Welcome DecemBear!

Anyone eavesdropping lately would swear I’d already gone woods queer. “So, it’s December 3rd! Do you know where you’re going today, little fella?”

I’m in the diningroom in my PJs, paused at the cellar door on my way to the coffee pot. I’m not talking to Tom because, even though I sometimes use pet names while reminding him of his full social calendar, he’s not my little fella. I’m not addressing the beagles, either. They are, collectively, “big boy” or “littlest guy,” and can only mark the passage of time with their innards. I’m alone, it would appear, carrying on another in-depth conversation with myself—a dialogue I mastered way before moving to the woods. “Today, you need to look outside in the mailbox,” I declare, and shuffle off to get caffeinated.

“She needs a lot more than coffee,” the neighbors would say, “if she woke up thinking somehow we got door-to-door mail delivery in Rangeley Plantation!” But if they looked real close, they’d realize I’m not alone. I’m with DecemBear, a three-inch stuffed teddy who lives with me this time of year. His mission is to search around his house for “the true meaning of Christmas”—checking his mailbox, beside his snowman, and inside each and every room—until at last he discovers it on Christmas Eve next to the tree with the rest of his little bear family. His search starts each December 1st, when he must hang out in each day’s spot until the 24th. It is my mission to see that he’s successful every year, a responsibility I’ve carried on for more than 20 years, through two houses and sending my “little girl” helpers off to college and beyond. I’m not sure what would befall me if somewhere along the way I shirked this duty. What if one year I just left DecemBear rolled up in his red flannel wall calendar in a box in the closet? What if, for a day or two, I lapsed into complacency and didn’t properly position his safety-pin spine? I hate to imagine.

Since moving to Rangeley, I am learning to flow with the seasons, to live by nature’s timetable. Like the first inhabitants of this land, I strive to tune into my internal rhythms instead of relying on clocks or calendars. But, as I said back in Happy Half Anniversary, I do tend to be hyper vigilant about special occasions, and observing my first Rangeley Christmas makes this year ever so special. I also have some quirky control mechanisms that seem to be triggered by the shortening of daylight, making me seek comfort in childlike routines and all things bright and sparkly. All in all, this month finds me pretty far removed from the traditions of the wiser, real Maine natives. They watched moon phases and traded ceremonial wampum. I track a cloth cartoon character hanging off my cellar door. 

Who knows, maybe I missed putting a dime in an advent calendar during my formative years and I got fixated. Then, one fateful Christmas when my girls were little, my mother-in-law made DecemBear from a fabric store kit and my quirkiness found an outlet. At first, I commandeered his travels because the girls were too short to reach the top of his house where it hung on the kitchen wall. Not to mention that a tiny teddy with an open safety-pin sticking out of his back would not have won any “best toddler gift” awards. The girls grew up, went off to college, and I still maintained the ritual. Part of me must have felt that, as long as the little bear made it safely around his calendar house, that meant my “little ones” would always return home, safe and sound, each Christmas, too. As the years went by, putting him up in the attic with the tree decorations became too threatening for me, so I began parking him right in the hall closet behind the coats. Like clockwork, come December 1, I’d take down Helen’s picture from when she won a scholarship and was featured in the newspaper and toss it under her bed so DecemBear could take his place front and center in the kitchen.

More times than I care to admit, I made emergency phone calls from my office back home when she was visiting this time of year. “Hi honey, did you sleep in today? You must be still recovering from studying for finals. Gee…you sound like you’re getting a bad cold. Cough medicine? Yes, that’s in the bathroom cabinet. You should take some right away. And, oh, before you do, could you do me a huge favor and move DecemBear for me? I forgot this morning!”

As you can imagine, finding my little seasonal friend in all the moving boxes was top priority recently. The day after Thanksgiving, I started getting nervous and wasn’t quite myself till I found him, rolled up in his calendar cocoon underneath the stockings and tree ornaments. Phew…all was right with my world! DecemBear had survived storage in the garage and was in the house again!

I know this is not normal behavior. Right now, I’m in denial, immersing myself in a holiday routine that disguises my core issues. I have a real problem, my own form of wintertime “affective disorder.” I suffer from Seasonal Attention to a Decoration (SAD) and I intend to help myself get better…right after the New Year when DecemBear goes back into hibernation.

Creatures stirring

So, if there was a creature stirring all through the house, how would you know?

Living in the Maine woods on cold, pre-winter’s nights gives me ample opportunity to ponder that age-old question. The challenging part comes in never knowing the precise moment I’ll go from idle speculation to launching an in-depth investigation.


“What IS that and where in the hell is it coming from?” It’s midnight and I’m interrogating Tom about the frantic stirring in our bedroom wall. Moments earlier, I’d laid my weary head on my pillow, grateful for my quiet serenity, my flannel sheets and my double layer of fleece blankets. As I snuggled in, I thought about the nighttime sounds we’d left behind in favor of our new blissful stillness. We weren’t victims of big city noise pollution by any stretch, but the incessant thumping of road traffic slamming through the potholes in front of our old house made our current address a more restful retreat.


“That’s really loud and it’s right next to your head!” I declared to my husband and official noise patrol officer who, by now, was bolt upright in bed, blinking furiously into the darkness. Moments earlier, he’d been sound asleep with visions of big Rangeley deer dancing in his head. Thanks to years of training, though, he quickly answered his call to duty and began assessing the situation.

“Whaaat? What noise are you talking about? I can’t tell where it’s….” Flump…flump…flump…kaffitt….ffitt…ffitt…kaflump!

“It’s right there, in the wall, next to your head! You didn’t hear that?”

“Sssshhh! Of course I hear now! Will you be quiet and let me figure out what it is and how it got in there?”

Typically, it takes a minute for Tom to fine-tune his hearing to my ultra-sensitive Mom- ears wavelength, and for me to throttle back the intensity of my verbal inquisition to match his calm style of methodical examination. But once we sync up, we are Team Invincible. Having a long history of shared critter invasions to draw from, we wasted no time zeroing in on our little trespasser(s).

“Bats should have migrated or be hibernating by now,” Tom stated. “It could be a mouse, I suppose but I just can’t imagine how that’s possible. There’s no droppings anywhere. And there’s no way he could have gotten into that wall.” Flump…flump…flump…kaffitt….ffitt…ffitt…kaflump! Jeez, I hope it’s not a friggin’ flying squirrel! They do live around here, you know.” Standing in his underwear with one ear plastered against the wall, I could sense the intensity of his concentration. Cautiously, I waited for breaks in the scratching and snuffling to offer up suggestions.

“Bats would squeak, remember…like that chirping noise we heard at the old Moosehead camp before we poked a couple dozen out of hiding. But it sure does sound like it has wings. Can you hear that sort of flapping noise? How could it do that without wings? And if it is a mouse, we sure can’t just leave it in there! Remember the time in our other house the mouse died in the wall, or at least it smelled like a mouse died in the wall? We’d have that dead mouse smell right behind our bed for months! Ewwww! And remember the mouse that died on top of the water heater and you didn’t find it till……”Flump…flump…flump…kaffitt….ffitt…ffitt…kaflump!

WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! Attempting to shut me up, to scare the critter back outside, or both, Tom slammed on the bedroom wall so loud that the beagles started barking out in their pen. I crossed my fingers, calmed the nerves that had just levitated me a couple inches off the mattress, and hoped a noise that forceful would send whatever it was scampering away. Wasn’t it just the other day we were congratulating ourselves on being mouse proof—getting all smug about the new cabin being tight as a little drum with just us and the beagles allowed inside? As I drifted off to sleep again, I reminded myself to never get over-confident with Mother Nature. And never argue with your mother-in-law when she insists that, no matter how hard you try, you’re just borrowing living space from the forest animals. “You were right.” I admitted. “Good thing our visitors have left us in peace again, for now….”

Flump…flump…flump…kaffitt….ffitt…ffitt…kaflump!  WHAM! WHAM! WHAM!

Finally we decided to call off our investigation until morning. We screwed ear plugs in so tight our ear canals must have looked like the inside of a rifle barrel, and hunkered under the covers, waiting till we could add daylight and the power of Google to our plan of attack. Thanks to the Internet and a fresh outlook, Tom clarified our options to take back our territory. It was definitely a stirring noise, he figured. Possible sources, in this order, were: 1) a mouse who fell down inside the wall and was trying to leap and scramble his way out; 2) bats with no sense of seasonal timing; or 3) a friggin’ flying squirrel. No matter what rodent—winged or otherwise—needed relocating, his strategy would be the same. Like most home improvements, it would be a do-it-himself project, since rodents are not in my contract. Plus, he didn’t need an expensive exterminator to come out and charge big money for stating the obvious problem and taking care of it with the very same tools he had right in his own workshop.

Ultimately, reclaiming quiet here required a drill, ammonia, hornet spray with a super long nozzle and foaming caulk. Also invaluable was Tom’s deduction to make the inside corner of the bedroom closet the point of attack. Whatever was stirring in the wall is gone, for now, leaving it so quiet we can hear sleet against our windows and the wind blowing all the way down the lake from Upper Dam.

Surprise visitors

“Yep, I seen it. Long about dusk, it come creepin’ alongside the woodshed, eyes shinin’ through the trees. Wasn’t actin’ like any racoon, no suh!”

Tales like this are the stuff of cabin folklore and, since staying at a tiny camp on Moosehead Lake as a little girl, part of my family history. The locations and casts of characters have changed a bit through the years, but the common story line runs the same. Some “thing” is in your woods, coming toward your cabin, getting closer. Once it’s in your driveway, if you have a driveway, it is officially a visitor or a trespasser. A common property boundary nearly everywhere, a driveway leading up to your lake place takes on heightened significance as a line of demarcation. When there is something in the driveway and it’s not your car, not the CMP guy, not your expected company, or not even approaching on two legs, the actual driving right down to your cabin luxury you were so proud of when you carved that dirt path through the trees turns into a mixed blessing. While whatever it is uses your access route to get closer, it blocks your escape route over dry land!

The best ever nail-biters are stories in which some critter has approached totally without warning, ambling up whatever path leads it toward you, on to your porch. It’s on the porch, snuffling and scratching, inches away from your last barrier between fleeing or fighting for your life — the door inside!

“I heard it come up on the porch, so I peered through the window in the front door and saw its neck fur in front of me! I figured it must have stood at least six feet tall. I looked around for what I could grab in case it tried to bust down the door and all I had was a fire extinguisher and a shovel!” (Infamous bear on the front porch story as told by my dad; Moosehead Lake; circa 1962).

With stories like this woven through my psyche, and buried memories of lying in a bed a couple feet away from the front door where the bear on the porch was showing his neck fur, I try to be vigilant about knowing who or what is approaching my space. Even so, poor vision, and slothlike reflexes usually render me defenseless, peering at any intruder with, as my dad put it, “a dull vacant stare.” Such was the case last Friday as I stood in my kitchen, cozy in my fuzzy pants, planning nothing more exciting with Tom than hanging up the picture I just bought at the blueberry festival. But suddenly, the beagles were bellowing and there was something on the porch, something that hadn’t even come down the driveway, something that was at the door and had already found a way inside!

When I saw who it was, I froze, helpless. BECKY?!! How did Becky, my Outward Bound instructor, world adventurer, based out of Moab, Utah (when she happens to be indoors) daughter get into my kitchen in Rangeley? Wasn’t I just talking to her on the phone last night about the hot weather “out there?” My expression lapsed to another one of my dad’s favorites: the “close your mouth you’ll catch black flies” face. One of those surprised people whose reaction didn’t quite measure up to what the surprise perpetrators had hoped, I didn’t shriek or flail, jump, or fall over. All I could muster was a few stammered half-questions. Thinking back on it now, I remember my mind racing wildly and my thought process going something like this:

  • I know I have a special maternal connection to Becky and her sister that transcends time and space. But try as I might, I don’t think my super powers can materialize her in my kitchen, even if tomorrow is her birthday.
  • Is she alright? She’s just come off leading a 23-day course hiking the LaSalles and rafting the Colorado and is on the verge of a 50-day course. She’s selected to proctor the fall semester, which is Outward Bound-speak for the person in charge who doesn’t come off the trail the entire season. Did she have second thoughts? Had she gone some sort of desert crazy?
  • When was my last trip to the IGA to get groceries and is it possible I have enough food for her?

Becky, knowing why her mother’s nickname has been Fidget since way before she was born, was quickly over the threshold and answering my questions during a hug with her dad. She wanted a sanity / R and R break before her next assignment. She had flown into Boston the day before, where her sister and brother-in-law, Helen and Jerry, picked her up. She was not in Moab during our last phone call, she was in Portsmouth, talking to me from a hot spot she wouldn’t get a chance to enjoy in Rangeley: a bowling alley. After spending the night at Helen’s, they drove up to the lake, abandoning their car by the road to encroach on foot. They combat-crept through the trees along the driveway, timing their porch landing just right until…..SURPRISE! And yes, she assured, pointing to Helen and Jerry coming through the door behind her laden with plastic shopping bags, they had enough groceries.

“Can I have a Mom hug?” she asked coming over to the sink where I stood, still slack as an empty feed sack. As I grabbed ahold of her for the first time in over three months, she said she also wanted food…..mass quantities of steak, chicken and other non-freeze dried proteins she could eat indoors on a plate. She wanted PBRs (college-speak for cheap beer) by the lake. And most of all, after spending most of her birthdays since she was a teenager out on the trail — missing her family from Grand Teton to the Kennebec River and many points in between — Becky wanted to be home for her birthday.