hearts are full. We can crawl back into our hidey-hole for a fortnight, if needed, between each virtual forage run.
“Tomorrow, we can go on a picnic,” I said as Tom nodded. “I’m grateful for that.” Like most everything lately, going on a picnic has a brave new connotation. We drive up to the Height of Land, overlooking our sheltering place and the connecting hamlets of friends waiting to hug and high-five us in better times. And we slowly savor every bite of the take-out sandwiches we picked up in town. Because they are the best sandwiches we ever ate.
Thank you to all the people working tirelessly behind the scenes to help us pull through! Stay safe everyone. And repeat after me: Rangeley rises!
Ten winters after putting down Rangeley roots—perennial roots deep in the arctic strata formerly known as our summer waterfront—we put down tracks. Serious tracks. Boldly going where we hadn’t dared to snowshoe, ski, or ice shuffle before. Faster than a speeding lawnmower. More powerful than the Funtown kiddie train. Almost able to leap aboard in a single bound. And while we might not be shreddin’ it hahd, as Bob Marley would say, we are dicin’ it up pretty good.
“Bout time!” That’s the general response we got from the “locals” this fall when we talked of buying a sled—after ‘fessing up that, no, we never owned a snow machine and, yes, we live on the slow end of the Big Lake. All winter. With nothing but miles of “white gold” between our front door to ITS 84 and beyond. For the past decade.
Usually I’m pretty honed in on anniversaries. From the mundane to the monumental, I’ll be the first one to tell you how long ago something happened, what day of the week it was, who was there, and what they were wearing. Like if Rain Man were fixated on calendar days rather than never missing an episode of Judge Wapner, that’d be me.
As it turned out, though, buying a sled during our tenth winter around the Rangeley sun was more coincidental than ceremonial. More reactive than proactive. Blame it on some kind of decade in a cabin dementia, but my instinctive, proactive time elapse surveillance never kicked in. If it had, our conversation might have been something like “Wow, ten’s a big number. Let’s celebrate with that Ski-Doo we’ve always wanted.” Instead, we just sort of woke up one day in October and, with the reverse of what a bear must feel right before hibernation, saw there was a new third-digit year coming up on the calendar and said “Ya know, a sled would be pretty darn special.” Even more special, most days, than our snowshoes and grippers. And that’s how we knew it was finally time to spice our snow daze up a notch with some horsepower and “helmet therapy.”
Our brand spankin’ Ski-Doo Skandic 600 “wide track two-up” arrived well before the first snow fall, during that twilight time of waiting and wondering also known as sneaking up on another Rangeley winter. Seeing the sled parked in the yard in all its just out of the showroom shininess added a different dimension of unknowns to the season. Would it really snow enough to ride that thing? Or, like the year we bought the new snow blower, had we triggered an inverse weather pattern and insured a winter drought? And what, exactly, were we gonna do with this gas-propelled, snow+machine piece of property except go get yet another registration stickah and reshuffle some shed space for it?
Silly us. We forgot that the only sure way to make Old Man Winter start piling on blankets and blankets of snow is to doubt, even for a day, the inevitability of his arrival up here. In these parts, idle speculation about winter—or any season—is just that. Idle. It’s counter productive right when we need all the squirrel energy we can muster to spring into action, get ourselves set up.
So, almost as fast as the yard turned from brown to white, we got busy. Never having piloted a snow mobile, Tom did some test runs and gave me, the designated back seat passenger, a “just in case” lesson on the controls. We dress rehearsed using our most expensive fashion accessories to date—our state-of-the-art helmets. How to hermetically seal our noggins while adjusting, snapping, sliding, and otherwise tweaking each advanced feature—on-the-fly—according to our ever-evolving safety, comfort and visibility requirements. How to gracefully remove the new-age brain bucket without removing large patches of hair along with it and then dropping it on the kitchen counter like a greased bowling ball. Then we graduated to figuring out how to pull on our new snazzy boots without pulling a neck muscle and before pulling on our sub-zero gauntlet gloves. Finally, I was ready to do a “hands on” demo: How to get all layered up, hop on the back of a two-up, and actually stay on.
Or so I thought. But the real lesson I learned was this: When prepping for your maiden snowmobile voyage, don’t rely on a pair of 40-year-old snow bibs you’ve had since back in your almost-maiden youth. You’ll forget that you used to be able to zip ’em up ’cause you had nothing on underneath except a pair of control top pantyhose, not rolls of wine blubber and uber thick fleece! And you’ll feel like the famous scene from Gone With the Wind where Mammy tries to get Scarlett back in her skinny clothes, minus the bed post and plus at least 10 more waistline inches!
So my first ride kinda blurred past me while, instead of wild and free, I felt like Michelin Mamma, praying the few centimeters of zipper I was able to close over my paunch didn’t let go and send a shower of shrapnel into Tom’s back. “No more snow bunny waist for you, Miss Joy Joy!” I said as I waddled back inside to find me some bigger girl pants, glad to have Amazon Prime and be searching for something less cinched, but not quite Mammy sized—yet.
A few days later, we were finally geared up, gassed up and two-up, ready to hit the trail hard, to roar into the great white open. Well, maybe not roar. What we ended up with was more like a steady purr. Because the next teaching moment came as soon as we hit the trail for more than a test run. It pertained to my spirit of adventure. The same spirit that, back in my pre-Rangeley driving days, made me the proud owner of a Mustang convertible named Joyride, the same one that keeps me wanting to ride the fastest, hairiest roller coasters till I can’t hobble on and off them anymore. Turns out, that spirit dies a quick death when exposed to snow-covered terrain. And my need for speed? On the back of a sled, that’s met and exceeded in first gear. Anything above 25 miles per hour feels like I’m riding the end car on Top Thrill Dragster at Cedar Point. In the middle of winter. Without high tech safety restraints. Yelling things not nearly as endearing as the squeals my daughters call my “roller coaster laugh.” But luckily, my pilot seemed to agree. A couple daring sprints to see “what was under the hood,” and he didn’t need me thumping on his back or silent screaming into my helmet to convince him to slow down.
So much for calling our new sled the Red Rocket! After maintaining about the same cruising speed as a Zamboni, the name just didn’t fit. That, plus when we told our daughter we had a Red Rocket, she made the same face she makes when we ask her to explain a Cards Against Humanity phrase. Said something about that term being synonymous with male dog anatomy. So now we have a Red Rover. As in “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Tom and Joy right over!” Across the lake, around Toothaker, down the Bemis track, and back home. Rambling around, blowing the cabin dust off, enjoying another popular Rangeley pastime. And, yes, getting good exercise!
Before this winter, I agreed with Bob Marley when he said snowmobiling didn’t count as outdoor exercise because “all you need to ride is an ass and a throttle thumb.” Now I beg to differ. Especially in the back seat, you also need vice-like grip strength—in your hands and your legs. Specifically in your adductors, those inner thigh muscles you don’t feel until you ride a horse or haul out your Suzane Somers ThighMaster from the 1980s. Did Suzane ever try muckling onto a vinyl seat while thumping over pressure ridges and scaling snow bankings? I think not. Because, if she had, she would have been a Ski-Doo fitness guru instead.
And talk about an ab workout! I might not be sporting a six pack, but I definitely think I’ll be in better swimsuit shape than your average Jane Sixpack, thanks to my Red Rover workouts. We thought that buying the “deluxe” after-market back seat rest for our sled model would be all we needed to have me riding in style and comfort. We were wrong. Until Tom retrofitted it, I spent most of my ride in a half crunch position I hadn’t achieved since I retired my Abs of Steel video. And all the time I was doing so, I was wondering why the engineers at Ski-Doo didn’t take some safety and design pointers from their cohorts working on car seats. If they had, seeing crash test dummies getting all stove up on the “deluxe” after-market back seat of a Ski-Doo Skandic 600 would have sent them back to the drawing board! Sure, streamlined aerodynamics is important on a two-up sled. But how streamlined is it if you end up needing to duct tape your old college “sitting up in bed” pillow with the armrests and five pounds of foam support to the back of your sled?
Luckily, we didn’t need to go that far. With a little Yankee ingenuity and some more help from Amazon, Tom had me sittin’ pretty, enjoying Rangeley’s winter splendor like never before, looking forward to many more years out and about on our anniversary gift to ourselves and our unique lifestyle. It’s not the stuff that jewelry commercials are made of—the ones that make you believe if you don’t by some sort of diamond studded “still married to my best friend” bling to commemorate your love, you’re doing something wrong. But I’m pretty sure, one time in February when we were avoiding a snow drift, our sled tracks made a big, heart-shaped loop on the lake. And sometime along in there, I got inspired to write a song. A reggae song set in the frozen north, about breaking our own path and moving to our own quirky beat.
Slow, Slow, Slow Ridahs Sung to the tune of Buffalo Soldier
Slow, slow, slow ridahs, Won’t go fastah. We’re just the slow, slow, slow ridahs Old faht Sunday drivahs. Moved up from the Flatlands With no real sled plans. Bought our first Ski-Doo Gear that’s brand new. Ridin’ duo On days above zero. Joined the trail club For a stickah and a raffle stub. Cruisn’ real slow Where there’s good snow. Traded in our bicycles Feelin’ like icicles! Toward Bald Mountain Trail map scoutin’. Havin’ no fear Keepin’ it in first gear. Toolin’ round Bemis Maybe the ITS. Slapped by pucker Motherf*****r! Still we look slick Straddlin’ the Skandic. “Snomos” wild and free On our four-stroke utility. Gawkin’ to and fro Through a helmet window. Is that an ice bump Or a buried stump? But, oh what a cool sight Our shadows on the white! Great view of Tom’s head His neck’s real red! Out on the Big Lake Watchin’ out for snow snakes. Holdin’ on so tight Can’t feel my frost bite.
Singin’ braaap braaap braaap ba braaap braaap Braaap braaap braaap ba braaap ba braaap braaap!