Kineo, our ancient beagle boy, passed on to new adventures a few days ago. He died on my birthday.
Your dog dying on your birthday sounds like the saddest blues song ever. And it was. But there were gifts in it, too. Between my tears, squeezed out from heartache, I am able to acknowledge the timing, the lessons about beginnings that eventually must turn to endings, and back to new beginnings. I am accepting Kineo’s gift.
Kineo was the first and last thing I “did” each morning and every night. “Thank you for being my dog again today, and for being the best dog ever,” I’d say, wrapping him in a velvety hug. Then I’d regale him with an ever growing litany of noble titles before going to get my coffee or going off to bed. You’re welcome, he’d snuffle, his big brown eyes pouring the depths of his love right back at me. And he’d keep on keeping on—for days, weeks, years beyond what a seasoned beagle owner in her right mind (or any dog owner) could reasonably expect. He was two months shy of turning sixteen.
It almost got to be a joke, how he’d keep needing his annual shots, his celebratory cans of Ol’ Roy gravy dinner, and another five-pounder box of biscuits. I’d mark the calendar for his birthdays, then his half-birthday and, finally, his three-quarters birthday just before Mother’s Day. I’d do the dog-to-human years calculations thinking nobody must have told him he was pushing a hundred and twelve. Until there was no more fooling Mother Nature.
In the end, Kineo gave me the gift of one more boat ride, of watching his ears flap softly in the breeze as his nose tried to hoover out every last early summer scent coming off the lake. He devoted all of his days to making the best of mine, of ours. He shared the wonder of living every moment close to the earth, far from worry. And the grace of going peacefully, gratefully, when the time was right. He came to us a dark, stocky little puppy, ready to live up to his rugged Maine mountain name, and left a wizened, lumpy old hound happy to just waddle around after us and sleep in the sun.
On the afternoon of my birthday, Kineo listened mostly with his heart as I smiled through my tears, kissed his old grey head, and whispered one more time. “Thank you for being my dog again today, and the best dog ever. My Lord Bemis camp beagle, ruler of the afghan realm, the far rug regions, the tall pillow plateaus, the deep, dark blanket bayous, the vast, uncharted forest floors, and all the known couch counties. For being my sultan of the Subaru, titan of the Toyota, baron of the biscuits, guardian of the garden, and prince of the porch piddles. For living in regal beagle splendor all of your days, until this last day, Mumma’s birthday, the twenty-seventh day of May in your sixteenth year Atta Doggonie.”
With all the strides made lately toward ecological awareness and responsibility, how come green cellophane Easter “grass” still shows up on the store shelves? Isn’t it a bit ironic that McDonald’s has been forced to develop an environmentally sound alternative to Styrofoam while employees at Bunny Turf, Inc. are still shredding up heaps of neon green strips with a half-life of 200 years?
Back when I had to deal with the stuff as a necessary evil of young motherhood, I told myself I’d like it better if it was somehow recycled—re-purposed from some equally annoying product. Instead of making all those strips from scratch, I always thought the Bunny Turf people should maybe reuse the see-through parts of the Publishers Clearinghouse envelopes I threw away by the truckload each year. Add a little green dye, chop and re-bag it, and presto…one bothersome by-product replaces another! But by June, still finding the glossy clumps rooted in my carpet and underneath my couch cushions, I’d see the flaws in that thought process. No commercially recycled product could ever come close enough to the real thing, I realized, since there was no way of recharging each teensy fake blade with a thousand volts of static electricity. And without that characteristic cling lingering long after the Cadbury eggs have disappeared, the product just wouldn’t be genuine Easter grass.
Of course I didn’t always hate the stuff. I once welcomed its emerald plasticity as a sign of the season the same way I embraced cotton candy on opening day of the fair, Twinkies returning to my lunch box, and those bright yellow and orange corn syrup kernels that came out of hiding each Halloween. I even liked the feel of it, stuffed all springy and bright in my basket the night before Easter, full of promises even better than anything that was bursting forth in my back yard. By morning, this special nest would cushion my stash of chocolatey eggs, little pink and blue marshmallow chicks, and whatever else I could grab before my taller, faster sister plucked it out of hiding.
I bought my daughters their first bags of grass with the same childish exuberance. How precious they were going to be, I thought, prancing around in their little footed jammies looking for what the Easter bunny left and laying it reverently in their very own clump of virgin turf! But somewhere between then and the fifth year I had to rip the long green plastic shreds out of the bowels of my vacuum cleaner, I became less enamored. “I am never buying this crap ever again!” I vowed. “It’s like tinsel on steroids!” As soon as the girls’ Easter haul was eaten and I had re-purposed their baskets, I’d scrape as much of the stubborn tendrils into the trash as possible and pray that my Hoover Wind Tunnel could manage the stragglers. I actually did succeed in removing it from my premises long enough to imagine that, if I put out really big solid chocolate bunnies that year, the girls wouldn’t notice their baskets were bare on the bottom.
“Happy Easter!” one of the Grammies announced the next day, holding out a new basket for each girl. She had been to the dollar store and loaded up on jelly beans, plastic eggs she’d stuffed with spare change, and enough Easter grass for the new millennium. That’s when I gave in, stopped allowing my Easter grass grudge to dampen my holiday gaiety, and finally accepted a few elemental truths: 1) I would not have to buy more Easter grass; but 2) I could also never hope to remove it from my home because 3) the Grammies would always bring more. They had a direct line to the original source, it seemed, plucking from what they began hoarding circa 1958. (I know, because one year in Becky’s allotted clump I found a retro foil Hersey’s wrapper from my favorite candy when I was her age.) Before long, I became pioneer mom for my own “green” movement, stockpiling my ancestral ball and—except for what I lost once in a batch of dirty socks—cramming it all back into a dusty Hannaford bag in the closet. Then, when the girls finally admitted they believed a giant rabbit hopped into their living room with candy only because of the candy part, I dumped the mother lode, bag and all, into the trash and watched Waste Management haul it away.
But it seemed like just a brief moment in time before I wanted it back—that foolish, ancient clump of plastic grass and all the memories that went with it. “I’m so glad you had Easter grass!” I said to the Walgreens clerk the day before Easter some years back. “I like the green, but it’s good you had pink and yellow because I bought my girls these matching pinwheels, too!”
“That’s nice,” she said. “How old are your girls?”
“Twenty-two and 26,” I answered.
Old enough to appreciate how perfect the grass cradled the “big girl” treats their dad decided to hide instead of chocolates. He thought it might be really fun to do one more Easter egg hunt with the girls before we moved to Rangeley. And do it with liquor store nips. He was right.
I have plenty of time, they tell me, before I’ll have to start garnering my own grandma load of grass. Meanwhile, I might just surprise them with a new Easter tradition and load up a couple State of Maine-shaped Easter baskets I saw advertised in Down East magazine. I figure I can load a ton of candy in a big basket like that, stretching Twizzlers all the way from Fort Kent to Kennebunk, and nesting a couple Reese’s eggs down in Eastport. Only thing is, I’ll have to line it all with brown grass to be regionally correct this time of year…and remind them to never assume what’s hiding up around Rangeley is a Milk Dud or a chocolate-covered raisin!
I was in the Walmart the other day when I heard an exchange that warmed my heart like only eavesdropping in Walmart could.
“So, for Val’time’s Day, you want candy or flowahs?” a guy asked his sweetie. “You ain’t gettin’ both.”
“Chocolates!” she answered emphatically. “But none of them dahk kind…too bittah. You can save the damn flowahs for when I croak!”
Something told me he wasn’t going to spring for a card to complete his shrink-wrapped valentine. Even so, I wanted what she was getting. Hearing the squeak of cellophane as he stashed it alongside his Bud 30-rack stirred something primal from deep within and long, long ago. Way back—before Hallmarks, roses, romance, and a husband—I longed for a big, brassy display of affection like that. A huge box of Luv U just for me! Then, even if the other girls got double decker, ten-pounder chocolates, I’d have the little teddy hanging off my backpack to prove that, for one special day back in February, I had a valentine.
He waited till she was a safe distance away in search of Pringles, then pondered a display of neon pink, heart-shaped boxes like a man on a mission. Deciding she really was worth something extra special, he grabbed a five-pounder milk chocolate assortment with a tiny white “Luv U” teddy bear taped to the top—a reminder of his affection long after the candy ran out.
“Woah! Where did that come from?” I wondered. Spend a little time among the rows of plastic-flowered fuchsia hearts, and suddenly I was back in junior high craving chocolate nougats and a teddy bear trinket? Head down, I hurried my cart past the giant, extra-postage-required singing cards—averting my eyes to the cupid print boxer shorts and fire engine red nighties—nervous that, by the time I got home, I’d start having a hankering for Monkees reruns and my old lava lamp, too. Luckily, I managed to shake it off, making it back up the mountain to celebrate Valentine’s Day without a cellophane wrapped heart in sight. I had to wonder, though, what part of me could revert back to my lovelorn adolescence so fast and hard that I could almost feel the candy caramels getting stuck in my braces? How much could I actually blame on the mega marketing machine beating inside the Walmart, and how much did I need to admit that, deep down, I still longed for overly sweet, kitsch-coated Valentine validation?
I suspect it started back in elementary school, in the days before teachers had to mandate equal treatment during Valentine’s Day class parties. I’d peer into the paper sack taped to the side of my desk, thrilled when it held almost as many cards as the flirty girls with perfect hair got. On good years, when there’d even be candy in the bottom of my sack, I figured out the little hearts stamped “BE MINE” or “KISS ME” tasted way better than the “U R SWELL” ones.
But I’ve always preferred all things chocolate, a passion lovingly passed down from my first favorite Valentine, my dad. The only heart health he knew was how good it felt to hug and slip each other a Snickers at the same time. In the days before high-fructose or low-glycemic anything, our father-daughter time was sweetened with Skybars, and family outings were fueled by orange slices—not the tree-ripened juicy ones, but the jellied candy kind—my dad’s idea of a power snack. It was my dad who gave me my first Whitman’s Sampler, a testament of his unconditional love and a test of my true feminine will power. How long after I ate the coconut mounds, the cherry cordials, and the other prime pieces could I let the box sit in my room before I’d cave and polish off those lingering dark ones filled with molasses and other things only Grandma really liked? Not long at all, I discovered and, by February 16th, I was using the empty box to store old photos and other keepsakes. I’m pretty sure that was the year I began associating Kodak moments—those happy times surrounded by love and family—with the haunting smell of recently devoured chocolate.
“Must be a girl thing,” says Tom, my husband of 44 years, whenever he sees me enraptured by Lindor truffles and such. Aside from the occasional sack of bull’s eyes he picks up from Mallard Mart, Tom saves his sweet tooth for blueberry pie. “This is the nicest thing you could ever do for me,” he reminds me each time I bake him one and he savors every slice. He could care less about chocolate, unless he’s playing middle man or needs a few pieces for bargaining chips. “If you really love me, just bring me a couple chocolates,” I tell him this time of year. And every year, he looks at me long and hard to see if I’m just saying no with my lips, while my very soul is shouting “Yes, please! Hand over a whole tray of Ferraro Rochers or don’t even bother!”
Yup, it’s a girl thing, all right, all tangled up in hormones, history, and borderline hysteria. And like all girl things, my man observes from a safe distance, teetering between being an enabler and waging tough love to try to snap me out of it. “Hey, don’t you really wanna save some of that for later?” he wanted to know the last time he saw my choco-holic tendencies get out of control. It was our first day of vacation in Hawaii and I was half way through a box of chocolate covered coconut and macadamia mounds.
“No,” I insisted silently, my mouth too busy and my brain too lost in luscious ooey, gooey-ness to speak. Couldn’t he see I was in paradise, for crying out loud—savoring every moment? Besides, the chocolates were a gift, waiting for me in a welcome basket the minute I opened the door to the condo. It was only natural that the pretty box with the palm trees and volcanoes caught my eye before the papayas and grapefruit at the bottom of the basket. But, knowing me all too well, he recognized the behavior. It was the same pattern he’d seen at Christmas when our daughter, Helen, made me rum balls with Godiva brownie mix and enough rum to make Captain Morgan lose his sea legs. “Yum, what a nice thing to give her Mumma,” I sighed, helping myself to just one more until, finally, the question became less about Helen’s love and more about how much did I love myself. And, if I really did, could I stop shoveling in rum balls?
“Brought you something,” Tom announced, returning home from his last grocery run to town. I perked up immediately. It was getting close to Valentine’s Day, after all. And, although I’d been fairly adamant about not wanting “a whole ton of chocolates,” I knew he cherished me like no other. He smiled sweetly, and I could hear the faint rustle of cellophane as he reached into his coat pocket and deposited two Lindor truffles into my hand. “Oooh…the peanut butter filled ones,” I said, “My favorite!”
He’d barely gotten his coat off before I called after him. “Got any more?” I asked, mouth full of half-melted heaven. “I’ll make you a pie!”
So, it’s the middle of January. Do you know where your New Year’s resolution is?
According to the experts who study these sorts of things, if I’m like most women my resolution went out the window a few days ago. It’s not at the gym anymore, not on the bathroom scale, not in my cupboard next to the Hershey bars I’m supposed to save for summertime s’mores. Phew…good thing I’m not like most women! My resolution never left because it was never here to begin with—not on New Year’s Day, anyways. I never made one. Or at least I never, as they say in the Bahamas, “put mouth on it.”
And, let’s be real. Once again, this isn’t like most years. It’s another year when it’s normal to set my sights on the most rudimentary of triumphs, for being happy I’m “able to sit up and take nourishment,” as my Nana used to say, and “still throwing a shadow.” Pretty sure I’m in good company not making any promises to myself for a while.
I used to make plenty of New Year’s resolutions. Loud assertive ones. I’d wake up January 1st feeling the traditional tidings of discontent—mildly disgusted and moderately depressed—ready to throw my bad habits to the curb with the Christmas tree. Most years I’d vow to break the food-filled hand to mouth reflex I’d acquired over the holidays. I’d hop out of bed, into my sneakers and sweats, and throw my body into gear before my brain realized what was happening. For a couple weeks, I’d even manage to combine abstinence with exertion. But then I’d hit the “Yeah, right!” wall, too hungry and tired to mark any more milestones. The bold new leaves I turned over would quickly lose their brilliance and I’d decide to re-root myself in complacency.
Don’t get me wrong, I can still find plenty of room for improvement. And I do love the raw challenge of a brand new calendar just waiting for me to log my pounds lost, miles metered, or whatever weekly results are inching me toward a lofty goal. But I now believe in taking a quieter, slower approach. “Keep ’em guessin'” is my new motto.
“Hmmm…what’s different about her?” folks may be wondering, if I’m lucky, this time of year. “Is she losing weight? Maybe she’s just trying a new hairstyle or she’s doing yoga again.” I maintain the suspense and keep on plugging away in stealth mode until sometime mid-year when, if I’m lucky, I can admit to some sort of victory.
Those of you who know me can attest that, while slow is my style, quiet is definitely not. My true nature is to vocalize my issues and regularly broadcast my successes. I instinctively want to proclaim my resolve to my friends, neighbors, the bank teller, my hair dresser and whoever happens to be with me in line at the IGA. External validation does drive me. It inflates my ego and boosts my self-confidence. But, if it backfires, it can burst my bubble and send me into a downward spiral faster than a bald tire slamming through frost heaves on Route 17. In my old-aged wisdom, I now trade the possible agony of public defeat for the inner thrill of silent victory.
The last time I made the mistake of boasting about the “new me” was in 2000. Not only was it a new year, it was a new century, and I got caught up in ushering in its challenges with my office mates. One coworker in particular, who was competing in some sort of Iron Woman competition, seemed to seek me out as a captive audience for her training and self-denial sagas. On the fourth consecutive day of her announcing how much she could bench press and how little she could eat, I got competitive, too. “Well, I just bought a Torso Track,” I blurted out. “I’m up to 50 reps on it a day and I do Abs of Steel!” (For those of you who didn’t get suckered into the Suzanne Sommers infomercial, Torso Track was an abdominal crunch machine you knelt on. You then gripped onto rolling handle bars and slowly inched yourself forward into push-up position. If you were lucky, you got ripped, six-pack abs. If not, you got back trauma.)
“So…how’s it going?” Iron Woman wanted to know each time she’d stop me in the cafeteria and start eyeing my midsection. Ashamed to admit that my right wrist was the only thing that got ripped before the Torso Track began gathering dust, I’d ask her what kind of lettuce she was eating that day to quickly change the subject. Lesson learned: When tempted to blab about my bold new beginnings, or whatever bad habit I’m bringing to a screeching halt, I bite my tongue. Public disclosure might feel right, but that rush of self-importance will be over in an instant. On the other hand, not having anything to show for my resolve by February can haunt me for the rest of the year.
So…no more New Year’s resolutions for me. I now make “concentrated efforts.” And, if I begin doubting that my small, behind the scenes achievements are actually adding up, I remember my old penny jar. Actually, it wasn’t really a jar, but a quart-sized mug with my name and my sorority logo on it that I kept atop my dresser in memory of more decadent days gone by. Clink…clink…clink…it went from holding beer to collecting loose change and, before too long, I’d accrued $22.49, a ball bearing and some fishing hooks. It was enough for take-out Chinese food and for the pre-Coinstar bank teller to wish she worked at a branch without a coin rolling machine. Of course, I see my life as grander than a giant beer mug. But the notion of suddenly brimming over with measurable results from discreet, everyday sacrifices really appeals to me this time of year.
Since it’s no longer on my dresser, I’ve resolved to find a Rangeley replacement for that old mug. With more catch-all containers than I could cart up here during the Big Move to Rangeley, I gave it to Salvation Army. I’ve got my sights set on finding an old blueberry bucket or syrup jug or something else suitable for chucking change into. Meanwhile, I hope another sorority sister named Joy who shares my philosophy has inherited my mug. And I sure hope she lives closer to a Coinstar machine and take-out Chinese than I do.
You know those Hallmark Christmas scenes so snowy-white perfect you stare at the picture longer than you read the inside of the card? Where the snow blankets the cutesy log cabin, lays a flawlessly glistening path for the storybook critters lingering in and around the puckerbrush, and sparkles off a trim little balsam that somehow got all decked out at the end of the dock?
That’s how I figured it must be upta camp this time of year. Down in the flatlands, I’d sing along with Bing just knowing Christmas in Rangeley was white. Dreamy creamy white. With just enough frost on top of the fluff to glitter like a happy holiday wish from a friend who cared enough to send the very best.
Then I moved here year-round and changed my tune.
The year was 2010, well past what used to be closing up camp and heading home time. This was home, and I was doing my best to track winter’s arrival at my new latitude with photos and witty observation. “Lookin’ kinda grey with a touch of gloomy out there,” I’d say. “You’d think we’d have fresh powder by now this close to Saddleback.” It was pouring buckets. For days on end. And by mid-December, I said to heck with a white Christmas and started dreaming of a dry Christmas.
The sign at the builder’s supply said “Welcome to Rain-geley,” which I took as a sign that the weird meteorological pattern was a fluke. By next year, I bet we’d all be talking about it like “the white Christmas that wasn’t” and get back to enjoying real holiday weather inside our little snow globe. Well that right there was the start of my learning curve, my uncharted climb toward the cold, hard truth. Turns out that, in Rangeley, typical never describes winter weather. And the only pattern is that there isnone. What you see is what you get. Until, of course, you try to dress or otherwise plan for it.
But twelve years of Christmas later, I have learned first-hand where the seasonal boundary in the local saying “down the mountain” starts. It’s on Route 17, a couple miles off the Height of Land, where the Subaru thermostat starts registering something balmier than 28 degrees as it navigates south onto bare, dry pavement again. I’d always known, of course, that these lakes and mountains generate their own weather pattern that outsmarts most AccuWeather technology. It took awhile after my Big Move to Rangeley, however, to realize how soon after Thanksgiving I’d find myself living just over the arctic side of the Great Divide.
And the Big Lake, I’ve come to find out, has its own set of wintery rules not covered in any physical science class I ever took. It doesn’t just “freeze over” sometime in the middle of the first cold spell like I used to picture in my Hallmark fantasies. “Well, the lake must be frozen over,” I’d declare from the obscurity of my living room in southern New Hampshire. Thirty-two degrees…snap…time to freeze over….I imagined the lake just laying there still, waiting for spring when I was ready to return and see it moving again. I now understand that, for my beloved body of water, changing from liquid to solid is a dynamic, fickle process not governed by holidays or thermometers.
“Look!” Tom demanded on one of our first Rangeley December mornings after we’d been blanketed in snow for a couple of weeks but could still hear crashing waves when we ventured outside. I was in my PJs, without my glasses and my first cup of coffee, so he could have been pointing out anything—from the neighborhood moose in my front yard to Bono at my breakfast bar. (Although the moose was more likely and I wasn’t dressed for the occasion, I secretly hoped for the Bono scenario.) “The lake finally froze last night!” Tom said as I squinted in wonder at the smooth sheet of ice that had miraculously appeared sometime in the middle of the night when neither of us was watching. Snowshoeing across to the island would still be a month away, but the lake was definitely frozen solid.
A couple mornings later, Tom woke me up with a new weather report and a different tone of excitement. “I really need your help,” he announced grimly. “We need to move everything off the basement floor. It’s flooded.” I wasn’t sure how dire our emergency was, but even without my glasses I could see there was no more snow coating the trees or piled up on the ground. And I was pretty sure that needing to put on waterproof pants and serious rain boots without ever leaving the house was not the start of a particularly good day.
As I outfitted myself for flood duty, I guessed where Mark Twain was when he quipped, “If you don’t like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes.” In Rangeley, in December, he wouldn’t have been joking. In a flash, I’d gone from hunkering down in the snow next to my frozen solid lake, to crouching next to my cellar steps, preparing to help salvage my possessions from the four inches of rain and melted snow that had surged through the foundation. I was peering at my husband hunkered down there, cussing and sighing and relaying orders, careful not to rap his six-foot high head on the five-foot low ceiling as he sloshed through the moving boxes we’d left down there until “sometime this winter.” They didn’t hold irreplaceable stuff, luckily, but tons of annoying little nicky-nacks that were too useful to throw away, but not treasured enough to go into safe storage upstairs. Plus CDs—hundreds of CDs and videos we were supposed to sort through “whenever.” As their cardboard containers turned to mush in the rising water, our priorities got shifted, and our day was suddenly repurposed. But, before we could schlep everything up the stairs to dry it off, Tom first had to tackle the most important piece of inventory stored there: our brand new sump pump. Installing it had also been on his “sometime” list since the old one was removed and we turned our creepy dirt cellar into a spiffy storage space with new concrete floors that “never showed any sign of moisture.”
“I knew I should have put that damn pump in when the cabin was rebuilt,” Tom said. I silently agreed. And I made a note to myself that, whenever Mother Nature is involved, “should have’s” need to take on heightened urgency—especially when you live 20 miles from the building supply store selling the extra parts you need for whatever it is you should have installed in the summer. The same store with the “Welcome to Rain-geley” sign out front.
“That’s probably why nature is called a mother,” I mused as Tom drove off to get those extra parts and I rummaged around for rag towels. “Like any mother, she knows you ignore ‘should have’ impulses and act like you’re in command of your own timetable.” You can try to blow her off, but she always gets the last word. Kneeling on my dining room floor, swabbing down picture frames and sponging out CD cases, I felt like a child who didn’t take her earth mother seriously and was now being punished with a puddled-up, pumpless basement.
That was years ago. And, fortunately, misadventures like that are short-lived in these parts—where I must pour my energy back into what’s actually hitting me in the face at any given moment. Could be anything from rain to sleet to snow to graupel and back again. Graupel, by the way, is a new word I added to my vocabulary somewhere along the learning curve. According to Webster’s it’s “small particles of snow with a fragile crust of ice softer than hail.” And it’s been in my yard more than once this time of year. Not right now, though. Right now, as of this writing, I see in my yard a trace coating of white that appears to be snow-like. It’s blanketing the path down to where the lake’s stopped lapping at the shore and gone really, really still. Couldn’t tell you whether it would sparkle off a lit-up tree out the dock because leaving your dock in for ice-in and ice-out is a teaching moment Tom chooses to avoid. And we gave up stringing lights on outside trees years ago—after we figured out lights UL-rated for outdoor use don’t take squirrels into account.
Right now, the sump pump is working when needed and so, supposedly, is the snow blower. And my White Christmas CD survived the flood to keep me entertained while I open those perfect holiday cards.
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.