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!
I was drifting back to childhood, watching the gigantic Snoopy float hover over the Macy’s parade, when the sound of Jim’s voice took me way back. Almost to the cradle. “Happy Thanksgiving from Moosehead to Mooselook!” he hollered in a voice roughened from years of talking over steam engines and chain saws.
“Same to you!” I said, glad that his hearing aid and the goddamn cell phone he kept threatening to throw in the lake were working at the same time. I was thankful just to be on his happy holidays list, to picture him leaning heavily on his hand-hewn cane gazing over at Mount Kineo as, once again, we wished each other all the best.
And I sure was glad I stuck to my story long enough for him to be part of it.
Two summers ago, I was ready to let the whole “returning to Moosehead” chapter of my life peter out and fade into memory. At least the part where I kept going “Back Where It All Began,” to the small cabin in Rockwood where my love for living by a big lake out in the woods first took root. Where I kept trying to find its original owner, forge a connection, and express my gratitude.
But I just couldn’t close that book. The mountain wouldn’t let me. Each time I looked across the lake at Mount Kineo—my rock, my childhood center of gravity—something deep and true kept whispering I was not alone. How could I be the only one who was so eager on the drive from Greenville to see the craggy cliff face loom up out of the lake, to fixate as it morphed to a gentle, forested giant just up shore from the Moose River? There had to be at least one other soul, hopefully a living one, who came of age as I did on the opposite shore—watching that serene, enduring mound of earth watching over me.
Long before I heard the term “happy place” or ever had a need to return there in my mind, I had the Rockwood shoreline of Moosehead Lake and Mount Kineo. From the time I was six, my parents let me wander alone out to the dock without a life jacket or any concern that I was not being watched. I’d hop out of my sleeping bag before the lake got too riled up, fling a line as far out toward the mountain as my little casting arm was worth, and sit on an Army surplus canvas stool with one eye on my bobber for hours on end. Even then, I knew that my fishing pole was more or less something to do with my hands while I gazed across the water. “Looks like a giant, tree-coated woolly mammoth laid down beside the lake and decided to stay forever,” I remember thinking. And, despite being afraid of the boogeyman, the dark, and you name it, I felt as calm as the early morning lake, protected. No matter what, lake plus mountains equals good.Sostay. Rest. You belong here.“
As soon as my horizon opened wide enough to embrace the world beyond my mother and father, I fell in love with places like that. Places where the water meets the sky. Wide open blue and green places named after moose and rocks and safe harbors. And I fell hard. Especially for the tiny cabin my family stayed in across from my first favorite view. A cabin called HOJET.
HOJET was the first letters of each person’s name in the family who owned the cabin, my dad explained when I was old enough to spell out the sign that hung above the front door. Wow, I remember thinking. They built their own cabin here and claimed it forever with that red wooden sign. Everyone else, myself included, was a lucky visitor to HOJET, to this magical cabin with the made up name in the land of Bullwinkle and the beached mammoth mountain.
But who were they, this HOJET family? Some really nice people named Dunn who lived near us in Blandford, Mass., and let us stay there when they weren’t was all I knew. When and how money changed hands, I didn’t care. And did we need a key to get in? Or could we just pull on the curved branch of a handle, open the thick wooden front door and make ourselves at home? Who knew? All that mattered was it was ours. Mine. For Memorial Day weekend and another glorious week after school got out, everything in and around the cabin became my place, my movie reel of the simply wonderful things that could happen just because it was summer, we had that spot, and we had each other.
“Someone must feel something similar,” I said when I rediscovered the place on my birthday, Memorial Day weekend, more than 50 years later. “Or they wouldn’t have rebuilt expansions around the two-room camp and kept the old sign that told me for sure I’d come back to the right spot.” Yet, not seeing any signs of life or recent use, I wondered if maybe I was alone in my enthusiasm. After all, nonstop lake life wasn’t for everyone. As a year-round resident in a mostly summertime neighborhood on my other favorite lake, I knew that folks weren’t always as head over heels as I. Some loved conditionally, seasonally. Only when the bugs weren’t biting and their iPhones were connecting, and they could still get to town for some hustle and bustle. And while some husbands/wives might be tickled pink to stay upta camp for a long, long time…their wives/husbands…not so much.
The old cabin knew the real story. So did the mountain. But I was the only one who could tell what needed telling. So I did what I’d been doing since the first time I held a pen so long it left a callous. I poured my heart out, published “Back Where It All Began,” and started combing the North Woods for the right reader—that one kindred spirit who shared my sense of belonging—maybe way back before I ever came along and staked a claim. Then, when everything short of paying for a people search failed, I returned the following Memorial Day and shoved a copy of my story and a letter introducing myself inside the rickety screen door. And I stood there for a long time, gazing across at Kineo, trying not to question the perfect timing of the universe.
“Be still like a mountain and flow like a great river,” I reminded myself each time I reread my words, saw the last picture I took from the front porch. Putting it all out there in print had been pretty cathartic, landing a spread in the Rangeley Highlander so huge I should have been able to just look at it, pat myself on the back, and smile as I got back to minding my current events. But coming almost-full-circle just wasn’t enough. I wanted more, a new chapter, a new interpretation, some proof that, as Patti Digh says in her book Life Is a Verb, “the shortest distance between two people is a story.” I wanted the verb of my life to be about Moosehead—in future tense, plural.
Three months later, as the finest weather in Rangeley was doing its best to keep me here and now and focused on the lake right in front of me, I found Jim, my missing link. Or rather, he found me by finding the story I’d left at his cabin. He wrote right back, but I didn’t find his response in my PO box in time to answer. So he drove “only a hundred miles or so” out of his way from his house in Connecticut to introduce himself in person. And, after finding me not home, he left a note in my screen door. He’d really love for me to join him upta camp over Labor Day, he wrote.
“Not your typical story line,” I thought as I peeked over at Kineo on my way to Rockwood. “And one that might not translate real well in the retelling.” I was on my way to stay with some old guy I’d never met in a cabin I hadn’t set foot in for half a century. At night. Alone. Why? Because I was sappier than a maple sugar house in March and wanted the “happily ever after” part of the fairy tale. Because, at 63 years old, I clung solidly to my sense of home, of place, to my longing to cement whatever ancient memories I’d made there. Because whatever happened to bring my family and the Dunns together way back in Blandford (the teeny hillside town in western Massachusetts where was born), I needed to shed more light on it. If only to help me feel in my heart what time, the loss of innocence, and the loss of my parents had blurred in my head. Hiding in my mother’s garden with gladiolas towering over me. Eating my favorite Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup at the red, chrome-edged kitchen table in my jammies with rubber nubbin Spoolie “Sunday school” curlers in my hair. And leaving there in the pre-dawn dark in the backseat of our Rambler to drive up to Moosehead.
So, there I was, heading down the steep, familiar slope toward the old camp, on my way back over that timeworn threshold to some sort of sequel—to whatever last pieces I’d be able to wedge into the central gap of an antique puzzle on the other side. To the man and the face behind the J in HOJET. And, all of a sudden, I didn’t even need to knock.
“You must be Joy from Blandford!”
There was Jim, welcoming me in a Yosemite Sam voice that muffled any whispers of doubt. Smaller than his voice and slightly stooped from age and injury, he still looked to be what I call “stugged”—sturdy and rugged as the log door he held open for me. And his face? Well, given my tendency to draw “what my dad would look like today” on other guys’ faces and my lack of subject matter much beyond age 70, I hadn’t tried too hard to imagine it. And even if I had, I’d have been wrong. In a good way. Picture Sean Connery letting himself go woolly and woodsy, swapping his tux for buffalo plaid, suspenders and moccasins, and tying whatever hair still grew on the back of his head so that it hung in a grey rat tail halfway down his back. That’d be the guy who hugged me hard and led me inside.
“I said to hell with going to the barber after I retired,” Jim told me later. A lifer Navy vet who couldn’t understand sitting still if there were things that needed tinkering, he left his last job as an auto mechanic when, at age 80, he “couldn’t lift the damn car engines no more.” We were sitting at the kitchen table his dad built, the central gathering spot for my family whenever hunger or the weather drove us inside. When it rained, I stayed there and drew so many pictures of a golden-spiked arc of sun peeking over the top of Kineo that, by weeks end, I could barely hold onto what was left of my crayons. And as soon as the supper dishes were cleared, out came the cards to play “Aw Heck,” also known as “Aw Hell” or worse when just grownups played.
I reiterated all this in great detail to Jim, of course, during his welcome back to the cabin tour. How I sat right there in the varnished log chair, also harvested and built by his dad way before people started shelling out hundreds of bucks to buy furniture like that out of a showroom. How my dad peered out that same window in the front door to see the neck of a six-foot-tall bear standing upright on the porch about as close as he could get to where my sister and I slept.
And Jim, of course, pointed out where the old cabin joined the new cabin. Where his dad rebuilt the original little shack that was hauled over from the logging camp on Farm Island into the cabin I visited. Where he later covered over the porch, added a new one, added bedrooms, a bathroom, some new used furniture, and all the little mementos and knickknacks from time spent there with his kids, grand-kids and great-grand-kids. The end result was 1950’s rustic retro meets 1990’s kitsch. And I loved every square inch.
“Good thing I rebuilt that silly HOJET sign, too,” Jim said. H was for his mother Helen, (my mother’s name, too), O for his dad Orman, J for him, E for his sister Ethel, and T for his brother Tom, he explained. “Without that, you probably would never have found the place again.” Or him, the only one left of that letter puzzle hanging over the front door, the last surviving Dunn.
And I certainly wouldn’t have found the two of us sitting side by side in our favorite chairs holding hands way past midnight, the book of word puzzles he did “just to pass the time” closed next to the third glass of wine he agreed to drink if I had another, too. We’d long since figured out that my dad “Mac” first found out about HOJET back in Blandford from Jim’s late uncle Ray. Because, more than likely, they’d crossed paths fishing the same waters around his hometown in nearby Huntington. “And I remember Mac, too, from visiting home when I was in the service,” Jim said, his eyes twinkling over his wineglass. When he raised a toast to then and now, I stopped trying to talk myself out of how very much his eyes reminded me of my father’s—a unique shade of hazel I hadn’t seen looking back at me in 20 years—and just let it be.
Three months after I left it and two years after the visit that prompted me to write it, Jim’s grandson, Scott, found my story and letter of explanation. They’d just opened up camp for what Jim thought might be one of his last visits to Moosehead. He’d signed ownership over to Scott and probably wasn’t going back. Because, after recently losing Mary, his beloved wife of almost 70 years, barely surviving a sideswipe collision with a tractor trailer truck, heart surgery, and other health scares, Jim Dunn was done. Done, he said, enjoying a lot of the things that used to bring him joy. Pretty much done with camp and all the bother that came with it. Until I reached out on paper “out of the blue” to show him how his story there was a shared one—and far from over.
“You changed my life!” Jim says with great gusto whenever we’re together, which is as often as possible and mostly at HOJET. He loves to retell his version of finding my story and the inspiration he needed right when he needed it most. And I never get tired of listening—to that and all his tall tales of Moosehead “back in the day.” Or how, whenever we eat at The Birches and people ask him if he’s ever been there before, he gazes up at the walls of the historic lodge, chuckles, and booms “Been here? I used to scrub down all these darn logs when I was 13 years old!” The stories go on from there. About how he hitch hiked from Massachusetts up to camp as a youngster and survived on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches until his dad came and got him and made him promise not to take off like that again unless he told someone first. How he worked log drives on the steamship Katahdin, and helped raise an orphaned black bear named Suzie, who lived in an open-door cage for 30 years and “only run off once to breed once ’cause she knew she had a good thing.” How he swapped all the gear in his buddies’ ice fishing sled with a live porcupine that hitched a ride all the way to Farm Island. The only long-term details that seem to have slipped Jim’s mind are those related to deer hunting. Over all the decades he’s been out hunting how many has he tagged? Well, he can’t really recall. That aside, he’s a story teller after my own heart. Nothing really ever happens to us or for us if we can’t regale all who will listen with our unfiltered, uncensored narratives.
“The courage it takes to share your story might be the very thing someone else needs to open their heart to hope.” A year ago, when I felt like my words had fallen into the void of some stranger’s abandoned dreams, that anonymous quote seemed like wishful thinking. But now, each time I see Jim “in his element,” bright-eyed and engaged and making new memories, it rings true. Our shared story is about giving and receiving hope. It’s about believing that, by intertwining our narratives around a beautiful, peaceful place that speaks to our souls, the ultimate story of why we are all on this earth becomes richer. A story that, in the end, anchors us like Kineo, now and forever.
“DJ’s coming upta camp with us,” Jim announced this past Memorial Day as my sister, Jan, and I were getting ready to go up and celebrate our birthdays with him. Jan, the only other original character left in my HOJET story, hadn’t returned for decades. And neither had DJ, Jim’s then 20-year-old great-grandson. He’d gone through an emotional rough spot, too, and hadn’t felt like going back to the place where he and his Pop shared so many happy times. “Until I just showed up on his doorstep all teared up with my stuff packed and said, c’mon, get in the damn car, I’m taking you up to Moosehead,” Jim said.
DJ followed his Pop’s orders. And after the silly birthday ladies and Jim swapped enough “good ole days” recollections to last him a lifetime, DJ stayed there for several more days, splitting and stacking wood, paddling in the canoe, going on moose rides, and just getting to know his great-grandpa again. Soon after he got home, DJ moved into Jim’s house, as did DJ’s new wife, Gabby.
“We all look after each other now like peas in a pod,” Jim says. But DJ, like Jim and his daughter, Cathy, his grand kids and other great-grand kids, seems to picture himself most at home at camp. His new “profile” photo shows him up at the cabin on his honeymoon with Gabby. And his “cover” photo is pretty much a copy of our favorite view—with him floating by Kineo for the first time since he was little. Jan took the picture, standing next to the headstone-shaped piece of granite Jim found on the property that now marks where he wants his ashes buried so he’ll never miss the view again.
“Happy Birthday from Mooselook to Moosehead, Jim!” I yelled into the phone on a cold, grey day in the beginning of January. “What’s it feel like to be 90?”
“No different a’tall,” he said. “Except I gotta remember to put a nine in front of my answer whenever somebody asks how the hell old I am!”
The “Happy Birthday to my favorite 90-year-old” cards were too corny, even for us. So I found one with a painting of a bear cub nestled up against a big ol’ papa bear and penned in ^ carets (low-tech precursors to the “paste” function meaning “insert here”) to make it say “Happy (90th) Birthday, (Adopted) Dad!”
Reading between the lines, we both know that it really is different, this birthday and however many more we get. Because, when the time was right and the Maine characters were willing, an afterword came to life with a refreshed plot, and a renewed sense of place. Because the scenario now stars an old guy and a younger, childlike woman who wanted a fairy tale. Fueled by wine and inspired by familiar turf, they sit holding handing hands and retelling the “good parts” late into the night out in the middle of nowhere. And especially because, thank God, I stuck with my original story, cast out my heart strings, and reeled in a keeper.
NOTE: The following was written by my daughter and first guest blogger, Becky Clough.
In early November, while at home in Maine, I shot my first deer. It was a gorgeous, golden fall morning a mere three days into the season, when a brawny buck with an early rut on the mind strode into the light of his final feed. With great weightiness I can say he did not know I was 50 yards away sitting so still, rifle raised, poised for a swift, ethical shot that I took without hesitation. He dropped in his tracks.
I approached the large beautiful animal, sobbing with disbelief. Taking my gloves off, I knelt with a hand on his head, put an acorn I’d been carrying in his mouth, then gave him a drink of my water. In offering his spirit a last bit of food and drink, I attempted to establish a grounding place—a foundation of respect for experiencing the long, arduous and emotionally complex process of actually harvesting my own meat instead of just thinking about it. This moment was three hunting seasons in the making, backed by unyielding support and education on the matter from my Dad. Although I’d spent countless hours sitting still, walking slowly, scanning the snow-filled forests of northern Idaho and western Maine, seeing deer tracks as I lay in bed at night every November, it never seemed like actually being in the right place at the right time, with the right wind, facing the right direction could ever manifest into a real deer. Until it did, quite suddenly.
After a congratulatory 6:20 AM sip of my Dad’s whiskey, and being engulfed in a long, proud hug wherein I wept into my Dad’s chest (and he told me whatever I felt was completely acceptable) it was time to snap a few photos and do the real work. (More thoughts on taking photos later.) Riding waves of emotion—disbelief, gratitude, heartache, sadness, relief—I committed to field dressing the animal while getting the feel of a buck knife in my hand as the third generation of Clough to carry it. I attempted to be careful and composed doing, frankly, the most grisly of tasks, which I’d only observed once before. I knew, though, that burying how I felt was not the point of hunting, and had never been one of my goals. In those visceral moments, bloodied and profoundly human, I was connected to my best self. Diving into something I did not fully understand, I was focused while also feeling. I was vulnerable, inexperienced and alright with it, telling myself it was okay to feel pleased and broken-hearted at the same time. Fifteen minutes later, as I removed the still-warm heart of that animal to bring home to a dinner plate, I felt a conflicted sort of contentment I’d been living too far away from for too long.
And yes, in regard to the tradition of posing in camo holding up the head of a beautiful, wild animal you’ve just shot, it is weird. And tiring. But I did smile. I also understood why, to folks who do not approve of hunting, such photos (and hunting in general) appear, at face value, to be grimly sporty and soul-less. How could I smile in a moment of such melancholy? Minutes before in my adrenaline-fueled cry, wasn’t I just lamenting how it felt so suddenly wrong because I respect wild animals perhaps more than I do most people? Well, I did not set out on this journey with expectations about the size or weight of a deer, or about counting antler tines as a way to determine my camouflaged prowess. I never thought in the many years that lay ahead of me I’d see a buck quite that mature while hunting, never mind have the right conditions to shoot it. Even now, weeks later, I still feel odd when my Dad, who is not known for his pride, urges me to show so-and-so the picture of my “big buck.”
I became a hunter in adulthood with a handful of simple goals: I wanted to keep putting effort into pursuits that lend to my increased self-sufficiency by way of filling my own freezer. I wanted to eat food that connects me physically and emotionally to a place and that place’s ecosystem. I wanted to remember that when I am eating meat I am eating an animal; an animal that lived wild and well and died quickly. I wanted to carve out a place in my own heritage from which I had become disconnected.
I am smiling in the photos. I’m smiling because I’m accomplishing my goals, because I know that few other hunters would feel the same deep sense of reverence I felt next to that animal, it being my first. I’m smiling because, for the next year I’ll have a freezer full of the best, leanest, 100% truly organic meat I can eat and share with my friends and family. I’m smiling because my Dad is taking a picture of his daughter, a successful hunter.
The following few days were filled with more opportunities to learn and feel my way through harvesting my own meat. With my nose to the grindstone alongside my experienced hunting buddies, I had space and time to verbally process my way through skinning, quartering, cleaning and butchering every morsel of venison off that deer, for which I am truly grateful. Under caring tutelage, I was shown the basics of the entire process, learning by doing things I don’t believe I could have tackled alone. It really wasn’t until that last step—butchering—that the whole experience started to feel less macabre and barbaric and more acceptable and satisfying. In fact, I found great joy in butchering, a task that was surprisingly intuitive and mindful. Finally getting to decide how thick I wanted my chops, what recipes I wanted to use with my rounds, whether or not I wanted more stew or burger throughout my winter, brought deer hunting back into a realm that felt well-balanced and wholly worth it.
It feels prudent as well to recognize that, although hunting is the original task, being able to and choosing to do it in modern times is a privilege not to be overlooked. Like many other sporting activities, hunting has become more expensive and commercialized than it needs to be. Even if done “on the cheap”, using thrift store camo that doesn’t fit, and a hand-me-down rifle, venison does not pay for itself. The monetary cost of hunter education, licenses, tags, firearms, ammunition and gas money can’t compare to the further luxuries of being mentored, of having the free time to scout, spend time at the range, and sit quietly in the woods for hours on end. I am grateful to afford and have access to such privileges.
But by far the best part of my hunt has come in the weeks to follow. Telling stories, and preparing meals with my loved ones. Sharing the bounty. There isn’t a more labor intense and pleasingly authentic meal I could eat, or pay for anywhere in the world, than the meals I’ve been eating with this venison. The first bite I took of tenderloin, seared in a well-seasoned hot cast iron and deglazed with the bourbon we had on hand, actually brought tears to my eyes. For a big, older 4×5 deer, the meat is tender and mouth watering. Besides the taste, and the umami unique to well prepared wild game, eating food that I brought from the forest to the table is an experience unparalleled yet in my life.
Don’t revert back to island time until at least November.
If ever there was a day to honor that golden rule of mine, it was the first of September. One of those bluebird Rangeley days, it was perfect for a long bike ride. Or doing most anything, as long as it was outdoors in my chosen place soaking up the essence of late summer. Sun shining in a cloudless sky, balmy breezes laden with balsam, and calm, clear water ringed with rafting loons, it should have made mindfulness—being inplace and in season—effortless.
But there I was, failing miserably. Racing past woods, over streams, pedaling to the tempo of my tortured thoughts, I was unable to really hear the birds calling or see the fleeting beauty all around me. I just couldn’t escape what I’d seen and heard back inside my cabin. Marsh Harbour, Abaco, my other chosen place, was gone—destroyed by Hurricane Dorian.
A few days ago, I had living in the present—being right here right now—all figured out. Every late summer lakeside moment had my full concentration. After all, there was no need to let my thoughts wander to where I’d be come April, to dream of long, lazy days in the sun waiting for Rangeley to thaw out. No need to start strategizing the minute the leaves showed hints of yellows and reds. I already had my place, my mud season hideaway, picked out, locked in. I’d left my deposit check sitting under a conch shell on the kitchen counter there last spring so nobody could take my spot. Now I was free to focus on my primary home and every glorious reason why I rooted myself here through the change of seasons. There’d be plenty of time after Thanksgiving to let my migratory clock start ticking, lots of gazing into the wood stove plotting my itinerary down to Marsh Harbour, the JetBlue “codeshare” hop over from Florida to my favorite little out-island airport, the short ride to settle in at Sur La Mer, our rental cottage. Easy peasy. No worries. Done deal.
“I’m baaaack!” I’d announce like the house had been waiting just for me all winter. I’d kick off my sandals, and rush to crank or shove every possible window open to the Sea of Abaco. After all, the house was named Sur La Mer, or “On The Sea,” for good reason. And I was there to take full advantage! Built on rock pilings on a narrow strip of peninsula known as Eastern Shores, if Sur La Mer was any more on the sea, it would be floating. “Breathtaking!” TripAdvisor said of the open ocean views mere steps from every window. But for me, that term was too generic, too all-over-the-map to describe how it felt there. How being surrounded, almost immersed, in the shimmering aquamarine sea hit me right down to my solar plexus. How watching the way the weather shifted the water colors—from turquoise to sea glass green and all shades in between—steadied my breathing. How it opened my heart along with my winter weary eyes and made me leave my “good beach book” open, unread, in my lap. If somehow, somewhere a beachfront location better than Sur La Mer existed, I had no need to go look. Fishing right off the front deck and the “back yard” beach. Snorkeling from shore. Close to town but tranquil and “away from it all.” Restaurants enough when we wanted to go out to eat, groceries enough when we didn’t. And the people? Well, they were some of the happiest, welcoming, down-to-earth people anywhere. Check, check, check…and check. After years of hopping from island to island honing the wish list, I was home. And exciting as it was exploring new places and meeting new people, just knowing I could go back to Sur La Mer “God willing and the creek don’t rise” was comfortably exciting. Like the story book I’d tuck under my pillow as a kid, I could always dive back into each colorful page, soothe myself with the promise of happily ever after.
Or so I let myself believe. Until September 1.
A never-before nightmare came true when Dorian hit Abaco and its surrounding cays as a Category 5 hurricane. Wind gusts up to 220 miles per hour. Storm surges more than 20 feet high. Incessant, torrential rain. What an unimaginable combination of forces could do to an island and its people. The sad, sickening details left little hope, little doubt, turning all the news story hype, the hypotheses and experts’ talk of “worst possible” scenarios, into useless chatter. What was left of Abaco, Grand Bahama, and many of the nearby islands was a horror story.
“It was as if a sniper loaded the eye of Dorian into a high-powered rifle and aimed straight at Marsh Harbour and our place down there,” Tom said to anyone who still wondered. Folks who already knew and loved Abaco didn’t need to ask. And others who previously had a vague geographical concept of us going “somewhere in the Bahamas” couldn’t help but see. The weather advisory map was on every TV channel and all over the Internet, a red, churning bulls-eye centered on Abaco in a slow crawl over to Grand Bahama. BAM…spot on.
Then came the aftermath, the footage of unrecognizable places and missing faces. I stared, squinted and shook my head at image after image of what the meteorological circles and arrows had actually left behind. At first, I tried to drown my denial with Captain Morgan and the familiar taste of my last happy hours at Sur La Mer. I failed miserably. Then I tried to write about it, somehow caption what I was seeing. Hard, but do-able, I kept telling myself. “Use your gift, your English degree, your Thesaurus, if necessary. You can always find words!” But finally I had to concede to what I believed my whole life to be a cop-out, a lazy writer’s lame excuse: “No words can describe what I saw.” I deleted every trite, worthless description.
“Horrific, catastrophic, apocalyptic…GONE,” reported a reconnaissance pilot who flew over the island. Blunt, to the point, and so sadly true, those were the words I was left with as I scanned the aerial footage. Was that the airport? The harbor? Where was the row of shops and restaurants along Bay Street? I couldn’t find a point of reference in the rubble or the flooded, flattened, treeless landscape. Bleary eyed and broken too, I had to back away for awhile, get back on my bike.
“How could it all be GONE? Wiped out?” I cried to the treetops. How could my days at Sur La Mer be over, taken away so suddenly by the same wind and waves that lulled me to sleep, put me at peace? And what about all the families beyond my little hideaway who’d built the soul and structure of Abaco? What about Lydia and Keith, my friends who tried to ride out the storm?
Realtor, property manager, and descendant of British loyalists who settled in Abaco, Lydia was the reason Tom and I found Sur La Mer in the first place. She loved to expand her island “family” and immediately brought us into the fold, gave us first dibs on renting again. “You can never sell this house or fix it up too much,” we teased. “You’ll put it out of our price range!” She’d been featured on the HGTV channel showing Sur La Mer to an island oasis hunting couple, and we’d watched with excitement and more than a little apprehension.
“I feel like I’m right on the water,” the wife cooed when she saw the sand and surf from the living room windows.
“That’s because you ARE right on the water, you silly…..!” I yelled at the TV. But she just couldn’t see Sur La Mer the way Tom and I did. She noticed the lack of stainless steel appliances, granite counter tops, and side-by-side bathroom sinks. Saying something about a “total gut job,” she moved on in search of less rustic real estate. Good thing for us, though. So what if the water pressure in the kitchen was non-existent, the toilets needed a double flush, the deck chairs were duct taped, the original pine floors scuffed and sagging. It was a house in the Bahamas! On the sea! It had survived plenty of tropical storms, hurricanes even. So, naturally, it was windblown and rusty here and there. And it could stay quirky and quaint just the way it was.
Our friend Keith, owner of Dive Abaco, knew how we felt. “Aaah, yes, you’re staying at Sur La Mer!” he said. Eyes the color of fair seas and a kindred sense of humor, he gave us a mini French lesson while we booked our next snorkel trip. “On the sea,” he said, slapping his hand on top of the counter, then moving it underneath. “Not Sous La Mer. Because sous would be under the sea and you wouldn’t want that. Not inside the house, anyways.”
Guiding people on and under the Sea of Abaco was Keith’s job, his passion for decades. Every day the weather permitted, he’d lead people out to the reefs, over coral towers and down through deep canyons teeming with fish. He’d take you to meet Gidget the Grouper, get you face to face with stoplight parrot fish, queen angels, and every eye-popping species out there. “Vitamin Sea,” he called it. And he made sure you got a good, healthy dose. Until September 1.
When Dorian hit, Keith and his wife, Melinda, lost everything but their lives. Boat, home, business…everything. They were without insurance, too, or any hope of the nest egg that would someday come when they needed to sell off their investments on Abaco and retire. Melinda said she felt blessed, though, “simply overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and concern and offers to help” and the generous online donations coming from all over the world. She gave thanks for all the shared memories—of laughter and adventure and long, carefree afternoons floating along behind Captain Keith. And hoped that everyone could continue to smile, hold that close.
Lydia lost almost everything to Dorian, too. Except her family, her faith and her will to help her community survive. Almost immediately, she saw to it that those who could stay and wanted to stay had basic necessities. She mobilized a search for still-livable dwellings for the displaced who needed shelter, for volunteers coming to help, and for those wanting to eventually return. As of this writing, she’d coalesced enough food, clean water, clothing, medicine, supplies, and volunteers to help keep makeshift neighborhoods healthy and hopeful day by day. “God has many hands and feet,” she said. “He’s got this.” And, in Lydia, God and the people of Abaco have a heart as big and strong as they come.
After hearing from Melinda and Lydia, I knew it was self-centered to be wondering about Sur La Mer, to need to see for myself what happened. Too difficult to imagine where anything used to be, warned a friend who rented down the shore. But when he sent me a link to a closeup video, I knew I had to look. Over and over I paused the picture where the narrow road used to wind past the ferry terminal, along beaches on both sides, and into the stone pillared driveway. But there was nothing…no road, no walls, no splinters of sea foam green from the exterior walls, nothing even floating around the vague shadow of the old foundation. Any last vestige of a house was obliterated, erased. Stripped of all trees and scoured right down to limestone, the very shape and contour of the surrounding land held nothing familiar.
I stopped trying to make sense of the pictures, of somehow trying to rearrange puzzle pieces that were no longer there. And when the images kept me awake that night, I didn’t block them. I snuggled into my warm, dry bed and let them come. When finally I drifted off to sleep, I dreamed I was back at Sur La Mer, back in the vivid, happy moments I’d shared with Tom and his sister, Chris.
“Magical,” Chris kept saying soon after she settled in. Believing it was the only place in the world you could watch the sun rise and set over the same house, hear water splashing and palm trees rustling from all rooms, she moved from bedroom to living room to the second floor loft in daily affirmation. “The best thing about going home from here will be painting it,” she said each evening, scrolling through the pictures on her phone. “I’ll call this Sunset on Eastern Shores. And this one, I’ll do in pastels. See if I can capture the crazy endless blue at Casuarina Point.” She’d paint the turtle we swam with over Mermaid Reef, too. “The coolest thing ever,” she said before entertaining us with a rum-inspired imitation of Crush from Finding Nemo.
I awoke with a smile and two, simple words. Love and gratitude. That’s what Sur La Mer still stood for, how it could teach me to turn grief into healing rather than despair. It gave me a special space in time for capturing precious moments, for connecting with people stronger than what nature took away. The lesson in the loss, for me, is never losing sight of the quaint little cottage by the sea or the void left in its place. So, as the days turn to winter and the trees to gold, I will carry it into my “here and now,” grateful for every second my travels return me safely home. And if and when I find another sanctuary on the sea, I will raise a toast to Sur La Mer. Before. After. Always.
Please join me in helping the people of Abaco by donating to a relief effort. Here are the two mentioned above.